Thank you to all who attended, donated to and helped celebrate this amazing event!
It was a gorgeous day and a major success. We were glad to see so many come back to a place that they keep near to their hearts.

The Annandale Advocate featured 2 great stories about camp recently. Read them below!


 

50 years of Friendship
Longtime employees at Camp Friendship celebrating the camp’s 50th anniversary included, from left, Teri Vetsch, Arlene Schacht, Bonnie Thorstad, Chet Tschetter, Larry Blum and Ed Stracke.
Longtime employees at Camp Friendship celebrating the camp’s 50th anniversary included, from left, Teri Vetsch, Arlene Schacht, Bonnie Thorstad, Chet Tschetter, Larry Blum and Ed Stracke.

Paul Downer
Managing Editor

Over the past half century, Camp Friendship has provided unforgettable experiences for people with disabilities, their caregivers and the camp staff on the shores of Clearwater Lake.

The camp celebrated its 50-year anniversary on Sunday, Sept. 7, with a large open house featuring typical camp activities, visits from a few of the remaining founders and many past staff members and campers.

“I think (the 50-year mark is) exciting in that it shows the stability of the organization and how rooted we are in the disabilities community. There are camps across the country that probably started the same time we did that aren’t around anymore,” said Chet Tschetter, senior director of camping.

“It’s because we’ve had leaders who have recognized that we can’t just be a summer camp program. We need to do other things. We’ve added a respite program. We’ve added a travel program. We need to have conference and retreat business things going on a year-round basis. Because we’ve had leaders with that foresight, we can be proud to say we’ve been here for 50 years and are still growing.”

Pioneer families

Camp Friendship’s roots stretch back to the 1960s, or perhaps even earlier to when John and Rosalind Holahan’s son Peter was born in the 1940s. Peter had a number of disabilities, and the family tried to care for him at home for as long as possible.

Eventually, however, he had to be committed to a state institution, as was common practice at the time.

“I  remember talking to John about that,” said Ed Stracke, president and CEO of True Friends, the umbrella organization under which Camp Friendship now operates. “He said it was like a death in the family. They grieved that loss. What they didn’t do was forget about him.”

The Holahans eventually saw a notice in a newspaper about a group of families from around the Twin Cities who had children with disabilities, and joined the group. Those families then set out to ensure that families of those with disabilities in the future would have more support.

“That group of families banded together to fight for services they didn’t currently have,” said Stracke. “It’s a fascinating history. These families worked so hard. They were early pioneers in this whole movement. The services that families have today, a lot of that is the result of their work. Camp Friendship is just part of it.”

Camp Friendship was started when 100-year-old Beecher’s Resort on Clearwater Lake went up for sale. The Holahans knew of the site’s potential from past summers spent at the resort, and the families put together the money to purchase the site in 1964. They launched the summer venture with the objective of providing children with disabilities the same camp opportunities other children enjoyed, and also to provide families with respite from the demands of caregiving.

“When there was nothing else for many of the families, of course this just seemed like a real oasis, really a wonderful opportunity,” said Kathy Holahan, the daughter-in-law of John and Rosalind.

Kathy Holahan knows the benefits of Camp Friendship firsthand, as her son Tom was diagnosed with autism at age 3. Thanks to the work of his grandparents, however, Tom had a wonderful place to visit. Now 36, he has worked full time at the camp for the past 15 years.

“Tom will tell you that camp is his life. He feels useful because he is able to do tasks that help with the operation of the camp,” said Kathy Holahan. “It’s a generational story for our family, and it’s been a great blessing for Tom’s life.”

Exponential impact

Camp Friendship now serves as the headquarters for the True Friends organization, which includes Camp Courage on Cedar Lake and three other camps around the state. The True Friends name was announced last fall after a transitional period. Stracke said Camp Friendship alone serves about 1,500 campers each year, with about 3,200 individuals served annually through True Friends programs. Total enrollment, including repeat campers, is about 4,000 each year.

“That’s a lot of people over 50 years,” said Stracke. “I don’t look at that as a length of time but as the impact in people’s lives for the good. Then include family members and siblings and parents – it is exponential.”

The positive benefits aren’t limited to campers and their loved ones either. Multiple staff members at Camp Friendship have experienced the life-changing pull of the camp as well.

Tschetter first came to Camp Friendship as a summer staffer about 30 years ago. She decided the work wasn’t for her during orientation, and planned to leave.

“I  was not sticking around, but then the campers came, and that changed my whole perspective,” she said. “Those relationships that you make with the campers and the other staff members is really what draws you. I had no intention of working this field ever, but it influenced me that way. It’s not just life-changing for our campers, but also for our staffers as well.”

Registrar Terri Vetsch began working at Camp Friendship in 1991. Her work in the development department was her first job out of college, but she has never felt the need to find a new position. Why has she stayed so long?

“Mainly because of the mission and great people to work with,” she said. “It’s a beautiful site to work at and there have been a lot of different changes, so it has been interesting to go through that.”

Bonnie (Maurer) Thorstad started working at Camp Friendship in 1986 to fill a part-time data entry position while still in school. Today, she is the camp’s director of registration and said the relationships and the camp’s purpose are the primary reasons.

“The mission and the people are fantastic,” she said. “We’ve had a lot of growth. I’ve seen it go from just one camp, and now we’re five camps. So it’s very rewarding,” she said. “We know how much it means to our clients. We hear testimonials all the time, and that puts things in perspective.”

As the camp’s maintenance man for the past 20 years, Larry Blum has often dealt with the physical changes the camp has undergone over the years.

“We used to have a lot of resort cabins for summer only. We’ve been tearing those down and building year-round cabins at this site for a number of years now, and that’s going to continue,” he said.

He also recalled a memorable $10,000 donation for a pool, and now travels around to the other camps to help manage operations there as well. Maintenance matters aside, Blum has also felt the loyalty to the organization that grows out of a common effort to do meaningful work. In part, that comes through his work with Dan, a partner with some developmental disabilities.

“He’s like a brother to me now after working with me for about 15 years. I look forward to coming and seeing Dan. It’s personal now,” said Blum.

“I’m not rich yet. It would be nice to fix that part. But it’s an excellent mission,” he added with a laugh.

Blum’s co-workers can relate to that statement, from the seasonal summer workers right up to Stracke’s office.

“People won’t get rich working for a non-profit, but they get other benefits, and I think the benefits that really count,” Stracke said. “You have that good feeling behind knowing that you have an impact on the lives of people that are sometimes challenged and marginalized in our society.”

Lasting change

Relationships forged among campers, and between campers and staff, are often built over the course of many years.

Longtime staff members knew of only one camper who has returned for each of Friendship’s 50 years, Kim. Another camper, Ray, was recently honored for his 40th year.

Since many staff members come from abroad, Camp Friendship has also had a broader impact beyond the region or state.

“We hire staff from across the world. So a little piece of what we do here and the philosophies we have in caring for people doesn’t just stay here in central Minnesota. It’s out there across the world,” said Tschetter.

Stracke agreed that even those who move on to work in other fields after their time at Camp Friendship are often indelibly affected by their experience there.

“Many of them have gone on to careers in the helping professions: physical and occupational therapy, special education, social work, medicine, nursing, psychology. It’s the whole array of that human service arena, and many of these people got their hands-on experience here at camp,” he said. “It changed them. I’m a perfect example of that. I was going to college to be an actuary. I ended up being in the human service field because of that experience. So it is life-changing, not just for campers but for (staff and volunteers) as well.”

While Camp Friendship now has a number of partner camps, Kathy Holahan, daughter-in-law of founding members John and Rosalind Holahan, said she hopes its services will only be augmented by the work it is now doing on a broader scale.

“It is quite wonderful, the whole evolution of it,” she said. “Camp Friendship is very important to us and we hope that it remains a stable presence because it is so valued.”

 


 

A half-century of changes and challenges
Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey attended the dedication of Camp Friendship on July 3, 1966. He had known the owners of Beecher’s Resort, and took a special interest in the camp when his granddaughter attended.
Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey attended the dedication of Camp Friendship on July 3, 1966. He had known the owners of Beecher’s Resort, and took a special interest in the camp when his granddaughter attended.

Paul Downer
Managing Editor

Any business or organization that has been active for 50 years or more has likely weathered ups and downs along the way.

Camp Friendship is no exception, but fortunately the highlights have far outweighed the low points.

Camp Friendship and True Friends President and CEO Ed Stracke reflected on some of the changes, challenges and fond memories from before and during his 30-year tenure at Camp Friendship that began in 1984.

Early history

Camp Friendship was well-supported from the beginning, and even the physical ground on which it was located had a lengthy history of hospitality.

According to a 2004 edition of the Advocate, Octavius Longworth was the first owner of the property. He built a log cabin there and became known for his generosity in welcoming passing trappers, hunters and fishermen into his home. Later, the Tuelles resort opened on the same land with the mission of creating a vacation place for the wealthy.

During the Great Depression the resort changed hands, and Beecher’s Resort opened its doors at a more affordable price. That made the pristine shoreline a haven for the common man as well as the elite.

When Art Beecher decided to get out of the resort business, according to that 2004 Advocate, he made it clear that he wanted the land to be used to benefit those with mental disabilities. A member of what is now known as Arc of Minnesota, which advocates for people with disabilities, Beecher sold the land to the organization through the efforts of members like John Holahan, Mel Heckt and Jerry Walsh, and Camp Friendship was born.

In 1966, Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey, who had been a friend to the Beechers and visited their resort, returned by helicopter for a dedication ceremony. He had taken a special interest in the camp when his granddaughter attended, and she returned regularly until 2009.

Changes and challenges

In 1984, Stracke left a seven-year job as a camp director in Iowa to take over at Camp Friendship.

He came at a low point in the camp’s history, when the budget was in the red and Arc of Minnesota was looking to jettison a feature of its work that wasn’t high on the priority list.

“Arc was having to put resources into the camp to subsidize its operations because we weren’t making ends meet. The day I arrived I knew they had a negative budget and had lost money for two or three years in a row,” said Stracke.

The camp became independent on New Year’s Day in 1986.

“To be honest, that was the best thing that could have ever happened to Camp Friendship because at that time ARC’s primary focus was on education, advocacy and lobbying on behalf of people with disabilities. Direct service was not a main part of their focus,” said Stracke. “Although they had the camp for 21 years, it had ceased to become integral in their mission and was a drain financially.”

While the separation was ultimately a positive for the camp, the change brought significant growing pains.

“We started off in the hole. We had to go to the bank from day one,” said Stracke. “The first three years it was really hard because we had to establish our own donor base, generate our own revenue, pay our own bills, do our own accounting – things we were used to having the parent organization do.”

A business plan showed the camp reaching positive territory again three years after the separation, but things didn’t come together as planned and layoffs were the result. Fortunately, the turnaround that had been planned for 1988 arrived in 1989, and the park has not faced such a dire circumstance again.

Highlights

When Stracke arrived, the camp had an annual budget of about $350,000. Today, that budget is around $7 million.

With greater resources has come a dramatic expansion of services offered. In the mid-1980s, the camp was strictly a summer venture. Now it offers respite care year-round, along with travel services, retreat facilities for non-profits and organizations, and much more.

When Camp Friendship joined Camp Courage and three other camps to become True Friends in 2012-13, the possibilities and facilities dramatically expanded.

“I believe that Camp Friendship really has been the driver of this because we serve so many people and we’ve been so successful,” said Stracke.

The camp now is the main headquarters for the entire organization.

Part of the reason the camp has been so successful is the almost overwhelming generosity of its supporters, which has allowed expensive projects to be undertaken with a combination of fundraising and in-kind donations.

“We’ve been able to take a dollar and stretch it as far as possible because of the goodness of people wanting to help,” said Stracke.

As an example, Stracke referred to Nick DeGross, who did much of the plumbing work and purchased the plumbing materials himself for numerous construction and expansion projects to the camp’s facilities over the years. His individual contributions and labor ran to the tens of thousands of dollars in value.

Another example was Gilbert Schmidt, an excavator who was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer the year the dining hall was built. Despite his failing health, he continued to plan and execute the project, dying just weeks after the excavation was complete.

“He could have done anything with the last few months of his life, and he spent one of those months doing the excavation at Camp Friendship,” said Stracke. “Those are the kind of people you meet here. You’re just humbled in their presence. They’re just salt-of the earth, kind, generous people. I have been able to meet so many of those people over my 30 years. This is a job; they pay me, but those people never got paid for what they did. You can really learn a lot from people who give at that level.”

Another highlight has been taken from the attitudes of the campers themselves.

“We can learn a lot from people with disabilities,” said Stracke. “Our campers here don’t care what kind of car you drive or how much money you have. They just love life, love friends, and sometimes I think we could take a lesson out of their playbook to figure out how we should be living our life. I feel like I’ve learned as much from our participants as we’ve helped benefit them and their families.”

The merger into True Friends has also been a major milestone in Camp Friendship’s history.

“Bigger doesn’t always mean better, but when you combine resources it allows you do more things for more people,” he said.

Long-term leader

When Stracke interviewed for the job at Camp Friendship, he was asked to commit to staying for at least three years. He has met that commitment ten-fold.

“I think what drives me in terms of why I’ve stayed for so long is that there are so many opportunities for people with disabilities, things that we helped create, and we provide life-changing experiences for these children and adults and families,” he said. “People ask how long I’m going to stay. I say, ‘I’ll leave when it stops being fun or I feel like I’m not being effective any more.’

“We’re not the same Camp Friendship today that we were 50 years ago in terms of facilities. But we still have campers coming and having a great time, caregivers are getting a break, and we still have wonderful young people working in our seasonal programs. We want to serve as many people with disabilities as we possibly can.”


 

If you were unable to join us, you can watch a short highlight video below.