For Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club coach Tony Lodico, it’s been an every-summer kind of thing for nearly two decades.
For a group of the athletes he is helping through their careers, it was something they’ll never forget.
Lodico first set foot in Camp Iroquois on the banks of Keuka Lake, in upstate New York’s Finger Lakes region, when he was just 15, helping his then-gym teacher with a camp for at-risk youths from the region.
Now 34, Lodico said his annual pilgrimage back to that camp hasn’t lost any of its meaning.
“The campers are just unbelievable,” he said. “They’re a bunch of really tough kids and they come from rough places, but by the end of the week, you see the effect the camp has, that they’re still a bunch of 11-year-old kids who are funny and smile and just have fun once they drop the tough-guy attitude.”
The camp is put on by the New York State Sheriffs Association, with law enforcement agencies from across the state sending children between ages 9 and 12 for one of six weeks on the shores of the lake.
Lodico has spent most of the past 10 years in Steamboat Springs and most of that time working with the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club. He now heads up the freeskiing efforts, guiding skiers in events like half-pipe and slope-style. This summer, he also served as one of the New York camp’s administrators, and facing a shortage of help this summer, he turned to teenagers he trusted and got three volunteers willing to make the trip to New York. Skiers Gracie Whelihan, Penn Lukens and Pelle Seiler opted in.
“It’s such an intense kind of week. They really made some closer friends than they might have expected in two weeks,” Lodico said. “It’s a lot of work, and it’s such an intense week. Obviously it’s not all work, but it’s always a lot of fun.”
A lot of the fun comes in seeing the payoff for the kids, Lodico said.
Whelihan, a recent graduate of Steamboat Springs High School, said she constantly was learning. Some of the lessons were useful at the time, like figuring out how to soothe a homesick camper. Others should last longer.
“We learned how to interact with the kids, how to make them feel great and have fun,” she said. “They’d show up and they were all shy and timid, but to see them break out and have fun, it’s just so cool.
“I hope I can go back next year. You are outdoors all the time and working, but not really. You’re really just having fun.”
The week usually starts with a swim, whether or not those arriving on buses know how to handle themselves in the water.
“It’s only chest-deep water,” he said. “Still, we generally need to make a few rescues. One kid who came from the Bronx, he was a tough kid, but he jumped in and we had to pull him out. He was giving a lot of the other counselors grief all week, but every time he saw me, he said ‘Man, you saved me life. We’re straight.’”
The days are then split between terra firma sports like soccer and football and water-based activities like swimming, canoeing and sailing. Lodico said it’s not the kind of crowd that thrives on downtime. Between the activities and everyday presentations from sheriffs on everything from bicycle safety to the K9 unit, there’s little time to sit around and do nothing.
“Our goal is to exhaust them,” he said.
It’s noteworthy that the goal isn’t anything like reform or counseling, but some of that comes about, almost unintentionally.
The camp is meant to give young people who’ve had brushes with the law time away from what are often violent and stressful situations at home.
“A lot of the kids, you don’t even have to try and they’ll open up and talk about some of their past,” he said. “We get kids from down by (New York City) and from inner-city Rochester and from other cities and towns around the state. Generally they’ve been disruptive in school or a lot of times their brothers or parents have been arrested or they’re coming from pretty violent situations. It’s really just a week of vacation. Once you get them out of those situations, they’re funny and polite, well, not always polite, but they’re great kids.”
To reach Joel Reichenberger, call 970-871-4253 or email jreichenberger@SteamboatToday.com