Published in the Shelter Island Reporter on February 18, 2016
When Brooke Bradley was a little girl growing up in East Tennessee, she loved her Girl Scout camp. That love abides.
The new director of Camp Quinipet came last fall to work at the historic children’s sleep-away and day camp — founded in 1922 — and has since been applying her decades of experience working with children outdoors.
“It’s a confluence of events that makes this experience so meaningful for kids,” she said. “Camp for whatever reason embeds these memories in children’s heads.”
Brooke grew up with a brother and two sisters in Kingsport, Tennessee, where her parents still live. She went to the University of Tennessee at Knoxville to study journalism, but when she discovered the school had a program that would allow her to carve out a field of study in outdoor recreation, she changed her major and never looked back.
After graduating, she went to work as a director of a Girl Scout camp in Atlanta. “Being outdoors, working with kids, I was hooked,” Brooke said, “I’ve been camp directing ever since.”
She married and she and her husband moved to Toccoa, Georgia, where they spent nine years working and living at a Campfire Boys and Girls camp, starting a day camp and an after school program. Their son John was born on Earth Day, 1988.
After Brooke’s marriage ended, she and John moved to Knoxville in the early 1990s. She went to work with the Girl Scouts for 13 years, at the same camp she had loved as a child.
One of her goals was to build the base of volunteers. Her efforts proved so effective that on “Love Your Camp Day,” over 600 people showed up to pick up trash — so many that they ran out of litter.
John grew up as a “camp kid” and graduated from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. He now works as a farmer in Oregon.
Brooke went for a master’s degree and teaching certificate, but took a detour for a couple of years from camping to teaching. She still worked with children, only indoors, and she soon longed to get back outside.
She decided to work at Adirondack Camp, on Lake George, one of the oldest coed camps in North America, “the quintessential New England camp,” Brooke said. She started out running the swimming program, and when the administration offered her a full-time job, she relocated to tiny Putnam, New York.
Adirondack Camp has over 100 staff members, drawing an international population of campers. Charged with staffing the program, “I was looking for a Russian-speaking swim instructor, and an Italian-speaking fencing coach.” She recalled that departing Russian campers (possibly owing to an addiction to s’mores?) often made a trip to Walmart to stock up on marshmallows, which were not available back home.
In 2013, Brooke left Adirondack Camp to work at the Fresh Air Fund, a program that provides New York City children from low-income families a free summer camp experience.
She became director of the coed camp for children ages 8 to12, some with special needs such as autism and attention deficit disorder. Her job was to make the experience look and feel like camp, while helping kids learn social skills and make friends, all the while developing resilience to take them through life.
“I had to dig down deep,” she said.
For most of her career, the focus of Brooke’s work was on delivering a high quality, fun camp program; at Fresh Air Fund she was also looking to reinforce foundational values.
“We had twelve days with these kids, we were really going to try to touch some lives,” she said. “I will never again look at a camp program in the same way.”
Brooke’s first experience of Shelter Island came after she responded to a notice from the New York annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, seeking a new director for Camp Quinipet.
She was drawn to the position by a positive impression of the members of the Conference which, at a time when many churches are closing camps due to dwindling congregations and the financial pressure of skyrocketing land values, was looking to reinforce and extend the Quinipet programs into the Shelter Island community.
“Getting on that ferry is such an experience,” she said. “You’re leaving the mainland and coming to a world apart.”
An important goal is finding new ways for Quinipet programs to serve the community. The overnight camp currently serves about 100 children, with many campers coming from European countries. The day camp serves summer and local children and Quinipet is also known for the community sailing program that has introduced many children to boating. The camp offers financial assistance to families in need.
Brooke is looking at what it would take to expand Quinipet’s reach, for example, providing transportation from North Ferry to camp, so people from Greenport could get here more easily.
“I know that there are Hispanic children on the Island,” she said. “I want to make sure they know we are here.”
For families who are only here from Memorial Day to Labor Day, she’s considering early-season Saturday programs so parents can drop kids off for a day of fun, outdoor activity, while they are opening their homes.
Brooke’s vision for Quinipet’s future is not just professional; it’s personal, based on her own childhood experience of camp, and the positive impact it had in her life.
The recipe is timeless: Take a child between the ages of 7 and 17, add other kids of the same age, put them in rustic conditions with campfires, outdoor activities, songs and nature, and create a positive experience that stays with a child for a lifetime.
“I’ve learned,” Brooke said, “that we can really make an impact.”
LIGHTNING ROUND — BROOKE BRADLEY
What do you always have with you? A Maglite flashlight.
Favorite place on Shelter Island? Our beachfront at Quinipet.
Favorite place not on Shelter Island? Lake George.
Last time you were afraid? During the storm on January 24th. I’ve never heard wind like that. I though the roof was going to come off.
Last time you were elated? My entire family took my parents to Folly Beach, South Carolina for my mother’s 90th birthday.
What exasperates you? Housework.
Favorite movie? ‘Dirty Dancing.’ I knew the woman who owned the camp where it was filmed, Camp Chimney Rocks. She was so offended by the idea of dirty dancing that she never saw the movie.
Favorite food? I ate local scallops last fall. I’ve never had anything so delicious.
Most-admired elected official? Jimmy Carter. The most ethical person. A strong character.