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Grand Camp Offers Summer Fun for Grandchildren, Grandparents Alike : Camp Tecumseh: Salvation Army aims to give grandparents a break, and fresh air and fun to the children they're rearing.


PITTSTOWN, N.J. — Mattie Patterson and Phyllis Tillery sit on the back porch of the lodge at Camp Tecumseh, blowing bubbles, laughing and starting a friendship that's destined to last at least until the end of summer camp.

The only difference between this scene and opening day rituals at thousands of camps across the country is that Patterson and Tillery look old enough to have grandchildren in camp--and they do, right on the other side of Lake Tecumseh.

Their grandchildren are in the other half of "Grands Camp"--that's grand as in grandparents and grandchildren--because this camp is only for grandparents and the grandchildren they're rearing.

"There are no kids around saying, 'Grandmom, I want some bubbles. I want some candy,' " said Tillery, 55, who is rearing three. "It's been a long time since I had this, and I mean to make the best of this week."

On most other summer afternoons--and afternoons in every season--these grandparents are cooking or shopping or working or cleaning up after kids. There is no such thing as time to sit.

Which is why the Salvation Army started Grands Camp. Camp Tecumseh, 400 acres of meadows and wooded hills near the Delaware River in Hunterdon County, has been the highlight of summer for thousands of New Jersey children since the Salvation Army bought the property 30 years ago.

But for the second year in a row, one week of the summer is set aside for grandparents and the grandchildren they are bringing up who are between 6 and 12 years old. It gives the young campers a week of fresh air and fun, and the grown-ups a break.

"These children all come from backgrounds where a week of camp is a wonderful retreat," said Maj. Gladys DeMichael, the Salvation Army's director of women's organizations for New Jersey.

"It's our ministry. It's what we're called to do and we love it. We hope we're making a difference."

The campers seem to love it, too. The children swim, canoe, play basketball, volleyball and tennis, roast marshmallows and jam fun into their week just as they stuffed clothes in their backpacks.

The grandparents can swim, fish, go boating, take crafts classes, or do absolutely nothing. And on opening day, that's exactly what most opted to do.

The children sleep in cabins. Across the lake, the adults stay in the Lodge by the Lake. Children cannot go to the grown-ups' side of the water, but the grandparents can check on the children if they want. Sixteen grandparents and 29 of their grandchildren went to camp this year.

On the first night, after a dinner of barbecued chicken, children ran through the dining hall screaming, laughing and ignoring a counselor's shouts over the loudspeaker.

Across the lake, tranquillity reigned. The grandparents ate lasagna and spoke almost in whispers--as if they were afraid to shatter the blessed silence.

Each year, the Salvation Army holds a "reunion" camp to bring together siblings who have been split up in different foster families. Organizers created Grands Camp after realizing that more and more of the young campers they were seeing were being reared by their grandparents.

It's the only Salvation Army camp of its kind in the United States, said Lt. Col. Clarence Harvey, national community relations secretary.

In 1993, the latest year for which figures are available, 5% of all children under 18 in the country lived with their grandparents in homes the grandparents rented or owned, up from 3.2% in 1970, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Violence, AIDS and drug abuse are to blame for the separation of children from their parents, DeMichael said. Most of the campers in this group bear that out.

Joan Lear is bringing up her 9-year-old granddaughter because her daughter and son-in-law were shot to death in separate incidents in Newark three years ago.

Tillery is rearing her 10-year-old twin grandsons and their 8-year-old brother because her daughter-in-law is addicted to drugs, she said.

Like Tillery, Owinthia Johnson is taking care of three of her grandchildren because her daughter-in-law has a drug problem, she said.

"I didn't want them thinking nobody wanted them," she said. "I've been stuck, but they're good kids."

The grandparents all had a choice, Tillery said. They could let the children be put in foster homes, or they could take them themselves.

"I think it's the hope of all these grandparents to show their grandchildren that there are choices that their own children made, and they're not going to let their grandchildren suffer because of the poor choices that their children made," DeMichael said. "It's an ongoing, complex kind of life."

James Morrison was the only grandfather in the group. He and his wife, Mary, reared six children of their own and now they're bringing up four grandchildren. They didn't say why--only that the children are better off with them.

All the grandparents agreed rearing children now is tough, not only because they have less patience and tolerance than they did the first time around, but because children are different.

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