A seasoned camper

I first met Samantha Hemenger on her 13th birthday – July 13, 2011. I was writing a feature story about the city of Dunkirk’s day camp held at Camp Gross in Cassadaga. (“Avoiding Nature Deficit Disorder” published July 24, 2011).

Larisa Aldrich, the camp’s longtime director (now retired), gave me permission to come up to camp for the day to watch the camp in action and take pictures.

In the morning, Larisa greeted the campers as they got off the bus, and amazingly enough knew most of them by name. I wondered a bit as she greeted Samantha, a tall camper wearing a tiara in her dark hair. I didn’t have to ask for an explanation.

“That’s Samantha,” Larisa said. “She’s too old to be a camper but comes to camp and helps out. It’s her birthday today. She’s been coming to camp since she was 5 years old and likes to spend her birthday here.”

That day, Larisa made her a crown of daisies. Everyone sang “Happy Birthday” and Samantha had cake and ice cream with the counselors. Patti Hemenger, Samantha’s mom, recently told me that day is Samantha’s ultimate favorite memory of camp.

I saw Samantha again the following year. My granddaughter, Alexandra, was attending camp. Each morning we walked together to the bus stop at the former School 6. Each morning I chatted with Annabelle Reilly, a retired nurse, and a fixture in the Fourth Ward of Dunkirk. She waited with Samantha until the bus came.

Annabelle explained she had known Samantha for years and lived right across the yard. Over the years Samantha had sometimes stayed with her while her mom worked. Annabelle and her husband are like honorary grandparents.

“She’s a good girl,” Annabelle said. “I’ve known her since she was a baby.”

That week I learned Samantha had a couple of cats, which endeared her to my granddaughter. I also learned one of Samantha’s cats caught squirrels and she sometimes found squirrel tails in her yard – which didn’t thrill her, but she disposed of them. During that week, one of her cats crossed the road and, under Samantha’s watchful eye, the younger children petted him. I also learned that Samantha loved camp – even at 14 when sometimes such things aren’t cool.

This summer, I walked my honorary grandson, Quinn, to wait for the bus at School 6. Again, Samantha was at the bus stop. She told me her birthday was a little bit too late to qualify as a counselor this year, but she was going to camp to help out even though unpaid. This coming year, she will be a junior at Dunkirk High. She hopes to be hired as a counselor next year.

Some of the campers who got on the bus at that stop knew Samantha. She talked to them. Some hung on her. She got on the bus last so she could make sure there were no stragglers.

By the next day, she knew Quinn’s name. Like most children, sometimes Quinn has a hard time focusing. Each day Samantha talked to him. She looked him straight in his eyes. She knew he was good at kicking the ball, asked him about that, and told him that kickball was planned for the day.

When I asked, out of Quinn’s earshot, she told me he was doing fine at camp.

“He likes to keep moving and has a lot of energy but that’s no problem because he always stops when asked,” she said in her quiet matter-of-fact manner.

When Quinn’s parents came for the closing program, she told them she knew Quinn. In short, her quiet leadership, her talent for dealing with children and her maturity were extremely evident.

I am not quite sure how to describe what I saw that week. It was so different from the more flamboyant personalities I sometimes meet when doing stories. City Editor Gib Snyder’s opinion was Samantha is one of those kids “who just take care of business; who are just good kids.”

By checking the OBSERVER website, I learned Samantha is an honor student, runs track and with other girls broke a DHS record for the 4 X 100 relay.

By checking with Samantha’s mother (and asking permission to write about her) I learned other things about her. She actually broke that DHS track record twice. She’s interested in music and drama – playing trumpet in the school band, singing in the chorus, playing roles in musicals and attending SUNY Fredonia’s Playground Drama camp for years.

She is a member of the Junior ROTC at DHS. In her freshman year, she commanded a drill team which placed second in competition. As a sophomore, the team she commanded placed first in a competition.

When I inquired about her role in JROTC, Sgt. 1st Class Frank Torain wrote,

“Samantha Heminger is a cadet with lots of potential. As a student, she works very hard and gets excellent results. She was awarded the Academic Achievement Award which is awarded to cadets whose academic grades are a 90 or above. As a leader, she is an emerging leader who has learned the value of teamwork. Samantha is developing the skill of using her own natural talents while nurturing the talents of others. Her performance as a platoon leader was excellent last year. She has been selected to serve as the Cadet Battalion Command Sergeant Major which is the highest Non-Commissioned Officer position in the unit. Her performance with you is not a surprise. Samantha has always dedicated herself to excellent performance.”

Aldrich recently explained, “I loved to see the progression of children from camper to counselor, from young children to pre-teen, to young adults. I developed future counselors from the campers. The love of camp and nature, the camaraderie are so important. Samantha is bright, articulate, thoughtful and kind and has been a part of this camp for so long. As Samantha became a helper, she was always ready to run activities.”

Aldrich also explained that all those who are counselors, junior counselors or deal with children are trained in how to interact with campers.

Happy belated birthday, Samantha. I hope you celebrate many more at camp. My grandchildren and other children in Dunkirk need you.

Comments on this article may be directed to dchodan@observertoday.com