Town, Tribe Collaborate on Kids Summer Camp

By IAN FEIN

Sitting in a circle on the floor of tribal headquarters in Aquinnah yesterday, roughly 20 town children were talking about the history of whaling when the conversation quickly turned to how excited they were about playing on a slide and possibly going swimming later in the afternoon.

Officials from both the town and Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) are equally excited about the collaborative children summer program, which opened yesterday morning.

A new cooperative effort among the two governments of Aquinnah, the Turtle Project is a six-week program that will offer a wide range of outdoor and cultural activities for Aquinnah children of elementary school age. The town and tribe historically operated separate summer programs and camps, but facing budgetary constraints and a mandate from selectmen to professionalize operations on the town side, the programs this summer have been merged into one.

Program organizers say the Turtle Project is natural collaboration, and probably should have been done sooner in the first place.

"When we stopped and really thought about it, it didn't really make a lot of sense to have two separate programs," said Kristina Hook-Leslie, who is chairman of the town community programs committee and a member of the tribal council. "We're all trying to protect the kids of Aquinnah, and this joint arrangement seemed like the best way to do it," she continued.

"It just makes sense."

The shared summer program also comes at a time of renewed solidarity between the town and tribe, with government officials actively negotiating possible resolutions to longstanding disputes over land use rights and emergency management services.

A vocal advocate for town-tribe collaborations, Ms. Hook-Leslie said the new joint children's program could also forge a path for improved intergovernmental relations in the years to come.

"Maybe the children can lead the way, and teach us how to play together," said Ms. Hook-Leslie.

Her comments were echoed by fellow community programs committee member Betty Joslow.

"One day, these kids will be the leaders of our town. And by being together now, maybe they'll get to know each other and understand each other better than we have," Mrs. Joslow said. "I hope that we're building something special here."

Town officials are also hoping that the joint program will solve what has been a recurring financial strain and quiet political controversy for the last two years.

When the camp first started more than a decade ago, its operating money reportedly came from bottle redemption and a contract for soda machines at the Gay Head Cliffs. The town later provided a modest budget, and the camp earned a reputation for providing a creative program to town children at no additional cost to their families.

But the budget and the camp's future were put on the chopping block two years ago, when town officials scrambled to balance their budget only days before the new fiscal year. Town voters axed most of the camp expenses from the town budget that summer, but the camp was saved at the last minute by a series of anonymous donations.

As a compromise, the town last summer began charging families for the camp, but enrollment quickly dropped to a level that made the staffing costs economically unfeasible. Town selectmen also questioned the salaries being paid to teenage camp counselors, who were making more per hour than longtime town hall employees.

Demanding more structure in the summer program, selectmen this March chose not to reappoint the camp founder and longtime organizer to the community programs committee. They also threatened to axe the camp budget entirely unless the remaining committee members developed a sound plan for the program. The tribal collaboration sparked soon thereafter.

"The selectmen said to us: if we didn't straighten up, they wouldn't give us any budget at all to work with," said Ms. Hook-Leslie. "Coming to this collaboration made it possible. Period."

Though town and tribal officials are still working out the financial aspects of the joint program, including whether some families may be asked to pay a small fee, representatives from both governments suggested that the final arrangement is near.

Ms. Hook-Leslie said the town community programs committee already lowered its budget for the coming year by more than 20 per cent, and that further cost-savings were expected for both governments because fewer staff members were needed. Mrs. Joslow also praised tribal officials for their efforts in supporting and developing the new program.

The new version of the Turtle Project will in some ways structurally mirror the unofficial arrangements of past years - when children in the tribal morning program would often head over to the town's camp in the afternoon. The new program will begin at 9 a.m. in the tribal headquarters on Black Brook Road, and after a series of morning activities, the children will be shuttled a couple of miles up the road to spend the afternoon behind the town hall and fire station. The camp closes at 5 p.m.

The children will do nature work every Monday, go to the beach one day a week, and venture out on field trips around the Island every Friday. Over the course of the summer they will also work on a larger project about the role of Gay Head and Aquinnah in the whaling history of the Vineyard, which they will likely enter into the Martha's Vineyard Agricultural Society Livestock Show and Fair.

The older children will have the option to spend the last week of the program in a wilderness experience, where they will have the opportunity to camp outdoors and learn survival skills.

Cheryl Vanderhoop-Sellitti, who with Carolyn Mayhew is coordinating the Turtle Project this year, said she thinks the new program will be better for the children - many of whom used to have two sets of counselors, often with two sets of rules.

"We're all really excited about doing this collaboratively," said Ms. Vanderhoop-Sellitti. "We think it will be great not only for the kids, but for the counselors too."