Newark’s Rittenhouse Day Camp delighting its third generation of kids
During the summers five decades ago, children arrived at Rittenhouse Park excited to attend the annual Rittenhouse Day Camp, where they participated in traditional camp activities including hiking, canoeing and archery. They also enjoyed just running around in the woods getting dirty and splashing around in the creek.
Kids learned camping skills, sang songs, cooked over a campfire and designed nature crafts using leaves, sticks, acorns and other art materials Mother Nature provided.
There were no iPhones, electronic devices or PlayStations. There were no air-conditioned rooms to escape the sweltering temperatures on the extra hot and sticky days.
Today, the second and thirdgeneration descendants of those original campers are arriving to the same spot off West Chestnut Hill Road to participate in the same traditional camp activities. And what might come as a surprise for many of today’s “tech” generation is that they are doing so with the same excitement as their parents, and in some cases, even their grandparents.
Rittenhouse Day Camp is one of the Newark Parks and Recreation Department’s oldest – and most popular – summer activities. The current iteration of the camp dates back to the the late 1960s or early 1970s, officials said, but Rittenhouse Park has been the site of summer programs since at least the 1950s.
This year, four two-week sessions are offered and each accommodate 85 kids ages 6 to 12. The department also offers a half-day Rittenhouse Explorers for younger kids.
Seven-year-old Grayden Dechene is attending for the second year.
“I look forward to Rittenhouse Camp because it reminds me of my dad,” Grayden said.
His Dad is James Dechene, who even at age 37, can relate to his son’s camp experience.
“Grayden is having a ton of fun,” he said. “You know he’s having fun because he comes home filthy and exhausted ever y day.”
The “filth” comes from the same trails and creeks that James Dechene used to run through and splash around in as a camper in the early 1990s when he would attend Rittenhouse Camp while visiting his grandparents during the summer months.
“It was awesome,” James Dechene, who grew up in Georgetown, recalled. “We did all the traditional camp activities. We had a lot of freedom around the property to hike and explore.”
He pointed to canoeing and archery as his favorite camp activities and excitedly recalled one of his favorite games – hide the lunches.
“One group would pile all the lunches into a laundry basket and hide it and then leave clues where the other group could find it,” he explained. “We hid the basket duct-taped under the bridge, strung over the creek and other creative places. Silly things like that were fun.”
He had so much fun as a camper, he decided to spend two summers working at the camp as a counselor while attending the University of Delaware.
“I had such fond memories of being a camper, I thought it would be a lot of fun to be a counselor, and I was right,” he said. “By and large, all of the main counselors were college kids. And most were upperclassmen. They seemed to really get into it.”
Tori Paruszewski “got into it” so much as a counselor during her high school years that she returned in 2009 as the camp’s art director, three years after graduating with a degree in fine art from UARTS in Philadelphia.
“I loved this camp as a kid and made some of my most memorable childhood memories there,” said Paruszewski, who attended the camp as a child and then volunteered when she turned 14 before being hired as a counselor at the age of 16. “Most of my favorite memories had to do with the freedom to get as dirty and muddy as I wanted. I loved to find crayfish, snakes and turtles in the creek. My fondest memories were made because of the awesome counselors, whose names I still remember.”
Paruszewski pointed to just a few small differences in today’s camp compared to when she attended as a youngster. Field trips are made to different places, groups are no longer assigned their own campsite in the woods, and the cookouts are held on one of the creek beaches rather than in the woods. They are small changes made for a variety of reasons, but have not impacted the foundational values on which the camp was originally established.
“Despite these changes, the core activities such as being introduced to nature, canoeing, archery, arts and crafts, and of course getting dirty, are still going strong,” said Paruszewski, who is finishing up graduate school at Wilmington University where she will earn her teacher certification and master’s degree in elementary education with plans to become an art teacher.
Getting dirty and “accidentally” falling in the creek is a recurrent theme among campers.
“I like the creek the best,” James Kelley said as brother Ian agreed. “You get to play in it and get dirty. When we are in the canoe, we have a good time because if you are not balanced, you can fall in. It’s fun when that happens.”
The boys’ mother, Maureen Kelley, doesn’t mind the dirty, wet clothes when they arrive home.
“As parents, we feel it is super important for kids to be kids, to get dirty, be comfortable with nature, learn respect for parks and nature, and learn life lessons that we might not be able to provide like archery, rock climbing and canoeing,” Kelley said. “The kids come home pretty exhausted, but very animated with stories of other campers and their follies of the day. It’s nice to send them to a communityminded place and have a full day filled with great activities. Most camps have a few highlights, but Rittenhouse is the complete package, worth every cent and more. We tell anyone that will listen that this camp is one you don’t want your kids to miss out on.”
Thousands of kids have had the opportunity to attend the camp over the years, and despite its “age,” Rittenhouse Camp continues to entertain hundreds of kids every summer, creating memories that will last long into adulthood – memories that are so fond, many wish they could live them all over again.
“I still wish they had a version of Rittenhouse Camp for adults,” James Dechene said, smiling ear to ear. “Because it would be a trip.”
Rittenhouse campers paddle a canoe down the Christina Creek on Wednesday.
Romeo Rea, 7, proudly shouts “I made it!” after crossing the creek by jumping from rock to rock.
Rittenhouse campers have fun playing in the creek on Wednesday.
Cassandra Huntley, 7, gets an archery lesson from Rittenhouse Day Camp counselor Brittany Grubb.
Rittenhouse campers take a break to eat lunch on Wednesday.
This 1955 photo shows kids splashing in the creek during a summer program at Rittenhouse Park.