Camp Lee Mar: 60 Years of Summer Fun for Special Needs Children

Sixty years ago my grandfather, Joe Laub, urged his dear friend Lee Morrone to open up a summer camp. An overnight camp for children with special needs – a remarkable proposition at a time when people didn’t so much care for but deal with such children, often hiding them away in institutions. Camp Lee Mar would be different.  And throughout the years, I was told stories about just how different. Today, children come from all over the United States, Canada, Europe and the Middle East for seven weeks every summer in Lackawaxen, Pa. Lee, they say, is a miracle worker.

Finally, two years ago, I went with my parents to visit Lee at camp.  I knew of the history and Lee’s vision; I grew up hearing the uplifting camp stories. But to be honest, I was afraid. I expected sadness – how could you feel anything else witnessing all the limitations of disabled children struggling in a setting known for fun and frivolity?

I remember we arrived in the early evening and Lee escorted us to the dining room, where the children were having dinner. You’ve never seen such well-behaved, mannered children! Lee pointed out a child who came to camp having never eaten with utensils of any kind, and there he was, happily eating with fork and knife in hand. Lee walked by each table to say hello, checking in as the kids greeted her with bright smiles and loving eyes. “Don’t chew with your mouth open,” she’d say. “Sit up straight.” Nearly every child came to camp with a resume of what they couldn’t do. Lee would quickly recount this resume, remembering the list of “don’ts” and “can’ts.” Then, she’d invariably point the child out and say, with this boundless pride, and just a hint of indignation, “And now look at them!” Sure enough, they’d be doing what others said they’d never be able to do.

This wasn’t a place of sadness; there was love and acceptance everywhere. This wasn’t a place of humiliation; every camper had a story of extraordinary achievement. The only limitations, I learned, were the expectations I had brought with me. Lee’s biggest miracle was the camp itself. And with Ari Segal, her co-director of twenty years, and a staff of devoted counselors, she has inspired a new generation of professionals dedicated to people with special needs.  When I learned that this year Camp Lee Mar would be celebrating its 60th anniversary (as well as Lee’s 85th birthday), I knew I wanted to document it. It’s not often, after all, that you get a chance to be so close to so much miracle-making.

Gillian Laub is a photographer based in New York and a frequent contributor to TIME. See more of her work here

For more information on Camp Lee Mar, visit LeeMar.com.

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