Eighteen years ago, Jean Bixby Smih, chairwoman of the Long Beach Community Foundation, came to the Press-Telegram and asked if we would be interested in helping send inner-city kids to camp in the mountains.
“Sounds good,” I said, “and I know just the man to make it work, assuming he’s interested.” I called in Tom Hennessy, our local columnist. He heard Jean talk about how so many kids were going through difficult childhoods with little or no hope of ever being able to enjoy the fun of going to a summer camp because of limited financial means.
She asked if we would be willing to ask our readers to donate money to help send these kids to camp.
Tom loved the “little idea,” and the Press-Telegram’s Send-a-Kid-to-Camp Fund was born.
Tom enjoyed telling the story of how no one had any real idea of how much money would be raised in the fund’s first year in 1999.
“We had a modest goal of about $15,000 and were more than pleasantly surprised when readers donated more than $40,000,” he said on the 10th anniversary of the program.
In the past 18 years, readers have donated an astounding $1,423,411, including $80,093 this year from more than 400 donors.
The donations allowed the “Big 5” youth groups — YMCA, Boys & Girls Clubs, Camp Fire USA, Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts — to send hundreds of children to a week at camps in the San Bernardino Mountains.
The growth in the fund was due largely to the passion of Hennessy who wrote tirelessly about the program and how it helped needy kids. He gave the program heart. It became one of Tom’s favorite causes, and he had many of them.
Unfortunately, at the start of last year’s campaign in April, Tom died. The Press-Telegram and Community Foundation continued on, calling all of last year’s and this year’s campers Tom’s Kids.
Debbie Hennessy, Tom’s wife, continued to support the program and, in July, she made a special trip to see some of Tom’s Kids at Camp Wintaka, which is operated by Camp Fire USA.
“The camp staff and the kids were wonderful,” Debbie told me later. “It makes you believe the world really is a better place. It’s such a great environment for the children. Tom would be very happy to see that his efforts have given many kids a chance to participate in a life-changing experience.”
Following the ritual of kids giving nicknames to staff members, some of Tom’s Kids got together and named Debbie Princess Leia, like the “Star Wars” character.
Inside the dining hall, Debbie applauded the young campers going through dance routines to songs like “Celebration” by Kool & the Gang.
“I had so much fun,” she said. “I wish I were 13 again and could spend a week at Camp Wintaka. I hated to leave.”
Many memories stand out in past years. One is that of a youngster who returned home from her week in the mountains and said, “It was so quiet I could heard the wind.”
Other children talked about the simple fun of breathing fresh mountain air and making new friends. One boy said, “I didn’t know I could have so much fun away from home.”
The spirit of Tom Hennessy could be felt at Camp Wintaka as youngsters shot bows and arrows, went swimming, sang songs and just enjoyed being kids.
The Press-Telegram and the Community Foundation thank all of you who donated to this “little idea” that has grown to making a difference in the lives of so many kids.
Rich Archbold is public editor of the Press-Telegram and a member of the Southern California News Group editorial board. email@example.com