Our View: Camp Fish Tales on right track

THE MIDLAND DAILY NEWS – (August 18, 2016) – Camp Fish Tales has overcome challenges and welcomed campers back this summer for some fun in Pinconning.

About 100 campers with both developmental and physical disabilities from across Michigan enjoyed six weeks of swimming, crafting, exercise and more at the 67-acre property in Bay County.

The camp provides an important service for families in our region and we are glad to see that continue.

The future of the camp had been up in the air after an embezzlement case was brought to light in 2015. The loss of funds meant a conversation on whether Camp Fish Tales could continue, and if it still had the community’s support despite the controversy.

The board proceeded cautiously, with the hope that the camp for people with disabilities could once again open for business.

The board of directors changed and hired a new executive director — Beth Dow — and the community stepped up to show its support.

Those who have supported the camp through this hard time have contributed to making a positive difference in the lives of people in our communities.

Typical camp activities are augmented by specialized equipment, including wheelchair swings and a handicap-friendly boardwalk along the property’s pond, to offer everyone a chance at fun.

“They’re kind, they’re happy, they’re grateful,” April Douglass, camp director, said about the campers. “They’re happy to be here for their vacation.”

After a time of transition, it is encouraging to see that the future looks much brighter for Camp Fish Tales.

Camp Fish Tales welcomes back campers

www.ourmidland.com – (August 7, 2016) – Despite an embezzlement scandal that threatened its future in 2015, Camp Fish Tales persevered and once again welcomed campers back this summer for some fun in Pinconning.

About 100 campers with both developmental and physical disabilities from across Michigan joined staff for six weeks of swimming, crafting, exercise and, of course, s’mores. Some have been visiting the 67-acre property in Bay County for decades; for others, it was their first time at Camp Fish Tales.

It was an experience that almost didn’t happen for the campers, according to new staff members and the board of directors who helped bring the camp back from brink after an embezzlement investigation led to charges against its former secretary.

HARDER, TOUGHER QUESTIONS

Karl Ieuter had just joined the board of directors for Camp Fish Tales in May 2015 when news of the embezzlement broke.

Former secretary Peggy Thompson, 55, of Pinconning, was sentenced to three months in jail and $35,000 in restitution for embezzling funds from Camp Fish Tales. An audit revealed Thompson had taken even more than the restitution figure from the camp’s operating budget.

The investigation by the Michigan State Police led to a new board of directors, who quickly implemented new bylaws, an outside accountant and financial controls to prevent this kind of situation from ever happening again, Ieuter said.

“We just, as a board, we put in best practices because they weren’t obviously being followed the way they should have been,” Ieuter said. “That was the biggest step. We ask a lot of harder, tougher questions because of what happened.”

The loss of funds meant a conversation on whether Camp Fish Tales could continue, and if it still had the community’s support despite the controversy. The board proceeded cautiously, with the hope that one of three camps in the state for people with disabilities could once again open for business.

The turning point came when the board started looking through applications for the position of executive director earlier this year. There were at least 40 applications, but one in particular stood out: Beth Dow, the former executive director of the Disability Services Resource Center in Bay City.

“We really were looking for someone to start anew. We wanted to start over at Camp Fish Tales,” Ieuter said. “As soon as we hired Beth, we knew camp could happen.”

Another sign was the community support that poured in for Camp Fish Tales.

“It was played out very seriously,” Ieuter said, about not opening for 2016, however, “the board always wanted to reopen. And really, the community has rallied behind us.”

With Dow on board and a new camp director brought in a month later, the board was more comfortable with welcoming campers back to Camp Fish Tales.

HOW IT WORKS

Staff and the board made the decision to only open for a six-week period versus the typical eight-week span, and the first round of campers showed up the week of June 13.

Many of the campers have their registration partially covered through Community of Mental Health funds, and there are also scholarships available.

After saying goodbye to their parents and families, the campers meet their personal counselor who assists them throughout the five-day session with daily tasks such as taking medicine and getting to different areas to enjoy a pontoon ride or join an archery lesson.

These typical camp activities are augmented by specialized equipment to offer everyone a chance at fun, from wheelchair swings and a handicap-friendly boardwalk along the property’s pond. About 10 percent of campers are in wheelchairs, Dow said.

The pond is stocked with fish, for campers to catch and then release for future fishing excursions, and staff frequently load up a pontoon donated by a local marina and catch a breeze coming off nearby Saginaw Bay.

“This has all been built by donations and donated labor and time,” Dow said, pointing to cabins and trails during a tour aboard a golf cart on the Camp Fish Tales property.

April Douglass, camp director, and Dow often talk about their plans for Camp Fish Tales and the improvements they would like to see: a new welcome center and bonfire pit, an indoor pool to offer aquatic therapy, and most important: build more cabins so more campers can be accepted, and, “so I don’t have to turn anyone away,” Dow said.

Camp Fish Tales has a waitlist and the last week of camp is often for overflow; there were 18 campers for the week of July 25. It is one of three camps in Michigan that are specially organized for people with a range of disabilities.

“They’re kind, they’re happy, they’re grateful,” Douglass said about the campers. “They’re happy to be here for their vacation.”

LAST WEEK OF CAMP

There are frequently tears at the end of the week, when campers say goodbye to their cabins and are picked up by parents and caregivers. It’s one of the best compliments, Douglass said, to see the emotional attachment that many of them have with Camp Fish Tales.

“We love that they want to be here,” Dow said in agreement.

Why do they love Camp Fish Tales? In the opinion of staff, it’s because they are the norm here. Some have camped or worked together previously, and reconnect with friends from around the state as well as make new friends.

It is also a chance to experience some independence and try new things, like paddling a kayak or fishing.

“For the most part, this is their first time at the beach, on a pontoon, being away from their parents and their homes,” Dow said, watching a group of campers climb aboard the camp’s boat for a leisurely cruise around the pond on July 25.

Campers splashed in the blue-green water, while others were helped into kayaks or paddleboats for a quick excursion around the pond.

“Beach days are the best days of the week,” Douglass said. “We keep them busy. They enjoy every minute of it.”

Camp Fish Tales doesn’t go too long without a visit from one of its founding organizers, Don Wackerle, who stopped by to check out some suspicious-looking ash trees.

Wackerle helped start the camp in 1996, inspired by his son who has muscular dystrophy and loved attending similar camps.

“From there, it kept blossoming, until how it is today,” Wackerle said. “It’s just nice coming up there. This place is dear to me.”

Wackerle’s inspiration for the camp was his father, who always advised him to look to the future and to be prepared for what will come next. His son was just one camper; there were others who could benefit from a place like Camp Fish Tales.

“That’s why you do it, for others. You don’t do it to have others recognize you, you do it for others,” Wackerle said.

‘A VERY BRIGHT FUTURE’

That philosophy has persevered, despite the setback in 2015, and is still driving the staff and board of Camp Fish Tales.

“We had to prove to the community that we could change,” Ieuter said. “Once they knew there was a new board, new direction, new controls, they gave us a second chance and we truly appreciate it.”

Ieuter even traveled to Indian Trails, another Michigan camp for people with disabilities, and spoke with leadership there to learn more about how to make Camp Fish Tales a better experience for those involved.

He visits as much as he can, and often brings his children with him.

“Just seeing the smiles on the campers’ faces, it makes it worth it,” Ieuter said.

He is happy to know Camp Fish Tales is in better shape now than before, and that campers are able to still visit and experience a traditional camp setting, and the staff of Camp Fish Tales agree.

“We’re not the Camp Fish Tales that once was,” said John Gross, the camp’s maintenance manager who often steers the pontoon boat when campers want to go for a ride.

It was an unfortunate situation, as Dow described it, but teamwork and collaboration combined to turn Camp Fish Tales around and set it up for success.

“I think the camp has a very bright future and we’re looking forward to moving forward, to making the best camp ever for campers with disabilities,” Ieuter said. “There were hiccups, but we’re going to be better than ever.”

Camp Fish Tales reopens

BAY COUNTY (WJRT) – (07/11/16) – It was last year when Camp Fish Tales was in the news for all the wrong reasons.

The camp’s former secretary stole nearly $100,000 and ended up in jail.

It was enough to force the camp for people with disabilities to close over the winter – but it wasn’t enough to shut them down for good.

“They said, ‘We will open’. And we did,” said Beth Dow, the camp’s new executive director. “We could have been ruined, no doubt. But we had a lot of people in our corner.” Dow is talking about people like Gail Hahl.

For years, her family has donated money to Camp Fish Tales. When she heard about the embezzlement, she stopped by for the first time ever.

“Finances weren’t here to do what needed to get done and a lot of it was just manpower. That I had to give a lot of,” she said.

Hahl is now there every day making sure campers are fed and have tons of fun.

Her pay is great.

“I have gotten more hugs in the last four weeks than I have in the last 10 years,” she said.

Each week this summer, 20 campers with disabilities get the chance to be themselves.

“Makes me feel good. People like me,” said Diane Johnston, a first time camper.

Many loyal campers have returned, but the staff is all new.

“Starting new. New brand, new day, new time,” Dow said.

Dow said it was important for the Board of Directors to start fresh at the camp.

The community felt that way too.

“Home Depot has donated picnic tables, the Lions Club has donated benches. Dow Chemical donated a huge amount of equipment for our kitchen,” Dow said.

Dow says everyone who gave their money or time is making a big impact on the lives of people who may not otherwise have a summer camp experience.

“We have built this dream, they have come, and we are full,” Dow said.

So full that they had to turn people away this year.

Camp Fish Tales adds new team member

april-douglass-smPinconning, Mich., March 24, 2016 – Camp Fish Tales is pleased to announce April Douglass has joined the staff as the Camp Director. Douglass will oversee the daily operations of the camp during the peak camping season and assist Beth Dow, the Executive Director with community relations and fund development.

Before her new role, Douglass worked at Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Great Lakes Bay Region as their Events and Office Manager, where she supported the staff with office duties and planning events. She also executed the logistics of the agencies fundraising endeavors. Prior to her time at BBBS, Douglass worked as an Office Professional at Dow Chemical through Kelly Services and at the Grace A. Dow Memorial Library in Midland.

“I’m so grateful for the opportunity to serve in such a beautiful setting. I look forward to helping Camp Fish Tales grow and getting to know and work with the people in the surrounding communities” said Douglass.

A native of Midland, MI, April is a 1996 graduate of Ferris State University with a B.S. in Television Production.

Grant supports Camp Fish Tales

MIDLAND DAILY NEWS Camp Fish Tales recently received a grant from Hasting Mutual. The grant will go toward purchasing a golf cart at Camp Fish Tales in Pinconning to help campers move around the camp. “All of our campers have a physical and/or developmental disability and before accepting a camper we make sure that we can adequately meet their needs,” said Karl Ieuter, president of Camp Fish Tales Board of Directors. “It is often difficult for families to find an overnight recreational facility that can provide for their loved ones with disabilities, but with our highly trained and dedicated staff providing 24 hour care, Camp Fish Tales strives to accommodate any disability while creating a safe and healthy environment where physically challenged campers get to meet and make new friends while participating in group growth activities.”

Camp Fish Tales hires new director

MIDLAND DAILY NEWS – With the hiring of a new executive director and the launch of its Adopt-A-Cabin fundraising campaign, the Camp Fish Tales board of directors is working to reopen “a new and better than ever” camp for the summer of 2016.

Camp Fish Tales, a 100 percent barrier-free, wheelchair-accessible camp located in northern Bay County, provides outdoor learning experiences where individuals with cognitive and physical disabilities interact and develop skills that enhance their health, abilities, independence and quality of life.

The camp was forced to shut down for the winter due to the malicious activities of a former employee who has since been jailed for embezzlement; however, the board and other volunteers have been working to get the camp updated and ready to open.

“We came together and agreed we just had to make this happen,” said Karl Ieuter, a Midland businessman and chair of the board’s executive committee. “Camp Fish Tales means so much to our many campers who return year after year to the only camp in our area that provides week-long camping experiences to individuals with mental and physical disabilities. There was simply no way we could let Camp Fish Tales stayed closed.”

Ieuter said the past few months have been a real challenge but both his board and the local community have stepped up.

“When we were forced to close the camp and release all employees, there was still an incredible amount of administrative and physical work that needed to be done,” Ieuter said. “Our board and our volunteers have accomplished some amazing things over the winter, but we’ve still got a long way to go.”

Leading the charge will be Beth A. Dow, the newly hired executive director for the camp. Dow is the former executive director of the Disability Services Resource Center and previously served the Muscular Dystrophy Association as health care service and camp coordinator.

“I look forward to serving the disability community and leading a new team in creating accessible and incredible camping experiences,” Dow said in a press release. “I am thrilled and honored to help write the next chapter of Camp Fish Tales history.”

One of the new initiatives for 2016 is the Adopt-A-Cabin fundraising campaign, where donations will go toward updating and improving the cabins and outside areas where campers with unique physical and cognitive challenges stay and take part in specialized programing.

“Although always safe and in compliance, our cabins and grounds require some much-needed updating,” Dow said. “People donating to this fund will know that their dollars go directly to improving the quality of the cabins, the grounds and the activities that our campers experience every day. Essentially, these donors will become part of that experience.”

Donations to the Adopt-A-Cabin campaign are being accepted at www.crowdrise.com/campfishtales.

More information on Camp Fish Tales programs, camp registration, volunteer opportunities and how traditional donations are made can be found at www.campfishtales.org.