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.”