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Wednesday, May 21, 2008 04:01 pm

Summer lovin’

How Nelson Center camp transformed a troubled kid into a leader

Untitled Document The first summer that Mike Dial went to camp, he spent a lot of time sitting in the administrative office. Plagued by attention-deficit disorder, hyperactivity, and, by his own admission, “a nasty temper,” Mike would become so enraged that staff members still recall the visible manifestations of his fury. “He would get so angry sometimes that his eyes would literally turn red,” says Steve Torricelli, who was, back then, director of the Springfield Park District’s Nelson Center camp. “He would clench his fists and his whole body would just tighten up,” says Julie Alexander, who, as Torricelli’s boss, was the person who inevitably had to deal with troublesome Mike. She can’t remember what specific misdeeds earned the then-5-year-old the severe punishment of being sent to her office, but she can’t forget how upset he was when he got there. “By the time he got to me, he was fit to be tied,” she says. After several such episodes, she considered kicking him out of the camp, but she couldn’t.  “There was something about that kid that just tugged at me,” she says. “He’s just one of those kids who gets to you — you know there’s good in there.”
She and Torricelli discovered that one counselor — a Lanphier High School graduate named Andre Morton — had a knack for managing Mike, so they allowed Mike to leave his age-designated group and spend the rest of the summer just tagging along with Morton.  Over the next few summers, Mike’s behavior improved. By the time he was 13, he had blossomed into such a “sweet, dependable, all-around good kid,” Alexander says, that he was invited to attend camp as a junior counselor. During a few painful summers when he was too old to attend camp but too young to work there, he still dropped in at Nelson Center to visit the camp once a week. As soon as he turned 18, he was hired as a counselor. Last summer, he was named head counselor. And now, this summer, Mike Dial is the camp director. The joy of finding himself in charge of the program that, from the tender age of 5, shaped his life leaves the voluble Dial scrambling for a big-enough adjective. “To be honest, to me, this is awesome,” he says. “I mean, I like to be someone of more words than ‘awesome,’ but in this instance it is.”
Not everyone would be so over-the-moon ecstatic about the prospect of spending eight or nine hours a day surrounded by 250 filthy, fidgety wee bairns in the wall-less, fenceless play pasture that is Lincoln Park. But for Mike, this old-fashioned, wholesome, semistructured, sweaty, sun-baked, swim-centered camp is the perfect way for a child of any age — even 21, like himself — to spend the summer. “Kids today are inside five-and-a-half hours a day plugged into some kind of electronic medium. When you add that up over the course of a seven-day week, that’s the equivalent of your or my full-time job!” he fumes. “When I was a kid, if you put me in an open field with one of my friends, we’d come up with a game — and, gee, if you handed us a ball that just opened up a whole new world of possibilities! I don’t know if our kids have that these days.”
Of course, the Nelson Center camp doesn’t operate as a giant experiment to see what kids do in a field with a ball. Guided by almost three decades of Nelson Center summer-camp traditions, plus principles Mike has absorbed as a recreation administration major at Eastern Illinois University (yes, he’s majoring in summer camp), he has been spending every waking moment plotting a calendar full of activities — guest speakers, field trips, various theme weeks, White Knight vs. Red Devils competition, and the famous cardboard-boat races — and hiring a platoon of kid-loving counselors to carry them out. Mike even plans after-hour activities for the 30-odd counselors, in the belief that a spirit of friendship among the staff is contagious enough to infect the kids. “If we all get along and we all have a good time together, the kids see that and they feel that,” Mike says. But the activities and the counselors don’t make the camp fun — it’s the kids who provide that.
“I don’t think a 7-year-old can truly grasp how much they give us. I know that sounds sappy, but that’s where I’m at. We can plan a great summer and we can hire great counselors, but if the kids didn’t give us 100 percent, we’d have nothing to do out here,” Mike says. “We could all hang out, all of us young adults, but I guarantee you we wouldn’t have as much fun playing tag and giving each other underdogs on the swings.”
The kids who really make him happy are the ones with the short-fused, red-eyed, reckless temperaments — the ones who remind Mike of himself. “If we can give a youth who is labeled a ‘bad kid’ 30 or 32 young adults who say, ‘You’re a special person — we enjoy your being in our camp,’ then we can do a great service there,” Mike says. Who knows — one day, one of those kids just might be the one to take over his job.
Contact Dusty Rhodes at
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