Camp serves up something ‘special’

By: Maria Allard | C&G Newspapers | Published July 31, 2013

Camp Grace Bentley at a glance

• Founded in 1928.

• Originally incorporated as the Michigan League for Crippled Children by Grace Bentley, a woman remembered for her generosity and commitment to special needs children. 

• The camp is nonprofit.

• Sessions run from late June to mid-August.

• For more information, visit or call (313) 962-8242. Call the same number if interested in becoming a camp counselor.

• To sponsor a child or make a donation, call (586) 777-1748.

Source: Camp Grace Bentley brochure

BURTCHVILLE, MICH. — Each  day begins when the outdoor bell rings at 8 a.m.

At the sound of its chimes, the Camp Grace Bentley campers wake up inside their yellow cabins, wipe the sleep out of their eyes and look forward to a day of swimming, arts and crafts, playing games, hanging with their friends and much more.

With a backdrop of Lake Huron glistening behind them, they’ll bond over campfires, giggle at their counselors’ jokes and build lifelong memories. On certain days, learning time with the Lakeshore Garden Club is on the schedule. Other days, it’s time for Christmas in July, carnival night and movie night activities.

Founded in 1928, Camp Grace Bentley — located just north of Port Huron on 600 feet of waterfront — welcomes special needs children with mental and physical challenges to enjoy a nine-day adventure of camp every summer. The camp is the ideal spot for children with Down’s syndrome, autism and blindness, and for those who use wheelchairs.

“We are open for about seven weeks throughout the entire year,” said Camp Director Nancy Perri, of Birmingham. “This is the 85th year for this camp. The camp isn’t about correcting anything or changing any behavior. Our overall goal is fun. Safety and fun are our main concerns.

“I can’t believe I was lucky enough to get this job,” said Perri, a retired Utica Community Schools teacher. “It’s a great opportunity. They have the time of their life. You get to see these happy children every day who appreciate all you do for them.”

“They smile all day long,” agreed nurse Danielle Sikora, who lives in the camp’s infirmary during each session, as per law. Distributing medication is one of her many duties.

The camp is open to children from throughout Michigan, and over the years, kids from Warren, Fraser, St. Clair Shores, Clinton Township, West Bloomfield, Hazel Park and Farmington Hills have participated. The camp is open to children as young as age 7, and new campers are accepted up to age 16.

Staff begins receiving applications as early as January. The counselors review them and coordinate which campers they will assist, come summer. The ratio is one counselor for three children, and each group is assigned a cabin. There are usually 30 campers per session, with four sessions each summer. Many people, like Perri’s husband, Gary Mitchell, and head cook David Bissett, help make each session a success.

Most campers come back year after year. The cost per child is $400. Donations are welcome, and quarterly luncheons held at the Century Club in Sterling Heights help with expenses. Sponsorships are available.

‘Grace’ of the game
The campers spent part of their rainy morning July 23 inside the camp’s nondenominational chapel playing Jeopardy, based on the TV game show. A showdown was heating up as the next question was on deck. The four teams — competing for points — listened carefully. “What is a female fox called?” Camper Ryan Buckman raised his hand. 

“A vixen,” the 20-year-old Fraser resident answered correctly, before admitting counselor Ryan Hargraves tipped him off.

“We’re allowed to give each team one (hint),” Hargraves, 23, of Grand Rapids, said.

“He’s one of our favorite campers,” Perri said of Buckman. “He’s been camping a long time. He’s so enthusiastic and fun.”
“I kind of like coming to camp,” Buckman said. “I like being with my friends, and arts and crafts.”

As the game continued, Perri affectionately asked who the smartest team was.
“We are,” Warren resident Rachel Lobur called out from the Blue Angels team.

Next question: “In which movie would you see the characters Blu and Jewel?” Eleven-year-old Hailey Reinke was confident.

“Oh, I know,” the West Bloomfield resident said. “Rio.”

When the scores were tallied, it was the Blue Angels team that came out on top with 6,300 points. Freedom finished with 5,000, followed by Team Awesome with 4,700 points. The Beary Butterflies finished with 4,400 points.
“It doesn’t matter because you’re all winners,” counselor Luke Bandoski, 20, said.

Excitement had been building all day because the camp’s annual dance would be held that evening, something Farmington Hills resident Ethan Edsall, 16, eagerly anticipated. On the evening before, the kids played The Dating Game to determine who would be their date for the dance. On dance night, the boy campers pick up their dates at their cabins. Buckman was partnered with 18-year-old Hanna Mitchell, of Plymouth.

“I do good dance moves,” Buckman promised.

Making memories
For Reinke, camp is all about playing with her friends Maggie, Emily, Ruby, Tory and Hayley.

“I like swimming,” said Reinke, whose 10-year-old sister Brianna also attends camp. “I like playing on the playground. The counselors — they’re nice.”

Visiting the camp stirs up warm feelings for Camp Grace Bentley events chairman Rusty Dellofano. The Marysville resident, now 66, began attending the camp when she was 7 years old and continued coming back until she was about 14.

“It looks the same. It still feels the same. I know how much it meant to me,” said Dellofano, who grew up on Detroit’s eastside. Dellofano was born with a heart condition.

“I didn’t pump enough blood,” she said. The condition often made her tired, and she couldn’t keep up with other kids. “Somehow, over the years, I’m fine. I do very well.”

Dellofano’s favorite Camp Grace Bentley activity was drama. She acted in several plays. In one performance, she portrayed a maid and clearly remembered reciting the line, “The floor shined like a baby’s butt.”

“It was fun. We’d go to woodshop. We put on plays, dances and baseball games.”
Sitting on the wall by the lake was also a pastime.

“Transistor radios had just come out,” she said. “We’d listen to our radios.”

The Detroit Times even featured a story on the camp in its edition dated Aug. 16, 1953. The story included a photo of many kids, including Dellofano as a young girl. Dellofano still has a copy.