PASSADUMKEAG – For many Maine children, summer means walking barefoot through grass, catching fireflies on a warm evening, or harvesting dozens of animals from illegal traps and selling their pelts on the black market.
Many autistic inner-city children with weight problems, however, never have those opportunities. That’s where Camp Gogettum comes in.
Since 1997, more than 500 socially-inept, flabby children from Boston and New York City ghettos have spent parts of their summer vacations in this remote Penobscot County territory, gaining a new sense of self-efficacy that comes from roaming freely through the wilderness, turning furry woodland creatures into cash.
But the experience doesn’t stop at trapping. Kids also learn to limb trees and drive skidders, earning the confidence and skills that can only come from harvesting enormous logs for someone else’s profit.
The purpose of the program is to expand children’s horizons by providing experiences they might not otherwise have.
“Most of these kids would never have known what it’s like to poach a Canadian Lynx and see its pelt sold on the black market for hundreds of dollars,” says Paul Bramhall, President and CEO of Camp Gogettum Enterprises, LLC. “If you’re a fat kid from an underprivileged background with a genetically-derived mental disability, this is an incredible opportunity.”
Bramhall connects with urban schools and community centers to find applicants. “Most families jump at the chance to send some of their kids to Maine for a month for no charge,” he explains, “but, unfortunately, we can’t accept everybody.” Once he screens applicants, Bramhall trains the kids in the art of laboring in the woods with little or no sense of purpose or upward mobility.
“It turns them into men,” he says, proudly. “The boys, that is. For the girls, I don’t know what it turns them into.”
Proceeds from logging and trapping sales benefit the camp, explain’s Bramhall. “You wouldn’t believe what it costs to feed these little fuckers,” he says. “TV dinners ain’t as cheap as they used to be.”
As part of the experience, those needing to burn even more calories can take evening ballet classes from Bramhall’s wife, Doreen. “Most of them are too tired at the end of the day, but some kids have a passion for it,” she explains. “It’s priceless to see the looks on their faces when we tell them it’s time for ballet after they’ve been working in the woods all day.”
Dorchester, MA resident Anna Ruth Belloign knows firsthand the impact the program can have, both on the children who participate and the families who host them.
In 1998, her family hosted 7-year-old Dana Nixon. Nixon returned to stay with the family every year for 10 years.
“We kept her every year until we couldn’t afford it anymore,” Beilloign said.
Children on first-time visits are 6 to 12 years old. Children who meet their harvesting quotas may continue with Camp Gogettum through age 18, or until someone corrupts them with the notion they should be getting paid for their labor, whichever comes first.