The year was 1945. Like all Americans, the lives of Maine people had been shaped by the Great Depression, two World Wars and the effects of debilitating diseases like polio. The typical Mainer lived on a farm or worked in a local mill or factory.
Against that backdrop, Pine Tree Camp began.
Polio was very common and Pine Tree Society was already helping children with the disease live and play like other children, providing teachers for kids who were unable to attend school and offering transportation to hospitals and needed orthopedic equipment and devices.
“In 1945, Pine Tree Society’s founders had a vision to take its programming a step further and provide a way for kids with physical disabilities to experience Maine’s outdoors,” said Noel Sullivan, President and CEO of Pine Tree Society. “Their ultimate goal was to get people outside to experience all the benefits of nature and the ability to move freely outdoors. It was forward thinking.”
Pine Tree Camp’s founders were visionaries. They recognized the critical importance of recreation and access to the outdoors as essential to the well-being of children with disabilities and rented an old hunting camp on North Pond for $600 with the goal of providing an opportunity to experience nature in a way previously unavailable to them.
It was an idea ahead of its time and one that has since shaped the lives of tens of thousands of Maine people.
Deb Taylor is one of those people.
She first came to camp in 1962.
Now 63 years old, she said “I owe my whole life to Pine Tree Camp, all of my successes. It was there I discovered I needed to learn how to get good at things in my own way so I could be part of a bigger picture in life. It was a tremendous lesson.”
When Deb was a camper, it was very much still the same old hunting camp it was in 1945.
“When I was a kid you had to be ambulatory; you had to be able to walk,” she recalled. “Cabins had stairs, not ramps, and there were rocks everywhere. Campers were amputees or had physical disabilities due to spina bifita, cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy or polio.”
Deb was adopted and an only child. She developed bone cancer eight months after her adoption, which resulted in many years of wearing a brace before eventually becoming a single amputee at age 11. It was their family physician who suggested Pine Tree Camp to Deb’s parents.
“The doctor who recommended Pine Tree Camp was an amazing guy,” she said. “My parents were very loving and supportive, but he sensed Pine Tree Camp would be my ticket to try things my parents wouldn’t have otherwise been emotionally able to let me do. And he was right. I did everything at camp: swimming, canoeing, archery. The word ‘No’ wasn’t in the vocabulary. It was ‘We will figure out a way to get this done.’ It allowed me to spread my wings. I remember the doctor saying to my parents ‘When you drop her off, it’s going to be very hard for you. When you drive off and leave her there, you are going to feel like you want to go back and get her. But you can’t. It’s where she needs to be.’”
It was at Pine Tree Camp where Deb met her lifelong friend, Penny Plourde, who became like a sister to her.
“Penny passed away a couple years ago,” she said. “The two of us had amazing lives and I think we both attributed much of that success to a combination of a loving family who could let go of us, and a camp with counselors who were so invested in us becoming the fullest people we could be.”
Around the time Deb and Penny were at Pine Tree Camp, the Salk vaccine had been perfected and the incidence of polio began dropping, reducing the number of Maine kids disabled by the disease. Pine Tree Camp adapted to that welcomed change by expanding the experience to include adults.
“Pine Tree Society’s leaders recognized they had an amazing piece of property that could continue to positively impact the lives of Maine people with disabilities of all ages,” said Dawn Willard-Robinson, Pine Tree Camp’s director. “During the late 1960s, they started to rebuild cabins to better meet the evolving needs of campers. They also took a step back to think about the bigger picture of how they could create more accessibility and opportunities to immerse in the outdoors.”
By the late 1990s, Pine Tree Camp’s camper population included those with a higher level of medical need.
“The buildings weren’t air conditioned and the bathrooms weren’t accessible for bigger wheelchairs of the times,” she said. “Bigger wheelchairs had been developed to provide people with more independence to get around and Pine Tree Camp wasn’t set up for that level of equipment. So, we asked ourselves, how can we make camp even better? How can we provide the best possible cabins, dining hall and health center for the long term? To me that was the turning point for what Pine Tree Camp is today.”
In 2010, Pine Tree Society undertook a major capital project designed to modernize Pine Tree Camp and address issues related to the care and comfort of campers. The projects also transformed Pine Tree Camp from a seasonal campus to a year-round facility. After many years of work, the majority of Camp’s iconic buildings have been modernized and winterized. This not only addresses campers’ needs; it also allows Pine Tree Camp to offer its transformational programming all year long.
For Dawn, “Now that we can offer programming year-round, the sky is the limit. Having winterized buildings allows us to think outside of the box and give campers the chance to spend extra time out in nature throughout the year. There’s a big need for that.”
This year, Pine Tree Camp celebrates its 75th anniversary. Since Deb and Penny spent their summers on the shores of North Pond, Pine Tree Camp has undergone many improvements to ensure the highest level of care, comfort, safety and access for campers. Still, the heart of camp remains the same.
“To me, they’re always looking to broaden accessibility and find new ways to be open to everyone,” said Deb. “It’s about inclusivity. Their mission is to be there for as many people who need that opportunity.”