Rare Joys for Campers in Springs

Community chips in to give foster children memorable week with their siblings
Shiaasia, left, and Precious live together in a foster home in Queens. For 10 days in July they attend Camp Erutan in Springs, with other children in foster care. Judy D’Mello

What happens when six children from New York City’s foster care system arrive in the Hamptons in mid-July for 10 days? A community shows such generosity, it combats the usual stereotypes associated with the summer landscape of mega money, moguls, and mansions.

The children came, as they do each year, to attend Camp Erutan (nature backward), founded by Lisa Tanzman, a California native, as a way for inner city foster children to spend time in the outdoors participating in activities to help heal and mend. Ms. Tanzman’s mantra is that one positive action can make a difference in a life, and her goal, whenever possible, is to reunite siblings often separated by the foster care system.

Zamian, 13, and his sister, Precious, 10, are two of them. He is guarded; she is a live wire. The siblings, who have attended the camp for four years, were separated eight years ago when they were placed in foster homes in Queens. Zamian was labeled “difficult” and moved four times. Ms. Tanzman said that the boy has already been told he will be moving again after camp. Scheduled visits between siblings do not happen as regularly as they should, she explained, and when they do, it is usually for just an hour.

Last Tuesday, while campers did art projects on picnic tables and benches provided by the East Hampton Town Parks and Recreation Department, Zamian and Precious were huddled together on a canvas spread over the grass, comparing their work. At dinner,  a few days later, everyone cited something they were grateful for. “I’m thankful for Zamian being here,” announced Precious.

This is Camp Erutan’s 30th anniversary and for 24 years the campsite has been on a spectacular bluff overlooking Gardiner’s Bay, courtesy of Mary Ryan, who owns the land. Once the site of a  girls’ camp, the 18-plus acres are now protected by the Ryan family under an agricultural easement with the Peconic Land Trust. Scott Chaskey of the trust’s Quail Hill Farm in Amagansett grows vegetables in one corner, Paul Hamilton of Fireplace Farm has a plot in another. Both farmers allow the children to harvest for the camp’s mostly vegetarian dinners.

“For 10 days, these kids are in a magical place where their wants come first,” said Ms. Tanzman. “That’s not something they’re used to.” When Camp Erutan first started, she invited social services employees to participate, hopeful that they would witness acts of kindness and incorporate them into the system. Instead, she said, they were simply unable to deal with children being given choices and encouraged to express themselves.

Ms. Tanzman, who lives near Hearst Castle in California, owns a merchandising company that produces “anything with a logo on it” for Broadway shows and sports and corporate events, and her success in that business allows her to be philanthropic. At the start of camp, each attendee is given a backpack stuffed with journals, pens, water bottles, T-shirts, a laundry bag, and even a “Good Vibrations” beach towel from the failed Broadway show.

“It’s like Christmas in July,” said Christina Victorio, who first attended the camp as an 8-year-old after her father was murdered and she was referred to Ms. Tanzman through Safe Horizons, a nationwide victims’ assistance organization. Today, Ms. Victorio is 23 and volunteers as a Camp Erutan counselor. 

Kindness is tangible on the South Fork, Ms. Tanzman believes, as “angels” seem to always appear out of nowhere. Goldberg’s Bagels, for instance, gives the camp bagels and cream cheese for breakfasts. East Hampton Town donated a beach permit for the group’s bus, allowing it to park at local beaches. Second Nature, the health food store in East Hampton, donated supplies. Lynda Stokes, an East Hampton resident, invited campers to her house for a swim followed by a lunch of fried chicken and cake. East End Stables provided horseback riding and taught the youngsters how to care for the horses. A neighbor of the Ryans has made a macaroni and cheese dinner a beloved annual tradition, and Quail Hill puts on a lunch for campers at its orchard in Amagansett.

Then, there’s the anonymous angel this year who paid for swimming lessons for the campers, arranged for a dance class with Olivia Bowman-Jackson — an ex-principal with Alvin Ailey — paddle boarding lessons, and a dinner for the entire camp at the Palm restaurant in East Hampton. So that the campers would look their smartest when they dined at the Palm, Ms. Tanzman drove the group to T.J. Maxx in Bridgehampton to buy new clothes. Many of them have never even eaten in a restaurant before.

Amy and Anteus (“people call me Ant”) are 10-year-old twins. Amy is exceptionally articulate and last year she was crowned Master Negotiator at camp. When told that she is smart, she replied, “We don’t have a choice; we have to be.” Together with their 13-year-old sister, Athina, the twins have attended Camp Erutan for the last five years. Anteus spends much of his time with Zamian, the only other boy his age. They wanted to play basketball so Ms. Tanzman ordered a portable basketball hoop and set it up for the boys. While Zamian remained evasive, Anteus tried desperately to counter any negatives with a nervous optimism and a 1,000-watt smile.

“Dinner is vegetarian chili tonight,” announced Ms. Tanzman one evening.

“Why does it have to be vegetarian,” moaned Zamian.

“Because it’s a nature camp,” whispered Anteus to his friend. “It’ll be good.”

Shiaasia is 15 and lives in a foster home with Precious in Queens. This is her third summer at Camp Erutan and she seems to act as a big sister to the often rambunctious Precious. Shiaasia had a breakthrough last week: She overcame her fear of swimming in the bay. Thanks to her swim lessons, she learned to tread water and that made her proud.

Since 1999, Ms. Tanzman has been assisted by Karen Huurman, a special education science teacher from Brooklyn. Ms. Huurman’s 15-year-old adopted daughter, Izzi, has accompanied her to Camp Erutan for the last 12 years. On the night when everyone was giving thanks for something, Izzi said, “I’m grateful for the kindness of people in the Hamptons. Especially the ones who let us into their home so we could do our laundry.”

Today, after packing up their tents and leaving the bluff spotless, the children will board a train in Amagansett and head back to the city. Leaving, said Amy, is the hardest part of Camp Erutan. “But that’s okay,” she added, “I’ll be back next year, and the next year, and the next year, and so on and so forth.”