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Magical summers in Saranac Lake

We only need one person to believe in us, only one … and anything is possible.

In the early summer of 1991, I was a college grad waiting tables in a New York City cafe. In a twist of fate that changed the course of my life, I answered an ad in the New York Times help-wanted section. The ad was posted by grandparents looking for a camp counselor for their grandchildren. The position would last one month in the summer at their upstate New York, Adirondack lake cottage at a place called Knollwood in Saranac Lake. Technically it was at an old Adirondack “camp,” as I would find out later when I learned about the history of the camps located around Saranac Lake and Lake Placid.

The couple hiring a “camp counselor” was Ellen Sulzberger Straus (founder of the nation’s first help line, called “Call for Action”) and her husband Peter. At the time, I was a relatively recent New York City transplant from California. As a California girl, I had never heard of the Adirondacks. I wanted the job anyway. I bluffed my way through the interview, saying yes, of course that I could canoe, play tennis and hike. Of course, what I really meant was that I was certain that I could figure it out. How tough could canoeing be?

Ellen asked me many questions during the interview. I answered every single one with excitement and with “camp counselor” enthusiasm. Later that evening, I prayed that I would be hired. It was a few days before I would receive a call, and as luck would have it, I was hired. I would have just three days to pack my bags and head off for a month in a minivan full of strangers.

In that leap of faith that Ellen gave to me by giving be a chance, I began to grow tremendously. Saranac Lake is a place of wonder. The lake (Lower Saranac) is gorgeous and surrounded by unspoiled forest and mountains. After a hike, the routine was to go to the local ice cream shop, Donnelly’s, that features only one flavor a day. There was always a long line and an ice cream mound or two on the ground from a child or adult who lost the balance of their soft ice cream cone and it toppled to the ground. I especially loved boating out to one of the many Saranac islands for a barbecue picnic. The kids would make up skits, swim and run around the island and play. I learned to enjoy the simple pleasures in life, especially the importance of family (as I watched this pack of cousins spend half their summer together). I did learn to canoe (it wasn’t that hard) and fell in love with hiking. I especially loved being so tired halfway up a peak, listening to the kids complain that they’d never make it. I secretly felt the same way, but I never let them know it! We always made it, and we always went to Donnelly’s for an ice cream cone afterward, or sometimes we’d make our way over to Mountain Mist to enjoy a cone on the lake and watch the ducks. Somehow an ice cream cone made it all worth it.

At some point during the summer, I discovered that Ellen had cancer. She wanted to be sure that the kids had a great summer and didn’t focus on the fact that she was sick. She accomplished that goal.

She saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself yet. She saw potential, and to ensure I would be the family’s “camp counselor” every summer, she had her husband hire me in their New York City office as an office manager. I worked for the family for the next four years and went with them to Saranac Lake for five summers in total. I became an avid hiker, and her grandchildren and I hiked many of the High Peaks, including Mount Marcy. I led the kids each summer on hikes, doing crafts, Santa’s Workshop day trips, endless hours of swimming, making up songs and canoeing to the Sisters Islands.

Ellen’s cancer progressively worsened, and each summer she became sicker until she passed away after my fourth summer working for the family. She believed in helping others, in creating magical summers for her grandchildren, and she believed in me. I sure hope that I did help create some magic for her grandchildren during a difficult time in their lives, while losing an amazing grandmother.

I have since moved on from my camp counselor days, earned a master’s degree in social work and have worked in private practice, counseling individuals and families. Once I had my first child, 14 years ago, I made a vow to raise my kids with the same magic of Saranac Lake. Every summer for the past 14 years, I have brought my three children to Saranac Lake to canoe, hike and bask in the fresh air – and, of course, to have the best ice cream cones ever. I now live back in California, and thanks to Ellen giving me a chance to discover a true Adirondack camp counselor inside of me, I have founded my own day camp called Camp Conejo in Thousand Oaks, California, which serves 300 girls and boys. I inspire youth to be their best and to have fun – much like how Ellen inspired me. It only takes one person to believe in you, and then it’s truly up to you to take the reins and to believe in yourself.

Denise Sheaks Burke lives in Thousand Oaks, California.