Powerful Community Partners at Heart

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All youth deserve to experience the power of self-discovery and personal growth American Youth Foundation outdoor education programs provide. The strong relationships formed between the AYF and its Community and School Program partners expands this access to hundreds of young participants each year.

Merrowvista and Miniwanca work with other mission-driven organizations and area schools to create collaborative programs that fulfill the partner organizations’ needs and incorporate the values of the AYF. Community and School Programs take full advantage of the sites’ many assets, including talented staff, youth-focused facilities, and programmatic elements.

One such successful partnership between Merrowvista and Camp Meridian has flourished for nearly 20 years. Founded by pediatric cardiologist Dr. Naomi Gauthier, Camp Meridian is a three-day weekend program for children with heart conditions that prohibit them from participating in more traditional camps.

The program is free for youth to attend and staffed with doctors, nurses, and medical staff to ensure the campers’ safety while they participate in activities designed with them in mind.

“To see the kids flourish outside of the hospital and outside of the clinic is really rewarding,” said Leigh Hardiman, Camp Meridian Executive Director. “We encourage the whole idea behind why Dr. Gauthier founded this organization, which was that these campers are so much more than a heart condition and capable of doing more than they think they can.”

Merrowvista Client Relations Manager Jamie O’Hagin said Merrowvista staff advise on programmatic elements, such as scheduling and activities (think climbing walls and ropes courses), and provide paid and volunteer staff who bring energy, joy, and playfulness to the weekend.

“We call ourselves Camp Meridian staff that weekend because we try to keep it immersive — and so the kids themselves might not even know that there’s a difference in staff,” she said.

Meanwhile, Camp Meridian puts together the program, builds relationships with campers, and brings the mystery.

“In previous years, there is this mystery storyline the campers get to follow, and every activity they do provides clues,” O’Hagin said. “The campers and staff got really into it, and it created this awesome sense of wonder and joy.”

Gauthier founded Camp Meridian in 2002 with other medical professionals and Astrid Wielens, Merrowvista Director of Programs at the time.

“Gauthier just has an amazing mind for creating magic,” O’Hagin said. “Joy is one of the great outcomes of this program. All the kids are so excited about everything, and they just want to have a fun weekend where they can be kids and not have to think about all the things that can be pretty worrying in their life.”

The camp, which took place in-person this October for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic, offers tailored programs for three age groups: youths ages 8 to 12, teens 13 to 15, and older teens (called Navigators) ages 16 to 17. Hardiman said Camp Meridian created the two older groups when the original campers aged out of the program but wanted to continue attending.

“In 2008, we got some very kind funding to start a teen program because some of the kids just didn’t want it to end,” she said.

While partnership with Merrowvista provides a beautiful landscape and quality facilities, Hardiman said the staff makes the program so special.

“The staff there year after year is phenomenal,” Hardiman said. “I don’t know where they find everyone. Everyone has hearts of gold, is in it for the right reasons, and definitely wants to watch the campers grow and experience new things and challenge themselves, which is huge. And we’re able to provide some medical supervision so that nobody’s worried.”

The camp is funded solely through fundraising by and donations made to the Wentworth-Douglass Hospital and Health Foundation.

Hardiman said the program “fosters a lifelong bond and connection that they’re not going to make with everyone else.

Camp Meridian has found a similar bond with Merrowvista, as staff and volunteers from both organizations plan what can be a camper’s first overnight experience away from home.

“Camp Meridian has been lovingly held through a lot of different hands at Merrowvista,” O’Hagin said. “Looking back, there were many people who passed the torch along. It’s such a neat program, and I feel like we’re really lucky to get the chance to work with these folks.”

Hardiman said working with the AYF has been an amazing experience. “I love everyone I’ve worked with at Merrowvista and have just been continually impressed by the quality of people and the experiences they provide,” she said.

For more information about Merrowvista Community & School Programs, email Director of Community and School Programs Dayna Vuksinick at [email protected].

For more information about Miniwanca Community & School Programs, email Conferences, Community, and School Programs Director Michael Harter at [email protected].