At 8:30 a.m. on a Friday morning in Torrington, a group of counselors in lime green shirts gathered around the flag pole at Camp MOE for a quick game of WAH.
It was the last day of camp for the season — they were waiting for director Katherine Marchand-Beyer to make the morning announcements before children arrive.
“This is the last time I’ll say this to you guys,” Marchand-Beyer said. “It means so much to our campers to have your attention today. They love you dearly, they are attached to you, you are their heroes, they aren’t going to forget you.
“So please, give your attention to the kids, listen to them, talk to them about the excitement of what’s next,” she said. “We want to make sure they love Camp MOE, but now we have to instill excitement about what the next thing is going to be.”
For the kids and counselors, many of whom are teachers, that next thing might be school, sports, other programs or jobs. But for Marchand-Beyer, it’s her last summer as director — she’s retiring after 45 years with the camp and The Arc of Litchfield County, or LARC. She hasn’t fully processed it yet
“I have sobbing, sobbing, sobbing times,” she said. “I said to the staff this morning, don’t let the kids come and hug me too much, cause I can’t take it. And they said, well, good luck, Katherine.”
Marchand-Beyer pushed to create a day camp called Camp LARC for children with intellectual and developmental disabilities in the early 1970s, a time when schools had few, if any, services for kids with special needs and parents were left with few options outside of institutions.
And eight years ago, the camp opened its doors to children without disabilities, to become one of the first independent reverse-integrated summer camps in New England -- despite some push back from parents of typical children.
“Parents back then didn’t want their children exposed, whether they thought it was contagious or that it was going to be derogatory toward their child, but boy, we didn’t give up,” Marchand-Beyer said. “We’re going, ‘no, no, we’re doing this and we’re going to keep doing it.’”
The camp was renamed after a 12-year-old camper named Emil “Moe” Renzullo, who died in 2010.
Today, about 30 percent of campers have special needs while 70 percent do not. Interest in attending the camp has increased over the years — this summer, Marchand-Beyer said they even had a waitlist.
At around 9 a.m., she stood on a gravel road, donning the lime green shirt for staff members with a white Camp MOE baseball cap on her head. Yellow buses carrying campers started to pull in, and, like always, Marchand-Beyer hopped on each bus that came through to greet the kids.
“Katherine, Katherine, Katherine, Katherine,” campers chanted the second they saw Marchand-Beyer.
“I’m telling you, this is the best place on the Earth,” she said, waiting for the next bus. “It’s just magical out here.”
Marchand-Beyer has been going non-stop, from directing the camp to leading other LARC programs and community services while raising two children of her own. She said retirement may take a little adjusting.
“My husband said, can we go away for vacation that’s longer than 48 hours? Because that’s all we’ve ever done in I don’t know how many years, that’s the longest I would go. I said, yeah, let’s try three days,” she laughed.
Michael Menard, executive director at LARC, said it’ll be no small feat finding Marchand-Beyer’s replacement, but he’s excited to continue her legacy.
“You have to hold on to the great stuff and assure folks that there’ll be enough continuity so the experience they’ve loved all these years is still in place and still what they expect it to be,” he said, “but then figure out how to take it to the next place.”
Menard said LARC hopes to open the campgrounds to the community for use in the off-season and deliver more services to people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, which he sees as especially important.
“Increasingly the pressure—national pressure—is on organizations like LARC and all of our colleagues to provide those services in the most integrated setting possible,” he said, “because all folks want to matter, they want to be part of the world, they want the same experiences as their typical colleagues.”
Chris O’Heron sees this as an ending to a chapter at Camp MOE, where he’s worked as a summer counselor for the last eight years.
“Throughout camp, kids change, staff changes, but at the top, it’s all the same,” he said. “We’ve developed a great reputation and like I said before, that’s Katherine. This all started with Katherine. It starts from the top and she works really hard at it.”
Marchand-Beyer had a long day ahead of her on the last day of camp. She kept up a smiling face around the kids.
“It’s sad that this is the last day for the rest of the year,” said one camper on his way to get some water.
“Isn’t it sad? But you know what? We start the count down till next year,” Marchand-Beyer told him.
What she’s most proud of is the larger message that Camp MOE sends to people.
“We don’t see people looking differently, I mean, everybody plays. They play together, they eat together, they sing together,” she said. “We’re all part of a family, and everyone here is different. Every child has a challenge. Every staff member, all of us, have challenges, and we accept them and we go for the strengths.”
Next summer will be hard, Marchand-Beyer said, as she choked back tears. She has tentative plans to stay out of Connecticut at that time, but hopes by the following year, she’ll be asking to volunteer.
“When you’ve done something your whole life and it means so much to you, the best thing is to go away and cheer the next person on and that’s what I will do,” she said. “No matter where I am, I will be cheering this program on.”
Marchand-Beyer’s last official day with Camp MOE and LARC is Sept. 15.