STONEHAM — The answer to the question “Where are you from?” isn’t as easy as it sounds for Cavan Eccleston.

“I wasn’t really in one home a lot,” explained Cavan, who has a tough time keeping track of all the foster placements that have punctuated his 17 years. “So when I came to camp, it really helped me to adjust to where I was going next.”

He’s talking about Camp Susan Curtis, nestled here alongside picturesque Trout Lake on the edge of the White Mountain National Forest, where Cavan has spent a chunk of every summer since he was a wide-eyed 7-year-old who could barely swim.

These days, Cavan’s a counselor and a certified lifeguard. And the more he thought about it Friday morning, the more the answer to that hard-to-answer question came into focus.

“This is my home,” he finally said with a smile.

It’s been 40 years since then-Gov. Ken Curtis and his wife, Pauline, lost their 11-year-old daughter, Susan, to cystic fibrosis. Not long afterward, several close friends, including a number of the governor’s top fundraisers, approached Curtis and proposed starting a nonprofit foundation to receive the donations many wanted to make in Susan’s memory.


“We spent a year trying to figure out what we could get into that wasn’t already being done,” recalled Curtis, now 80, from his home in Florida last week. “And it turned out there were a lot of economically disadvantaged children in Maine, so we thought we could do something to give them a little start they weren’t getting otherwise.”

The 100-acre camp opened in 1974; and 7,000-plus kids later, its mission is as timely as ever.

“It’s more than just the traditional ‘come to camp and have a good time,'” Camp Director Terri Mulks said during a morning-long tour. “These kids are leaving with actual life skills.”

Here’s the best part: It’s all free.

That’s right. Since the day it first opened, Camp Susan Curtis’ annual operating budget — now about $500,000 — is funded entirely though donations from citizens and corporations (L.L. Bean, Poland Spring and SW&B Construction of Auburn, to name a few) who consider a couple of weeks in the woods for Maine’s less privileged kids money very well spent.

The criteria are simple: If boys or girls from third grade on up qualify for the federally subsidized National School Lunch Program, they’re eligible for nomination by a teacher, guidance counselor or social service provider to attend one of four two-week sessions held each summer.


If they’ve been here before and want to come back — and some 60 percent have — they’re welcomed with open arms.

If they want to stay through their teens and learn how to help run the place, well, Cavan Eccleston is one of many on the current staff of 50 who have been there and are now doing that.

The statistics tell the story. In a typical summer, two-thirds of the campers come from single-parent households. More than a third are undergoing counseling — including a dozen or so who have been diagnosed with depression. Almost one in 10 are in foster care. About the same number have a parent with a disability.

Against that often-grim social backdrop, 542 kids this summer will spend 13 idyllic days canoeing, swimming, putting on plays, cooking, making jewelry, hiking, fishing, mastering the ropes course, competing in various sports — all in a state-of-the-art facility that rivals any in Maine.

They’ll also learn about things such as financial literacy, personal responsibility, teamwork and, above all, how to respect those around them.

Brandon Hammond, 8, of Lewiston still remembers the day last spring when his teacher asked who might be interested in going to the camp.


“I raised my hand really, really, really fast,” Brandon recalled. “Because I’d never been to summer camp.”

Now here he was, sculpting a tiny clay dove in the arts-and-crafts building and noting that after one week, every kid in his cabin is “pretty much my friend.”

“It’s been wicked fun,” Brandon confided.

Myla Kinsey, 12, lives with her grandmother in South Portland and came because she’d otherwise “just be sitting around doing nothing … and my aunt wants me to be energetic.”

As she spoke, Myla expertly crafted a key chain out of gimp. Later, she’d be off to knitting class “to make my little newborn sister some shoves … or gloves … or something,” followed by an overnight campout in the woods with the 10 other girls in her cabin.

“It teaches you about respect, getting a lot of exercise, teamwork and making new friends,” Myla said.


The day begins at 7:45 a.m. with “password,” a theme the kids are challenged to emulate throughout the day. Friday’s was “helping other people.”

Three meals, five activity periods and various other gatherings later — including “password revisited” to highlight success stories and lessons learned — it’s lights out at 9:30 p.m.

From a distance, it might look like any of the dozens of other Maine camps that each summer attract the children of the well-heeled from all over the world.

But underlying Camp Susan Curtis is a painful irony: The tougher the economic times, the longer its waiting list. At the same time, it gets harder to raise the much-needed money to keep the place afloat.

“I’ll make no bones about it. We’re struggling,” Executive Director Melissa Cilley said. “But this is a mission that still needs to be done. The need has not wavered in 40 years.”

Want to help? Go to the camp’s website ( and click on “wish list.” In addition to your time and money, they can use everything from stuffed animals and board games to pre-stretched canvas for an adolescent arts program the camp launched in 2007 at a facility on nearby Kezar Lake.


Former Gov. Curtis, while no longer as active in the camp’s operations as he was back in the day, said he and his wife are thrilled at how “it’s taken on a life of its own,” and that it still carries the name of their daughter — about whom every camper learns during each session’s opening campfire.

“It’s the greatest gift they could give us — to have Susan’s name still associated with it,” Curtis said.

More than a week ago, at the end of the first session, campers were asked to jot down a few words about their experience before heading home to lives that aren’t getting any easier.

“Thank you for making me feel safe,” one child wrote anonymously.

“I wake up every single morning here with a smile on my face,” exulted a girl named Cameryn.

Then there’s young Morgan, who in one sentence captured what this place is all about — from the governor and first lady who lost their little girl to the kids who, four decades later, still embrace two weeks of heaven on Earth in her name.

“I learned that even if you start with something bad,” Morgan observed, “it can turn into something good.”

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