Interview - Karen Tarnow, Board President

President of the Hands in 4 Youth Board, Karen Tarnow, visited Camp Vacamas this week and sat down for an interview where she provided an update on the agency, her hopes for the coming years and even revealed her favorite camp song!

What strikes me is the real camaraderie and the magic that counselors, former campers and staff all feel towards the place.

When asked about the progress the agency has made over the past few years, Karen told us, "Camp Vacamas/Hands in 4 Youth have run excellent programs for decades. We're proud of the fact that we maintained that excellence in our programs even after Mike and Sandi Friedman retired after 33 years. It's always a challenge for an organization to find itself again after such a long term."

"In the last 5 to 6 years, we've really upgraded and improved our facilities. It makes a big difference for camp families coming in to view it, donors who come by to see what we do and also for our conference groups who decide to come here and spend their money to support our mission."

Safe but appealing facilities are important and we’ve made a big difference in that.

As those who have supported the agency for many years will know, the Camp Vacamas motto has been 'Making memories, changing lives' and while we all believe that to be true, until very recently, it was difficult for the agency to provide tangible proof that would back that up. As a result, Hands in 4 Youth has been working with Algorhythm who are a company who support non-profits in showing the impact camp has on the children through the use of pre and post-camp surveys. 

"Another thing that was really important to the board, we've begun metrics outcome assessments of our camp programs. This allows us to judge whether the children have shown signs of improvement and whether camp has been a good experience for them. 

We’ve been thrilled that 87% of our campers who have come through the programs made gains in areas of youth development. We know that something magic happens here and are happy that it’s measurable

Another topic that Karen spoke about was the dam at Camp Vacamas. It was widely reported in late 2016 that the Camp Vacamas grounds in West Milford were to be closed as a result of an expense of over $1million to repair the dam on Lake Larriwien. As a result of significant fundraising by the Hands in 4 Youth board, the decision was reversed and camp remained open through what was one of the most turbulent periods in the organization's 94 year history.

With the dam now being scheduled for repair in September 2018, Karen told us how this was achieved. "As most people know, the dam mandate from the state of New Jersey that threatened our ability to remain on this property was a very scary and almost insurmountable problem."

It was most important, and our preference was that we stay here (Camp Vacamas) and not have to move.

"It took a lot of very hard work by dedicated and generous board members to find the solutions. I'll name a couple, Steve Schneider who is our Board Treasurer, combed through every financial transaction of the last several years looking for ways to run the operation in a more cost effective way. Other board members opened their check books and they pounded the pavement to find new donors to help turn the agency around so that we could consider funding that million dollar dam."

"Lee Bell, our Executive Director, has been terrific in re-imagining new staffing roles at camp that will ensure the safety of our campers, the fun that they have but also be more cost-efficient. So it's been a real group effort to continue our function here in West Milford but we're thrilled that we can."

As Karen mentioned, some of the new funding sources have been critical to the continuation of the organization's programs at Camp Vacamas. Howard Schultz, the Chairman of Starbucks has supported Hands in 4 Youth through his family foundation with some significant and very generous donations. In addition, DP World have supported us with large grants each year which everyone at Hands in 4 Youth are extremely thankful for. Also, Ralph Lauren and the Polo Foundation have supported over the last several years. 

Mike Labadorf has supported us for many years and brought in a huge donation that helped us with the dam cost.

With Karen being a part of Camp Vacamas now for many years, we wanted to know if there were any particular stories or memories that stood out for her. 

"One woman who came to camp many years ago wrote a letter about 20 or 30 years after her time here saying that for the first time in her life, when she was here at camp, she didn't feel hungry. She had enough to eat and that she had her own toothbrush. All those little things that families and children take for granted that some children don't have. It gives me goosebumps to think about that one." 

When you hear those stories from people whose lives were significantly changed because of what we do, you can’t help but love the place.

We couldn't let Karen leave Vacamas without revealing her favorite camp song and she duly obliged! "Peanut butter, Reece's Cups - mess with me, I'll kick your butt!"


Thank You Karen!