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Generations Of Fun
Jonathon Koenigsberg Special to the Jewish News
Willoway Day Camp to celebrate 50 summers.
As the blossoms bloom, the weather warms and the kids count down the days, the staff of Willoway Day Camp are hard at work, making the pools clearer, the crafts craftier and the bug juice tastier than ever.
And this summer, campers might expect a little something extra. The Milford-based camp is celebrating its 50th season, set to begin with a “50th Rockin’ Summer Kickoff” on Saturday, June 9.
Founded in 1969 by Lorraine and Arnie Fisher of West Bloomfield and Rita and Mel Seidman of Farmington Hills (the Seidmans retired in 1987), Willoway prides itself on offering non-competitive summer fun for campers ages 5-14.
“When we first started Willoway, we did so with the belief that children thrive in a fun, unforced, non-competitive environment,” said Arnie Fisher, a longtime Detroit Public Schools educator and 1948 graduate of Detroit Central High School. “While much has changed over our first 50 years, we have always remained true to this vision.”
For 35 years, Willoway operated in Wixom at the corner of 12 Mile and Beck roads. There, the first generation of Willoway campers explored nature, learned to swim and ate a few thousand “Arnie Burgers” — all while building lifelong friendships. Along the way, some even met their future spouses and, later, sent the next generation of kids to camp.
“Willoway has played a special part in my family’s life from going there as a child myself to working there during college and now sending my children there,” said Nanci Fearon of Birmingham. “I made some lifelong friends and met my husband, who was one of Willoway’s international counselors from Manchester, England. Today, we keep in contact with many of those we worked with almost 20 years ago.”
In 2004, highway improvements to the I-96/Beck Road interchange meant the Fishers faced a choice: close the camp or find a new location. For Arnie, it was a no-brainer. “Our first 35 years were terrific,” he said. “We found a 16-acre horse farm in Milford, thought about how we could transform it into a summer camp, and decided it could be an incredible place to spend a summer. And we’re 15 more summers in.”
Today’s generation of campers arrives each day, on Willoway buses and vans, to the present location on Old Plank Road in Milford.
“All three of my kids have enjoyed wonderful summers at Willoway,” said Emily Shwedel Levin of Birmingham. “My daughter never missed a Willoway Thursday overnight, and she really gained a ton of self-confidence to try new activities beyond her comfort zone. My sons learned how to swim proficiently at Willoway. It’s clear they really care about our kids from the second they step on the bus each day.”
In the run up to Willoway’s 50th summer kick-off, Lorraine Fisher, a 1954 Mumford High School graduate, said, “We really think of Willoway as a family business first. We are always available to help with parent questions and concerns, and we are so proud when current campers and former campers from decades ago stop us and say what a wonderful experience they had a Willoway.
“Reflecting on the impact we have been able to make — whether building campers’ self-confidence or helping them to water ski or fish for the first time, we know that these are experiences for a lifetime.”
Matt Lester of Bloomfield Hills said, “Willoway is an iconic name for those of us who grew up as summer campers and counselors. [It] has always been regarded as best-in-class in terms of a camping experience for children.
“So many of the great camps in Michigan and beyond studied Arnie and Lorraine’s style and sought to copy it. There are not many camps left like Willoway. In a hectic, sometimes crazy world, it is so reassuring to know there is still Willoway — a magical day camp for kids run by the most loving and capable people in the camping world.”
It’s a family business in another, more obvious way, too. Lorraine and Arnie’s children, Bruce Fisher, Carol Vieder and Jay Fisher, are all deeply involved. And, each of their eight grandchildren are either past or current campers and counselors.
This summer, more than 600 children, ages 5 to 14, will participate in camp sessions from June 18-Aug. 17. Activities include swimming, fishing and paddle-boating, waterskiing and lake sports at a nearby lake, nature, cheerleading, gymnastics, go-karts, miniature golf, crafts, ceramics, tennis and more. New this summer is an expanded ropes and ninja challenge-style obstacle course.
The 50th summer begins with a kickoff party from 11:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m. Saturday, June 9, at the camp.
“It’s going to be a great day for new and returning campers to swim, enjoy lunch, games and all that Willoway has to offer,” said associate director Jason Rosen of Farmington Hills, who is marking his 41st summer at the camp. “I hope alumni campers and staff will stop by for an Arnie Burger or just to enjoy the day.”
Arnie added, “I’m excited. I don’t know if I thought in 1969 that we would eventually celebrate 50 years. And I hope that together with our team of directors and staff, we’ll have 50 more summers of wonderful experiences.”
For details about Willoway Day Camp or its summer kickoff party, visit willowaydaycamp.com or call (248) 932-2123. Jonathon Koenigsberg of West Bloomfield is an associate camp director; his involvement began as a camper in 1981.