‘I can’t tell you how great it is’

Clark summer day camp has grown to 1,200 campers, so there’s no shortage of fun

CLARK, NJ — Inside the Clark Recreation Department’s auditorium on Wednesday, Aug. 12, Captain Jack Sparrow was performing to the delight of nearly 100 kids with a thick pirate’s drawl in his voice for “The Pirate Empire Show.”

Outside the building, more children were throwing their hands in their air while riding go carts, an attraction that had dozens of kids lining up. Meanwhile, others were hustling out on the field, playing a half-field game of soccer — like always.

During its six-week running time, the Clark Summer Recreation Day Camp sometimes resembled a theme park because of its many attractions and bustling atmosphere, camp counselors said. In the last week, dubbed “Carnival Week,” actual rides were brought in for the kids.

And for Ralph Bernardo, the Clark Recreation Director who’s in charge of the longtime summertime tradition, that’s all part of the plan.

“We really do love what we do — the sound of kids laughing, having fun,” said Bernardo, who injected new life into the program 10 years ago. “It’s incredible how much, through the years, support has grown. I can’t tell you how great it is. And I can tell you how many outside towns call to attend, and I just can’t take them. It’s just for Clark. When you put this into perspective, we have 1,200 kids who signed up and 600 here today. The two grammar schools have 450 children a day in school. So right there, I’m tapping out the grammar schools.”

The program, which this summer ran four days a week from Monday, July 6, through Thursday, Aug. 13, typically had at least 600 kids show up each morning — excluding the summer’s lone rain day, when they only had 300 arrivals — and virtually every kid in Clark wants to attend, said event organizers. The kids, aged pre-K through ninth grade, like it for the attractions, for the “Water Days,” for the sense of community and much more, they said.

“They keep you going on your tippy toes, and there’s a lot of activities. They have exercises sometimes, and it keeps your body healthy,” said Ashley Jimenez, who attends the camp every year. “It doesn’t keep you laying on the couch, on the couch you’re not doing anything. It’s a lot of fun, and we play a lot of soccer, too, that’s probably the most popular thing we have here.”

“Carnival Week” was just one of the camp’s six themes, which also included “Kids vs. Counselors Week” and “Beach Week,” and the variety of activities fit the variety of themes. Over its six weeks, the camp featured pony cart rides, giant water slides and dance, art and ceramics classes, camp counselors said.

They try to have something for everybody, according to Bernardo, from the pre-K students up to the kids entering high school.

“I get to see a lot of my friends during the summer that I really don’t get to see a lot, who also go to camp. The younger kids like the rides more,” said David, a seventh-grader at the camp. “We like to play sports and sit down and talk. And we really like the water games.”

Those kinds of activities, said senior counselor Toni Manto, have been a staple in the program ever since Bernardo came in 10 years ago. At that point, Bernardo said, Clark kids didn’t want to attend — his own kids used to beg him to stay home, said Bernardo — but over the years, the increase in participation has exploded.

In 2006, added Bernardo, 664 kids were registered with the camp. In 2011, they hit the 1,000 kid milestone for the first time, and this year featured nearly 1,200 registered participants. They also have more counselors than ever before, said Bernardo, with 140 of them this year, and that helps everything operate smoothly. That kind of momentum, said Manto, has been built through the schools and word of mouth, and it’s because of the quality of the camp.

“This year we extended it to ninth graders, that’s how popular it’s been. The eighth graders who were going into ninth grade were so disappointed that it was their last year, so we extended it. They love it, and they get to socialize,” said Manto. “They enjoy being here every day. The hugs I get in the morning, from the kids, just make me smile. It’s terrific.”

It’s all possible, said Bernardo, because of donations and the money collected from registration, which costs $35 for the six weeks. And the end result is something that makes the entire community a better place, organizers said.

“Probably about 85 to 95 percent of these kids are from the Clark area,” said Dom Preite, a softball and basketball coach with the Clark Recreation Department. “Everybody just knows everybody, everybody likes everybody. It’s like a big community.”