Some youngsters are natural chatterboxes.
Others tend to be reticent, including some with special needs who attend YMCA of Greater Pittsburgh’s Camp AIM.
“Maybe throughout camp time, they only speak a few words to their counselor,” director of music Stephen Santa said. “But then they can get onstage and they can take a microphone and sing a whole song. So sometimes the music can really bring personalities to the forefront.”
The Bethel Park native is among the core of loyal staff members – this is his 18th summer with Camp AIM, starting when he was a teenage counselor – who serve children and young adults who have physical, cognitive, emotional, social and communication challenges.
“The whole goal of the music program at camp is to create a warm, welcoming environment where kids can explore and learn through music,” Santa said.
For Camp AIM administrator Paulette Colonna, the music component fits right in with one of the camp’s primary goals.
“Communication is a big thing of what we do here: how do you communicate appropriately, how do you maintain your self-control when you get angry or when you hear the word ‘no,’” she said.
She has been on board with the camp since 1977, nine years after its founding.
At that point, the YMCA’s South Hills location was on McMurray Road in Upper St. Clair, and the camp took place at Pathfinder School in Bethel Park. Subsequent locations have included St. Thomas More and St. Louise de Marillac churches, Carlynton High School and, for the past two years, Carnegie Elementary School.
Colonna, who lives in Carnegie, was a special education teacher with Pittsburgh Public Schools.
“I wanted something to do in the summer that was still associated with children, but different from school,” she said.
Colonna answered a newspaper advertisement about working as a Camp AIM counselor and the rest is history.
She returned for subsequent summers, taking on other duties until becoming administrator in the mid-1980s.
“As far as the on-site, bottom-line responsible person, that has been me, for quite a while,” she said.
Between 120 and 150 campers from 17 school districts attend each year for three, two-week sessions with programming that includes art, swimming and life skills for living, in addition to music.
Along with crediting Mike Lloyd, YMCA executive director of development, for his substantial support, Colonna is proud to note many staff members return year after year, or even decade after decade.
For example, camp director Tom DiPietro, another retired Pittsburgh Public Schools teacher who lives in Carnegie, has about 40 years with Camp AIM.
“I started here as the nurse. Yeah, I did,” he said to some surprised colleagues. “I was the nurse for the first three years, and then I just moved up the ladder as the ladder opened up.”
He brought his daughter, Noelle, to camp as a counselor when she was 15, and seven years later, she is responsible for compiling information about campers who require extended school years as part of individualized education programs through their home school districts.
“I’ve made so many friendships working here, in high school and in college,” she said. “We all stay in touch.”
Working with the camp also got her interested in special education. She is pursuing a master’s degree in applied behavioral analysis at the University of Pittsburgh.
Another Camp AIM staff member whose parent brought him in is Chris Colonna, Paulette’s son and a Carlynton teacher.
“It provides a great experience for our kids,” he said. “For a lot of them, it’s the highlight of their summer. Some of them have been coming here for 10-plus years, so you kind of get to watch them grow up every summer, which is pretty cool.”
Staff members with 20-plus years at the camp include North Allegheny School District employees Tracy Herron, a paraprofessional, and Megan Kelley, who teaches at Marshall Middle School.
“It’s the love for the kids and wanting them to have an awesome summer and great experience,” Herron said about continuing with Camp AIM.
Kelley echoed her sentiments.
“This camp can kind of meet all kids’ needs, so it really makes a difference in their lives every summer,” she said.
Samantha Coulter, a learning support teacher in Quaker Valley School District, is an 11-year camp veteran and serves as director of registration and billing.
“I learn more working at camp than I did going through college for special ed,” she said. “It helps everything.”
New this year is Joanne Depoutiloff, a 24-year Pittsburgh Public Schools teacher who teams up with Katie Gibson in the camp’s life skills for living program.
“I’d heard about Camp AIM for many, many years, and I decided this is the year that I wanted to get involved,” Depoutiloff said, explaining her career started in special education. “I wanted to get back to my roots, so here I am.”
For more information, visit www.ycamps.org/camp-aim.