Seeds of Peace program finds home in Otisfield
BY GAIL ROSSI | OTISFIELD A classic Maine summer camp that has lapsed into disrepair is getting a new life and purpose this summer, as the home of The Seeds of Peace Camp. The internationally-recognized conflict resolution program serves Arab and Israeli youths.
Camp Powhatan this year will serve more than 170 13- to 15-year-olds representing seven Middle Eastern nations—and some U.S. inner cities—and be visited by United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan and other international dignitaries. The four-week Seeds of Peace program will run from July 20 to Aug. 16. Campers will spend a fifth week meeting dignitaries in Washington, D.C.
The program, in its fifth year in Maine, was held the first two years at Camp Powhatan but moved to Camp Androscoggin in Wayne after plumbing and sewer problems were uncovered at the Otisfield property. The camp is next to the town-owned beach on Powhatan Road.
“We’ll need a whole new sewer system just for starters,” said Bobbie Gottschalk, Seeds of Peace executive director. The program needs toilets, sinks, shower stalls, beds and mattresses, dishes and boats as well. Gottschalk said Seeds of Peace hopes to get some of the equipment through donations, the rest by making arrangements with other summer camps. The improvements must come soon: the waste-water system is inadequate to handle the 170 campers expected in a couple of months.
Seeds of Peace spokeswoman Larisa Wanserski said the directors of the non-profit international organization approved a 10-year lease for the property in February from its owner, Robert Toll, who purchased the camp from Dr. Joel Bloom two years ago. Toll lives next to the former boys camp.
Acquiring a permanent camp home was central to the vision of Seeds of Peace founder John Wallach, a former foreign editor for The Hearst Newspapers. He quit his job as a newsman to start Seeds of Peace in 1993.
Wallach’s idea, recognized internationally as a model for conflict resolution, was simple: Bring kids from war-torn countries together for a camp experience and combine it with daily conflict resolution session led by professional facilitators.
“There are a lot of conflict resolution programs out there, but we’re really creating our own model,” said Wanserski. “These kids are living together, and boy, does that get down to the common denominator real quick. All of a sudden they are living the vision instead of simply talking about it.”
Wanserski said Camp Powhatan, with its closely-spaced buildings and cabins and extensive water-frontage, seems to be the ideal spot for nurturing lasting friendships, trust and teamwork among campers. Fifty-two teenage boys attended the peace camp in its first year. Since then, the program has grown annually and last year welcomed 142 boys and girls.
“There was always an affinity for Camp Powhatan, because so many of the cabins are within sight of each other, providing a real sense of community,” said Wanserski.
Wallach, she said, “really has a vision of making this a summer long camp.” Eventually organizers hope to offer a three-month program serving 1,000 Middle Eastern youths.
Wallach will be in Maine the week of May 19 to seek support for the camp from state leaders, including Gov. Angus King. In the meantime, camp director Tim Wilson is enlisting support from as many people as possible to get the camp in shape by the time its guests arrive.
Rehabilitation work aside, Seeds of Peace estimates this summer’s program will cost $600,000. Nearly all campers are on scholarships, averaging $3,500 each. Seeds of Peace raises funds through private donations and at a dinner held annually in New York City.
Maintenance supervisor Glenn Pastore of Otisfield was working alone at the camp Friday, pounding nails into a new floor.
“This is really exciting, but there’s a heck of a lot of work that’s got to be done,” Pastore said from a slope overlooking a blue, sparkling Pleasant Lake. He said the camp can use as much volunteer help as it can get.
“This is what the leaders are talking about now, isn’t it, the need for all of us to volunteer,” he said.
A team of 20 Job Corps volunteers will arrive at the camp in early June to do maintenance work. Some will stay through the summer to help with daily operations, Gottschalk said.
Along with maintenance concerns is a pressing need for supplies.
“We need everything, linens, sports equipment, medical supplies, food, you name it,” said Wanserski.
Seeds of Peace has been run on a shoestring, she said, relying on private contributions and corporate donations from such companies as Coca-Cola and Dexter Shoe.
She said the group hopes to add other corporations to its list of contributors. People in the community can participate as well, providing escort services to campers for field trips away from the camp, among other functions.
Wanserski said youths are selected for the camp on the basis of recommendations from educational institutions. They must have a solid command of the English language as a basis for shared communication and must write an essay entitled, “Why I want to make peace with the enemy.”
“We’re trying to look for future leaders in these countries so that they can become the seeds from which an enduring peace will grow,” she said.
Once back in their own countries, the youths keep in touch via the Internet and a Seeds of Peace sponsored newspaper, The Olive Branch, published by youths at the Seeds of Peace Jerusalem office.
They get together for drama weekends and field trips and to work on an art project called Building Blocks for Peace. Several youths return to camp in Maine for several years in a row, reuniting to exchange stories and strengthen ties.