Karen Bjornland/For The Daily Gazette
Double H Ranch, a camp for kids with serious illnesses, has about 2,000 volunteers.
But there’s only one Mama D.
“The counselors call me Mama D, the campers call me Mama D,” says Nancy Driscoll of Niskayuna.
A warm-hearted, energetic woman, Driscoll is an empty-nester. Her three sons, who were also Double H volunteers, are grown up and on their own.
Yet at Double H, a camp on 320 acres in the Warren County village of Lake Luzerne, she still gets to have fun with children, from first-graders to teens.
“I love being with the kids. It keeps you young. And the kids are just so inspirational.”
This summer, for the eighth year, Driscoll will be a volunteer cabin counselor.
“You are with them all day until they go to bed,” she says.
Driscoll doesn’t actually stay in the cabin, there are young, paid counselors who do that.
“I row boats, I put worms on hooks. When I’m with 8-year-old boys, I’m not going to look like a wimp,” she laughs.
On the high ropes course, Mama D will swing through the air in a harness. Then she’ll help the kids with arts and crafts. At night, she’ll read a bedtime story or sing a lullaby to calm a nervous young camper.
“When the child is a little apprehensive or homesick, they like the comfort of having a little older person there,” she says.
Twelve years ago, Driscoll started volunteering as a ski instructor in the adaptive winter sports program.
Now Double H has become her “home away from home,” and she volunteers all year-round.
“I go up for Family Weekends in the spring and the fall.”
This weekend (May 5-7), she’s a Family Pal during a oncology-hematology family program. On May 12-14, a diabetes family weekend is planned.
“The whole family is invited to come, not just the camper. You are assigned to a family and you kind of hang with them. You show them around camp, you play games with the kids. They’ll have the indoor pool, they’ll have fishing at the waterfront, archery, the ropes course.”
As a volunteer, Driscoll has learned about many serious illnesses, like cancer, hemophilia, inflammatory bowel disease, sickle cell anemia and other conditions.
“Some of these disorders are really, really rare and some of these kids are really, really sick. Their parents let them go because they know how much it means to them. They want them to be kids. They want them to have a life experience that otherwise they wouldn’t have.”
In the summer, in each of the eight week-long sessions, there’s a two-to-one ratio of campers to counselors. This summer, Driscoll is volunteering for two sessions.
“Every cabin has a nurse assigned,” she says.
At the Body Shop, a mini medical center, doctors and nurses are on staff day and night.
In the winter, the ski program offers children of all ages a thrilling slide down the slope using all kinds of special equipment.
Children in wheelchairs can sit in a device with two skis on the bottom.
“Often times, we tether them and the children are able to get that feeling,” says Driscoll.
“We also have mono skis, which is a single ski. And we have children who ski by themselves.”
There’s a teen girl who uses “outriggers,” poles with a skis on the ends.
“She had to have her leg amputated. She’s got one ski and she is amazing,” Driscoll says.
Some of the children have spina bifida and cerebral palsy.
“About 30 percent of the kids that come in the winter are on the autism spectrum. We do have some visually impaired students now and some that are intellectually impaired,” she says.
Families bring their children from as far away as North Carolina and Florida for the free program.
Volunteer instructors get extensive training on the camp’s ski hill, which is 875 feet long, with a 100-foot vertical drop.
“For these children to learn a skill like skiing, it’s just incredible. I’ve seen parents standing at the bottom of the hill with tears in their eyes because they just can’t believe that their child is skiing. It’s pretty incredible,” Driscoll says.
“Once they get their confidence, which is really the most important thing, then they are so excited. The kids are so proud of the skills they learn.”
Want to volunteer?
Since July 4, 1993, when Double H Ranch opened its gates, 60,000 children from around the world have had fun in Lake Luzerne.
Double H is celebrating its 25th year with a gala on June 24 at the Great Escape and Splashwater Kingdom in Queensbury.
“Everyone and anybody is invited,” says Jacqui Royael, director of operations.
A weekend celebration is also scheduled Sept. 15-17 at Double H.
“We were founded by the late Dr. Paul Newman and Charles Wood,” says Royael.
While Wood was running Great Escape, he heard about Newman’s camps that helped children with illnesses and persuaded Newman to open a camp in Lake Luzerne.
Double H, which is open year-round, always needs volunteers.
“We have volunteers ranging in age from 16 to 90. Our adaptive winter sports program is 60 percent over age 50,” she says.
In the summer, volunteers are needed not only as cabin counselors but to work as lifeguards, in arts and crafts and at the high ropes course.
For more information, go to www.doublehranch.org, phone 696-5676 or send email to email@example.com.