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Upper Valley Woman Honored for Her Career in Camping

  • Photographed at the Aloha Hive camp in West Fairlee, Vt., on July 19, 2017, Posie Taylor, of White River Junction, Vt., was recognized recently by the American Camp Association. She received the ACA’s Distinguished Service Award, the highest honor given that recognizes a lifetime of service for her work at the Aloha Foundation camps. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Posie Taylor, of White River Junction, Vt., has been involved with the Aloha Foundation camps since 1954, when she was a camper at Aloha Hive. Photographed during an interview in West Fairlee, Vt., on July 19, 2017, Taylor was recognized recently by the American Camp Association. She received the ACA’s Distinguished Service Award, the highest honor given that recognizes a lifetime of service for her work at the camps. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Posie Taylor leads a group of Aloha Foundation campers on the 4th of July in the late 1970s. Taylor, of White River Junction, Vt., was recognized recently by the American Camp Association. She received the ACA’s Distinguished Service Award, the highest honor given that recognizes a lifetime of service for her work at the camps. (Courtesy photograph)

  • Posie Taylor, second from right in the back row, in a group photograph with Aloha Hive's senior staff in 1988. Taylor was recognized recently by the American Camp Association. She received the ACA’s Distinguished Service Award, the highest honor given that recognizes a lifetime of service for her work at the Aloha Foundation camps. (Courtesy photograph)



Valley News Staff Writer
Friday, July 28, 2017

The nicknames people give you in childhood stick, which is why Lydia Merritt, dubbed Posie early in life, became Posie for good after her first summer at Aloha Hive in Fairlee in 1954.

Posie Merritt is now Posie Taylor, and for most of her professional life she has been associated with the Aloha Foundation and its camps for girls, boys and families.

She’s been a director of Aloha Hive, the camp for girls ages 7 through 12; was the foundation’s first director of development; its executive director from 1989 until her (first) retirement in 2005; and interim executive director from 2013 to 2015. She is now a consultant to the foundation.

So long and deep has been Taylor’s commitment, not only to Aloha, but also to the ethos of the camping movement, that this spring she was awarded the Distinguished Service Award by the American Camp Association, the highest honor it bestows.

Taylor also received this year a citation honoring her volunteer work for the American Camp Association’s New England branch, the first time such a citation has been given.

“She’s very deserving of the accolades she has received,” said Bette Bussell, a friend of Taylor’s, and executive director of American Camp Association New England, which has its headquarters in Lexington, Mass. Aloha Foundation is one of some 450 ACA-accredited camps in New England, and one of perhaps 1,000 state-licensed camps overall in New England.

“Posie is one of the most important camping professionals in the country,” said Chris Overtree, executive director of Aloha Foundation.

“She has been in camping before camping was really an industry, and she has been an influential leader throughout. One of her seminal contributions is always focusing on the child, the safety of the program and its transformational capacity for children and adults,” he said.

For someone who has dedicated herself to educating others about the value of camping and time spent outdoors, Taylor’s first days at Aloha, when she was 10, were not particularly auspicious.

Raised in the well-to-do Boston suburb of Chestnut Hill, she went by train to Ely station and was then driven in an open truck to the camp. She was miserably homesick and scared, a situation not helped by the fact that her mother had also been a counselor at Camp Aloha in 1941, and that her younger sister Debbie, who had traveled with her, acclimated almost immediately.

“I really was a wreck,” she said.

Confined to the infirmary because she threw up for three days, Taylor languished until a counselor sent to coax her out of bed mentioned that the camp was holding auditions for Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta Iolanthe. That was enough to get theater-lover Taylor to the auditions.

“Music and drama dragged me out of my homesickness funk,” Taylor said in an interview a few weeks ago at the Hive.

Once Taylor was in, she was all in. And she still is. She experienced first-hand, she said, the power of finding out who you are and what you can do, a lesson she passed on to generations of campers after her.

Taylor was interviewed in the camp building called Halekipa, which overlooks Lake Fairlee and is used to prepare for wilderness expeditions, among other purposes.

It was early enough that the 150 Hive campers were still sitting through morning assembly, and the rousing sound of singing drifted over the placid water, which made Taylor beam.

(The Hawaiian names for the camps and buildings are courtesy of the camp’s founders, the Gulicks, who were missionaries in Hawaii and started the Aloha camp in 1905. Harriet Gulick’s older brother, Charles Farnsworth, and his wife Charlotte founded Camp Hanoum in Thetford, which is now Camp Farnsworth.)

“Camp is sort of a funny thing. It’s all encompassing,” said Taylor, who is 74 and lives in White River Junction. (She has been married three times: she kept her second husband’s name because, she said, most of her professional development happened during the marriage. Her third husband died in 2013.)

Aloha is very much a family affair for Taylor. Her daughter, Jenn Merritt, who lives in Lebanon and took her mother’s birth name, attended Aloha, and Taylor’s granddaughter, Kate Gasparro, is there now. And the two children of one of her stepsons from her third marriage are also enrolled.

Taylor sometimes tells Hive campers that “the bridesmaids for your wedding are here, you just don’t know it. Living together quite intimately forms friendships for a lifetime.”

The friendships Taylor made at Aloha, both as a camper and later as an administrator, were such that she not only devotedly wrote letters to her pals when she was a girl but she also has “5,000 ex-campers I follow on Facebook.”

Today, of course, most children and teens communicate by text, email, Snapchat, Instagram and other social media. However, when they sign up for the Aloha camps they can expect to, in a sense, step back in time.

They are not permitted to use cell phones or other electronic devices. Campers wear uniforms, participate in such traditional camping activities as swimming, canoeing and mountaineering, music and theater.

Getting to know each other the old-fashioned way, through time spent together and sustained conversation, is a given.

Camps are “still one of the places where people learn to talk to each other face to face, instead of letting those fingers do the walking,” Bussell said.

At the dawn of texting and social media, going without phones and other electronic devices was a hard sell, Taylor said. But now, given their ubiquity, she added, “it’s a marketing plus.” Parents and kids appreciate being in an environment where the buzz of non-stop connectedness has been quieted.

The point, she said, is “making your own fun without accoutrements.”

Giving children their independence, sans family, “gives them a sense of what they can do,” Taylor said. Camping encourages “kids to work on skills to get better.” But, in her experience, it’s foolish to command kids to try new things.

“We will not force,” she said. “We will invite, we will cajole.”

Drawing perhaps on her own first camping experience, she has thought about how to get a wide variety of children and teens, each with a different story, to adapt.

“If we have a kid who’s struggling: OK, how do we make this work for you? We’re empowering kids to know that the change they want to make belongs with them,” she said.

This translates, she said, into a greater sense of responsibility and self-sufficiency when they make the transition to college, or life after high school.

Some things about camp probably never change. Still, there have been significant shifts in how camp administrators and staff deal with trends, Taylor said.

Apart from the proliferation of social media, kids show up with a greater number of medications, more parents have a tendency to “helicopter,” dietary preferences and requirements are more numerous and complex, and there are more state regulations governing safety.

Not all of the changes are bad, Taylor said, and some were inevitable and overdue — the emphasis on attracting a more racially and socio-economically balanced community, for example — but “protecting the simplicity is much harder than it used to be.”

The changes in dietary requirements and increased regulation have contributed generally to rising camp costs, Taylor said.

The base cost, without financial aid, for an Aloha 7½-week residential program, for girls and boys, is a little more than $10,000; for a 3½-week residential program it is under $7,000, said Overtree. For the Ohana family camp, tuition is $1,045 for two weeks and $522 for one week, Taylor wrote in an email. The Horizons day camps run about $500 a week, Overtree said.

However, the residential and day camps are only a fraction of what the Aloha Foundation sponsors, said Overtree.

There are camps for families of the Vermont and New Hampshire National Guards, which are free-of-charge; there is a program for children with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, which is also free-of-charge; there are programs during the academic year for schools from New England, New York and New Jersey. The foundation also hosts weddings and conferences.

“Each one is a different financial model,” Overtree said.

There is a strong focus, Taylor said, on enrolling children and teens from the Upper Valley. “It’s important not to have just kids from wealthy families.”

Proceeds from the full-price camping residencies go to supporting the scholarships, Overtree said.

In all, 17 percent of people who come to the camps and programs are awarded scholarships. This summer, the foundation gave away some 175 awards totaling more than $700,000 in scholarships, Taylor wrote in an email.

Overall, the Aloha Foundation serves around 10,000 people annually, Overtree said. Of those, between 2,000 and 3,000 attend in the summer. And of the 400 counselors, 70 come from overseas, Taylor said.

If you had asked Taylor when she earned a master’s in medieval history from Columbia University, after graduating from Middlebury College, whether she wanted to be a professional in the camping industry, she would have been incredulous, she said.

“It never occurred to me there was a professional path in camping,” she said.

Rising up the ladder in the educational field to become the head of an independent school or a career in library science were among the options presenting themselves.

But, neither of them felt exactly right.

She had always loved Aloha Hive so she applied in 1977 for a job as its director, which she considered more of a side dish than the main course, given that it paid just $4,000 a year. But, in the early 1980s, she wrote for the then-head of the Aloha Foundation a job description for a director of development, and promptly applied for the position. She knew Aloha inside and out, and she knew how to raise money.

“I decided to put my future into being a camping professional.”

And she is forever grateful that she did.

“The work that camps do for kids across the country is unique; the camping movement and the way we do it in the U.S. is special. Kids find their place at camp in a way that they don’t at school,” she said.

Just because she has officially retired from the Aloha Foundation doesn’t mean she is sitting around twiddling her thumbs. She is the board chair at both Crossroads Academy in Lyme, and the Family Place in Norwich, and she still volunteers for American Camp Association New England.

Doing nothing is almost unthinkable, she said, although she tries to take weekends off.

“Volunteering raises the bar,” she said. “I learn from doing it; it stretches me. It feels important to give back. My whole career has been about children and families.”

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com.

Corrections

Kate Gasparro is a granddaughter of Posie Taylor, who became executive director of the Aloha Foundation in 1989. Camp Hanoum, now known as Camp Farnsworth, was founded by Charles and Charlotte Farnsworth, of Thetford. An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect last name for Kate and an incorrect year for when Taylor first ran the Aloha Foundation, and misidentified the founders of the Thetford-based camp.