The ride was familiar. Growing up near Lake George, I’d driven past the old camps and cottages on Rte. 9N many times before. Once bustling with visitors seeking a piece of quiet Adirondack life, focus shifted to the busy village decades ago. Now the drive served as a pleasant glimpse into a bygone era’s rural charm.
Double H Ranch is nestled in that nostalgia. Although I’d written on behalf of the camp, I was unsure of what to expect from this first visit. Despite learning so much about its people and purpose, I had difficulty visualizing this happy place for kids with life-threatening illnesses. Then I wound down Hidden Valley Road, and everything became clear.
I parked in front of Lake Vanare, a quaint lake tucked among evergreens and dotted with cabins on its quiet shores. As I turned to meet Kate Marsh, Marketing and Communications Director for Double H Ranch, I couldn’t help but smile. Standing alongside an antique stagecoach at the camp’s entrance, Kate welcomed me to what I’d always imagined summer camp in the Adirondacks to be.
Rain was imminent, so Kate reserved a golf cart for my tour. Despite the gray skies, the mood at camp was sunny, as everyone we encountered smiled and waved hello. The positivity was palpable, and I immediately felt at home.
As we wound through the camp’s acres of residential cabins and facilities, I marveled at how the buildings’ rustic exteriors revealed modern, medical-ready spaces that still maintained the magical feeling of summer camp. From the camper residences to the dining hall and the arts and crafts building to the Body Shop (the onsite medical facility), everything — everything — was thoughtfully designed to ensure a safe and unforgettable camp experience.
The grounds were as impressive as the facilities. Each of the camp’s many walking paths revealed an outdoor space that beckoned engagement and fun: a barn with ponies and rabbits; a ropes course and zipline in the treetops; an archery range safely tucked aside; open fields for games and gatherings; and quiet spaces among the plants and flowers — all accessible, all for the campers.
After the tour, we headed back to the entrance to watch as new campers arrived. A recent Facebook post hinted at the event’s energy and enthusiasm, but I wanted to see it for myself. Alive with music, the check-in area was teeming with counselors singing and dancing. Despite clearly enjoying their time together, the group’s focus immediately shifted outward as each car approached. Cheers and applause enveloped the arriving vehicles, welcoming campers to the magical week ahead.
Every summer camp counts on its counselors to guide, support, teach and care for its campers, and Double H is no exception. Yet there is something very different happening here. This group of 75 adults ranging in age from 19 to 30 commit themselves to a level of engagement and caring that far exceeds the norm because they are protecting the health and happiness of a child who lives with illness. Simply put, these counselors devote their summers to something much bigger than themselves. And it is life changing.
Over the course of ten weeks, Double H counselors work tirelessly to provide eight different groups of campers, ranging from 6 to 21 years old, an unforgettable week at the Adirondack camp. Guided by the motto “We remember so they can forget,” counselors do what they can to relieve campers from the weight of their illnesses. From morning until night, counselors play the roles of supervisor, playmate, friend, and confidant — an effort that brings campers and their families a joy that lasts until the next summer.
During my morning at Double H, I had the pleasure of meeting with six counselors. While each of these individuals had their own reasons for joining the program, our conversations revealed similarities in their feelings toward camp and its remarkable outcomes. The following moments from these conversations provide a glimpse of the passion, commitment, and thoughtfulness shown by the Double H counselors.
What prompted you to join the staff at Double H Ranch?
Lily Urban, 22, graduated from Marist College with a degree in biomedical science. The Ballston Spa, NY native’s older brother was a counselor in 2014-15, introducing Lily to the rewarding work at Double H Ranch.
Lily: After I graduated from college, I was looking for something to do, you know, find a little bit of purpose in my life. The world had just been shut down during COVID, so I decided to come to camp after my brother talked about the magical place that camp was.
Cole Hedden, 22, graduated from St. John Fisher College with a degree in biology. This is the Niskayuna, NY native’s first summer as a counselor and Team Adventure Leader at Double H Ranch.
Cole: Somebody had mentioned Double H, and I was like, ‘Wow, that seems like a really cool place to work.’ Now I’ve graduated college, and it has always been something at the back of my mind to work here just because it’s such a unique place.
What was it like coming to camp the first time?
Lily: Initially I was overwhelmed, but then I relaxed and realized that, wow, this is an amazing place. Everyone wants to get to know you and really cares about you being here, and wants to know about the path that got you to camp.
Cole: I wasn’t expecting the energy. The first day I got here everybody was screaming — it is kind of like how campers are welcomed to the camp. I was like, what is going on? What am I getting myself into? But you quickly learn that’s just how camp is. Everyone’s super welcoming and there for you no matter what.
Double H draws staff from all different backgrounds and areas of study. Does everyone get along?
Kate McKenna, 19, is an advertising major at Syracuse University. With her parents as volunteers on the medical team, the Delmar, NY native attended Double H as a camper for six years before joining as a counselor two years ago.
Kate: It’s so special to know someone with the same mission or values as you. These are the kindest people in the entire world, they care so much. Everyone here has such an appreciation for each other because we all do the same work. We all know what it takes, and what it takes out of you, but also what it gives back. So it’s just, it’s special.
Michaela Valerian, 20, is a senior at Quinnipiac College majoring in psychology. Lifelong friends with Kate McKenna and her family, the Delmar, NY native grew up hearing about Double H Ranch; this is Michaela’s first year as a counselor, but second season at camp as she was a volunteer ski instructor this past winter.
Michaela: I’ve hit points in the summer where I’ve been more exhausted than I thought I could be, but I’ve also been happier than I ever thought I could be. You kind of have that roller coaster of emotions and it all can happen in a really short time. But you go through all these experiences with these people and it’s kind of crazy — I’ve literally met my best friends here, and I forget that two months ago I didn’t even know who they were, which is nuts. We’re already talking about planning trips and visiting at school, and we’re planning to all come back for the same, all weekend and do the winter program together.
Richie Ogbebor, 22, is a psychology major attending York College in Queens, NY. The Brooklyn native was a Double H camper for six years before joining the counseling staff two years ago.
Richie: We all have the same mentality that, you know, this is, this is beyond us. Like this is deeper than us. This is really for the kids.
How has working at the camp enhanced or expanded your future path?
Richie: Psychology ties in to working at camp; there’s a lot of physical components when it comes to illnesses, but people don’t realize that there’s also a mental toll that it has on the children. So you have to understand the mental aspect, the emotional aspect, and try to balance it so the kids can have a good experience.
It definitely gave me a lot of patience because you start to understand the psychology of the human mind; why people do the things they do, and why people act the way they act. You understand this behavior is happening because it’s possible that something could be going on that we don’t know about.
Gabby Lamouree, 21, is completing her master’s in special education at SUNY Plattsburgh. The Queensbury, NY native started as a member of the Double H barn staff five years ago before moving into positions as Barn Director and Activities Director.
Gabby: I’m going to graduate at the end of the spring with my master’s in special education, and I’ll be certified in special ed. Being here has opened my eyes to how much I really enjoy working with kids, especially those with exceptional abilities. So this experience fostered and reassured me that I’m moving in the right direction.
Even if you’re going into something that isn’t directly related, the skills that you learn here are applicable to everything. And they are not skills that you can pick up in a typical summer job.
During your time at camp, you are working closely with kids who have life threatening illnesses. What are the biggest challenges?
Kate: I think the hardest part is that they don’t get to stay. Camp is such a sacred environment, such a special and vulnerable place for a lot of these kids. You do so much so that camp stays with them all year — you give them love that lasts a year. But it’s so emotional to have camp be the highlight of their year, and to know that they can’t have that all the time, because they all deserve it all the time. And it’s hard that all of the world is not adapted for all of their strengths; they should have the childhood that they deserve.
Richie: The biggest challenge is trying to compose yourself after camp because you really do make a lot of bonds with these children, you get close with these campers throughout the week. When you hear some of their stories, because a lot of them will vent to you about what they go through back home, you feel the emotion that they feel. It’s hard not to take it home with you.
Gabby: The days can get long, but everything wraps around back to that purpose. So like really remembering why you’re here and understanding that each group of kids has five days at camp, and that’s what they get for the whole year. It’s a physically and mentally draining job, but the purpose makes it better.
What are the greatest rewards?
Michaela: We give the campers so much, but we also get so much from them; it’s really rewarding and that’s what keeps us going. It totally changes your perspective on everything, which is just amazing. I have a whole different outlook on life.
Gabby: I will always preach that you really don’t understand camp until you’ve been a part of camp, being here and experiencing all of these things alongside these kids. But the magic that we help make for these kids, is something that you can’t find anywhere else.
Lily: Coming to camp really allows you to see the world in a different way.
Would you recommend working at Double H?
Richie: I recommend it to somebody that has the passion and the heart to dedicate themselves throughout the whole summer.
Cole: For people that are entering or want to be working in the health professions, I would totally say this is a great experience. And then there’s all the other reasons, like personal growth. There are so many positives to working at camp.
Kate: There’s a place for everyone at Double H if they want, in their heart, to be a part of it. I think there’s a place for everyone, not necessarily a counselor, but there’s a place for any type of person who wants to be a part of that.
What three words first come to mind when you think of Double H?
Richie: Love, acceptance, fun
Cole: Happiness, positivity, perseverance
Kate: Vulnerable, funny, inspiring
Michaela: Joyful, energetic, emotional
Lily: Lively, magical, thrilling
Gabby: Fun, caring, supportive
As our conversations came to a close, it was clear that these young adults give their hearts and souls to Double H and its campers. Just as clear is how much they gain in return. For me, it was a great first visit to camp. And like the others, I can’t wait to go back.
Written by: Michelle Lansing Mercier