Volunteers of the Year: Raychelle and CJ Werking

volunteers holding balloons

Each year, the Double H Ranch selects an individual, organization, or group that exemplifies the art of giving back in its purest form, volunteerism. Established in 2012, the awards are given in honor of Kathy and Ron Phelps for their exceptional dedication to the Double H Ranch. We are excited to announce the recipients of the 2020 Volunteer of the Year Award – Raychelle and CJ Werking, who happen to be sisters! 

We recently interviewed CJ and Raychelle to learn more about why they volunteer at camp. Read on to hear more from our awardees!

Tell us about your involvement with camp – how long have you been involved with Double H Ranch, and in what capacity?

Raychelle (Ray): I have been volunteering as a residential cabin counselor since the summer of 2015. I came with a Siena College volunteer group for one week. The famous infectious “camp bug” had bitten me, and ever since that first week, I knew that I had to come back. I also knew that one week was not enough. I started volunteering for half of the summer as a cabin counselor and would even come back later in the summer as a general volunteer in program areas. I have always wanted to do a full summer, but I was unable because of summer classes, my job, and family vacation traditions. I have also been a volunteer for the CAMP-On-The-Go Hospital Outreach Program, the Annual Double H Holiday Party, and a family pal for the Adaptive Winter Sports Program. Lastly, I was a virtual camp counselor for all seven sessions of camp online this summer. Although it was not the traditional camp programming, I was finally able to be a camp counselor for an entire summer, which was an advantage of Camp@HHome for me.

Cassy Jane (CJ): I have volunteered for the Double H Ranch since the summer of 2011 when I was nineteen years old. Now I am twenty-eight years old! I grew up volunteering at camp. I have served as a volunteer cabin counselor for the summer sessions and a family pal for fall and winter weekends. I have also volunteered for the Christmas party. Because I am a PhD student and was living in Kentucky and going to school at the University of Kentucky, it was hard for me to commit to a full summer. A silver lining of this pandemic, however, is that I am quarantined with my family in Upstate New York and had the flexibility and availability to devote my entire summer to camp—all seven sessions! It was truly one of the best experiences of my life.

We’re reminded this year that camp isn’t just a place. From your point of view, tell us about how alternative camp programming in 2020 is still making a difference for our campers.

counselors playing games during virtual programming

Ray & CJ: We always knew camp was an extraordinarily unique place, so special that it has the power to follow us wherever we go. During this crazy and unique summer, we witnessed firsthand how true that statement is while sitting in the comfort of our own home. Virtual summer was brand new for all of the staff, volunteers, and campers, so it was fascinating to see the million different ways we were able to make camp happen virtually. The excitement of the campers arriving on the first day was very much still there for all of us. We were not lined up at the gate dancing and yelling, “Welcome to camp!” as the campers drove through Double H Ranch, but we were all online with the same enthusiasm as our campers logged on. It was heartwarming to see their smiling faces pop up on the screen. I know it may sound strange to be doing activities through a computer or dancing from your desk chair, but it is possible and a lot more fun than you would think! Campers and counselors embraced this unique experience and put their imagination into overdrive, which aided camp in delivering the best virtual summer possible. We pied, slimed, danced, laughed, sang, cheered, loved, hugged, played, joked, and even cried happy tears all virtually from our own homes! Similar to our regular camp programming, campers were still placed in cabins and had cabin time with other kids their age and took part in different free-choice breakout activities. As a dynamic sister duo, we hosted a variety of activities, including “Icky Tricky Trivia: Slime A Counselor,” “Blindfolded Buzzer Beater,” “Imagination Station Riddle Challenge,” and “No-Bake Baking/Campfire Cookie Decorating.” These activities provided comedy to campers while also giving them opportunities to participate in their own way. Campers watched us slime each other with eggs, mustard, relish, and Paul Newman’s lemonade based on their answers to tricky trivia questions. Campers helped us pin the tail on the donkey or draw a unicorn while we were blindfolded and then had the chance to try it on their own at home. They also used their teamwork skills virtually by solving puzzles or riddles and acting out fun, imaginary situations. Campers and their families even made ice cream cakes and decorated camp-themed cookies with us from their kitchens. We started the summer wondering how we could make programs virtual, and now we are convinced that the possibilities are endless! We genuinely believe that campers and counselors just need to give it a chance, and they will soon realize that magic can be made no matter where we are. Of course, it was unfortunate that Covid-19 canceled traditional camp. Our mentality, however, is the following: “The show must go on!” We have and will continue to do whatever we can to make camp happen until we can reunite in person at Double H again!

As a volunteer, tell us how Camp@HHome has impacted your lives during these challenging times.

Raychelle (Ray): This year has been full of different emotions for me and everyone else in the world. It has been a confusing, stressful, and disappointing time in our lives. I was out of my job in March when COVID-19 started shutting everything down and had to cancel family vacations, friends’ wedding invites, and other planned social gatherings, much like everyone else during this time. Camp@HHome has been the one silver lining of this summer. We truly made the best of a challenging time, and I enjoyed every second of virtual camp. Waking up to a day packed with fun activities and campers who could not wait to share their home life with us was the best motivation to get anyone through this unprecedented time in our world. Bonding over a Jeopardy trivia game with my Fox Cabin and hosting spa pajama nights with my Deer Cabin were the highlights of my summer during the pandemic. I am incredibly thankful Double H provided some normalcy not only for the campers but also for myself.

Cassy Jane (CJ): As a PhD student working on my dissertation in history at home, virtual camp gave me something to look forward to and motivate me. Being a virtual camp counselor for all seven sessions was the absolute best part of my summer. Seeing our campers’ smiles light up on the screen and stretching our creative muscles to bring fun to them virtually was beyond inspiring. Laughing and being silly with them and all of the amazing counselors, who are all one big family, is what my heart needed. I am so grateful for this experience and for the people I met. Also, nowhere else in my life is my love for Shrek, and my silly, lighthearted side embraced as it is at camp. I’m genuinely sad that the summer is over, but I am already looking forward to all the virtual fall weekends. Thank you, Double H Ranch, from the bottom of my heart for a beyond special summer. It is a reminder there is always good in the world despite the overwhelming amount of negativity that has consumed our lives and shaken up what we define as “normal.” Seeing our campers excited and energized warmed my heart and made me so thankful for the invincibility of camp during this uncertain time.

Where are you attending camp “from” virtually?

Ray & CJ: We are both attending camp from our home in East Greenbush, NY, outside of Albany. We are only about an hour away from Double H!

Is there anything additional you would like to say about the impact of virtual/alternative programming?

Ray & CJ: One of our favorite memories of virtual programming this summer was actually a moment we spent off the screen taking part in bear hug deliveries around the Capital Region with other fellow Double H counselors. We were honored to be a part of the only in-person experience of Camp@HHome. It was so special just to see a glimpse of our campers’ lives at home while dancing in their driveway and singing their beloved camp cheers. The looks on the campers’ faces were truly priceless as the Double H parade of camp vans and our decorated car pulled up specifically for them. The families and neighbors also became a part of the excitement! It was a feeling like no other being able to deliver camp magic door to door. It was the human interaction with our campers we have been longing for all summer.

Does anyone in your life play a role in supporting your involvement with camp? In providing inspiration?

counselors at double h ranch signRaychelle (Ray): My sister, Cassy Jane (CJ), was my first introduction to camp. She discovered Double H Ranch while in college, but she was drawn to it because of her lifelong experience being a sibling to someone with a disability. That sibling just so happens to be me. I grew up with a severe, rare case of Idiopathic Infantile Scoliosis, which means my spine is shaped like the letter “S.” From as early as nine months old to nine years old, I grew up in an upper-body cast. After seventeen upper-body castings under anesthesia, I underwent my first surgery to have dual titanium growing rods affixed to my spine. Following the initial operation, I had eight more surgeries to lengthen the rods as I grew and ultimately had permanent rods fused to my spine. My most recent surgery was two years ago when my spinal rods unexpectedly broke, and I ended up in the emergency room. I am not exaggerating when I say I could not wait to be at camp later that year because I needed it more than ever. I was going to do everything I could to make sure I was physically able to be at Double H that summer. Growing up with my disability, I mastered life on the sidelines. I was not able to participate in gym class, ride rollercoasters, play contact sports, or go swimming throughout my life. I never went to a day or overnight camp as a kid, but I think I would definitely have benefited from the support of an organization like the Double H Ranch. After years of CJ sticking by my side in and out of the hospital, it was inspiring to witness my sister share her caring heart and her infectious energy to other children with disabilities and illnesses. She was born for the camp counselor role, and I am proud of her for using it to make an impact. To be completely honest, I did not believe I was “camp counselor material” when my sister recommended I volunteer. I am an outgoing, enthusiastic person, but this role seemed like quite the stretch for me. Six summers later, Double H has transformed me into the individual who I am today. Both counselors and campers have given me more confidence to take risks, come out of my shell, and expand my abilities. Being a counselor with a disability makes the bond with my campers even stronger in my mind and allows me to understand campers’ lives outside of camp all the more.

Cassy Jane (CJ): I am so fortunate to share the camp counselor experience with my best friend and sister, Raychelle (Ray). I was first introduced to the Double H Ranch through a campus-wide email as an undergraduate student at Siena College. The email was seeking volunteers to be residential cabin counselors. I was drawn to the opportunity because I witnessed my sister grow up with a different childhood than I did. Because of the bravery Raychelle continued to exhibit in the face of significant health issues, she inspired me to be a better person and to help other children who also face medical hurdles of their own. I was a counselor in the Bear Cabin my first summer at Double H, and I fell head over heels in love with the experience. After recounting my time at camp with Raychelle, she was also hooked and wanted to volunteer. Although she needed some convincing that she had what it took to be a camp counselor at first, Raychelle was determined to make an impact in the lives of campers. In 2015, volunteering became a family affair, and ever since then, we knew that the Double H Ranch would forever be a part of our family. There is no place in the world like the Double H Ranch.

Has Double H impacted or inspired your career path? How so?

counselor wearing superman shirt and paint on armsRaychelle (Ray): While in college, I studied business, specifically Marketing, but when I started volunteering for Double H, my plan started to change. I knew from that moment that I had to work with kids in some capacity. I would love to work in an organization that serves kids and their families in a variety of different functions, including but not limited to the following: providing essential services, lending extra guidance, raising necessary funds, or hosting charity events. I currently work for a nonprofit agency that supports underprivileged inner-city children in grades kindergarten to fifth grade. I have been able to gain more firsthand experience with kids during the academic school year in addition to my weeks at Double H in the summer. My ultimate goal is to be able to combine my business studies with my desire to help kids in my next job. I am grateful for Double H illuminating my path to a wide range of new career opportunities that reflect my passion in life. I look forward to seeing where this drive ultimately leads me.

Cassy Jane (CJ): Camp absolutely impacted my career path. I am a high-energy, people person, and I love making the most of all life experiences. I am currently working on my PhD in history to be a college professor. History is the story of the human experience, and I am fortunate to be a part, even if it is only for a brief moment in time, of my campers’ life stories. Although I want to work with college students, camp has reminded me that many students are coming into their studies from different perspectives and life experiences. For me, camp is a way of life and perspective to take into the world. I apply the “making the impossible possible” mentality into my teaching by finding new ways to “challenge by choice” my students’ critical thinking skills and finding their roles in the world. I work to make my classroom a microcosm of camp, ensuring that all students feel valued and supported. I remember that in 2016 the theme of the summer was “you are here.” It was in the fall of that year that I started as a teaching assistant at the University of Kentucky, and I put the GPS coordinates of the buildings on campus similar to the way that Double H put the coordinates of camp on our name tags that year. By doing this, I tried to encourage my students to be mentally present in the moment together and to emphasize that despite our various backgrounds, we all intersected at this classroom and that we share more similarities than we do differences.

Are there any camp experiences or “lessons” that you apply to your work/everyday life?

Raychelle (Ray): I could go on forever with the number of lessons I have learned from camp. I believe everyone would see life in an entirely new light if they spent time at Double H because these campers have taught me so much over the past six years. I honestly have never met more kind, resilient, compassionate, empathetic, and genuine individuals. If anyone is going to change the world, it will be a Double H camper. As a camp counselor, my main objective is to provide an abundant amount of love while finding supportive ways to show campers that their disability or illness does not define who they are. Summer after summer, I am always surprised that campers as young as six years old are the ones actually reminding me of the same message with my own disability.

counselor in sunglasses pointing to signCassy Jane (CJ): The Double H Ranch is the only place in the world where I can fully be myself, and it is embraced. Camp taught me what it meant to “play.” Childhood, and life in general, does not need toys or electronics, but undivided attention and a willingness to fully immerse oneself in the moment. As someone who never went to a sleepover camp as a child, I continue to have the unique opportunity to experience it vicariously through the laughs and smiles of our campers. Fun is not something that is bought. Fun is made. I often find it challenging to describe camp to the outside world. I do not think there is a word better than “magic” that encapsulates the breadth of the experience. In recent years, I have also found that the word “spiritual” fits. I do not mean spiritual in a religious way, but in an unfathomable amount of love, belonging, understanding, and a desire to connect with campers and fellow counselors on a soul level. It is a privilege to take part in the childhood of these children, even if it is for a brief moment—one week every summer. The best moments with the campers do not always take place during a scheduled activity, but in the creativity and spontaneity of the moment when hanging out in the cabin or cheering on the way to the dining hall. I think the campers have taught me more about life and the beauty of being silly than I have ever learned from other life experiences. Time stops at Double H Ranch, and the days glide by as if we are in a dream. Days no longer have names, but are numbered and are punctuated by meals, rest time, afternoon activities, and cabin chats. Camp days consist of pleasant sounds of laughs and cheers about a moose filled with juice, the bitterness and sweet taste of Paul Newman’s lemonade, the strain in your legs from walking up and down the hill next to the dining hall, the warmth of the sun on your cheek while you watch your camper finally catch a fish, the stain of paint on your arm because your camper’s canvas went from a wooden car to your sunburnt arm, the goodnight hugs before bedtime, and the loud bullfrogs that pierce the silence of the emotional ending to the week—the wish boat ceremony– gives me love and warmth that radiates the whole year long. Even though a year passes, I am always amazed at how my relationship with campers and counselors picks up exactly where it left off the following summer.

Is there anything else you’d like to share about your experiences with Double H Ranch?

Ray & CJ: Friends, family, and people we talk to about Double H Ranch do not truly grasp the importance of camp. Even the pictures and videos we show to others do not give the camp justice. From the outside, most would think this is just another kids’ summer camp, but that is where they are mistaken. Double H is a place like no other. Our volunteer time at Double H is not just limited to when we were young students looking to build resumes or gain experience. This organization will forever be a part of our lives. The idea of being able to watch all our campers grow up, especially our little Muskrat and Deer campers, is what keeps us coming back every year. It is exciting to envision the day when we bring our own future children to volunteer with us at Double H events, and when they meet our former campers who have now grown into adults. A regular kids’ camp could never match the impact of our home away from home in the Adirondacks. We strongly urge everyone out there to volunteer no matter what age you are. There are events in all seasons and countless different ways to get involved. We can promise you that once you start, you will be addicted to the magic of camp.

Is there a powerful moment or favorite camp memory that you would like to share?

Raychelle (Ray): My most memorable moments at Double H are when campers conquer their fears right in front of my eyes. I have seen kids climb the high ropes course for the first time, show off their hidden talent in front of a packed audience, try a terrifying ride at The Great Escape, or say, “I can do this on my own” to a nurse while in the Body Shop for their medical treatments. I am so fortunate to be able to witness life-changing moments with campers and am incredibly proud of these kids for exemplifying bravery in new ways every summer. The bonds I have created with campers during these moments over the years are truly unforgettable.

Cassy Jane (CJ): The bravery, courage, and love exhibited by the campers is phenomenal and never ceases to amaze me. I am the person I am today because of those quiet and loud moments nestled in the woods of Lake Vanare with these children. Since 2011, I have made the most incredible memories of my life at the Double H Ranch, and it would be impossible to recount them all. Instead, I will focus on this unique summer. During virtual camp this summer, I was part of the Chipmunk Cabin, and we had a virtual pajama party complete with snacks and the campers’ favorite books. As counselors, we read books to the campers, but then the campers read their books to us. It was so moving to hear them enunciate the words of their own cherished stories. It truly transported us back to camp physically in our minds. Later in the summer, as a Wolf, we had a virtual Jurassic Park themed birthday party. The camper who was celebrating his birthday said that it was the best birthday party of his life because he was able to share the fun with his family and camp friends at the same time. The bearhug deliveries also provided a unique opportunity to have a more personal look in the lives of our campers. Two particular moments happened during these deliveries that left an impression on my heart. At one house, we did a rendition of the cheer “If I Were Not a Counselor” outside and proudly cheered at the top of our lungs despite the many neighbors who watched on curiously and were probably a little jealous. At another house, we sang the song “True Colors” to a first-time camper, which turned into a heartfelt moment between the camper, the parent, and the counselors. I will cherish these memories and the many more I made throughout my time at the Double H Ranch forever. They have and will continue to influence how I live my life and the person I want to be.

To me, camp is…

Raychelle (Ray): To me, camp is a place full of unconditional love and support to uncover the best version of yourself. It is the courage that you can conquer anything life hands you while radiating positivity, kindness, and happiness along the way.

Cassy Jane (CJ): Camp is a point of intersection, a meeting place, and a frame of mind, and that is why virtual camp is just as powerful as traditional camp. We are always telling our campers to bring the philosophy of Double H to the outside world, and this year proved that lesson to be true. Counselors and campers alike extended camp’s magic and love far beyond the boundaries of the physical buildings situated on Hidden Valley Road. As a result, camp became even more accessible to campers and even their loved ones. Campers were excited to invite Double H into their homes to share their pets, younger siblings, and favorite toys. I will forever cherish the unique experience of virtual camp this year.

cj and ray with goggles and microphones