Strong Kids Program

Turning your vision into action...

Why Strong Kids at Camp-Combe?

“What even the casual observer could never miss  at Camp Combe is the almost freakish level of staff enthusiasm from top-to-bottom,” say Jim Coyle, who became involved with the camp first as a camper-parent, and then as a member of the Board of Directors in 2008. “Once my wife and I began to see the organization up close, we marveled at the planning, efficiency, and vision.”  When Jim looked closer at the Strong Kids program at Camp Combe he learned the enormous impact that the program had on the kids, counselors and families.

Special needs kids get access to a program full of positive energy, and get to interact with peers of all kinds in what is taken for granted by many as a ‘normal’ setting. A special needs parent wrote to the Camp that her child had been invited to his first play date after meeting a friend in the Strong Kids program. Even if you don’t have a child, you know that no kid should go through life without being invited on a play date.

Young adult counselors are taught about themselves as they work with the less-fortunate. They learn that as people, we are all more alike than we are different; a skill that pays dividends for a lifetime.  The counselors also see immediate outcomes from the program’s efforts making the less on of cause-and-effect very visceral.

Getting needed social services of any kind can be an arduous task, and access to the Strong Kids scholarships is seamless.  Parents of special-needs kids are on-call all the time, they never get a break. Strong Kids at Camp Combe provides a much needed respite, while increasing exposure to valuable social networks and needed resources.

Basically, Strong Kids is a win-win-win-win. “Once we learned that 100% of the funds raised for Strong Kids went directly to scholarships, we felt blessed to have an organization like this to support.”

Outlook Objective

The Camp Combe YMCA currently operates as a large day camp providing care for over 500 campers per day for 10 weeks each summer.  It offers a traditional outdoor day camp program, a soccer camp, a visual arts camp, a theater camp, and a technology/engineering camp for school-aged children. Young teens can choose from the same specialty programs or challenge themselves in our adventure trip and community service programs.  Finally, Camp Combe offers one of the most rigorous and popular staff development programs in the area, offering motivated older teens the chance to learn valuable vocational skills in the areas of childcare and aquatics.

At Camp Combe, our primary objective is to provide a nurturing environment for children, so that their families can go to work confident that their children are not only safe, but happy and thriving.  Our program encourages children to have fun, to learn about the natural environment, get lots of exercise, and learn to swim, all while reinforcing the YMCA core values of respect, responsibility, caring and honesty.  In collaboration with the National Inclusion Project as well as local schools, we provide extensive support services for children with special needs, providing them the opportunity to succeed in a mainstream recreational setting.  Our particular strengths lie in working with children with developmental and behavioral disabilities – many of whom have rarely experienced an environment where they are not just accepted – but embraced.


Thad & Mary Gifford-Smith

Thad and Mary have been the directors of the Camp Combe YMCA since 2003.  Thad has worked for the YMCA for over 19 years, starting as a Day Camp Director at the Downtown YMCA in Pittsburgh and moving on to become the Associate Executive Director of the Kerr Family YMCA in Raleigh.  He holds a BA in Educational Policy Studies from the University of Wisconsin.  Mary holds a PhD from the University of Pittsburgh in Developmental and Clinical Psychology. She worked as a Research Psychologist at Duke University for several years after obtaining her degree, with a strong focus on behavioral disorders and peer relationships in childhood.  During and after her graduate training, Mary worked as a volunteer in the YMCA.

Thad and Mary’s dream of co-directing a summer camp became a reality in January of 2003.  Camp Combe has grown in size and scope since that time

She began work for the YMCA full time in the spring of 2003. She is currently the Assistant Director of the Camp Combe YMCA.  Mary and Thad have two children and live in Putnam Valley, NY.

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