PHOTOS BY BRODY WHEELER
Please welcome Wendy Mervis to the ever expanding list of incredible Rochester Woman Online cover women. I have had the true pleasure of knowing and working with Wendy and Camp Good Days & Special Times in the past, and now am truly am honored that she sharing her story and journey with us in the latest edition.
From competitive basketball in college, to giving back by working at Camp Good Days, she is now the executive director nhelping to run this amazing organization along side husband Gary.
Tell us a little bit about yourself, your husband Gary and how you decided to create Camp Good Days & Special Times.
Growing up in West Irondequoit, as the youngest of 5, recreational activities became my passion. Whether participating in town athletics or boating, sailing and swimming in Lake Ontario, all I wanted to do with my free time in the summer was to be outside. Once I began competing in middle and high school sports, my focus was on higher education and playing a sport in college.
I was blessed to have a tremendous support system at home and in the community. Many coaches, teachers, and community members recognized my drive to be the best I could be in athletics and helped me in many ways. I was recognized as All-County in Soccer/Basketball/Softball for numerous years and both All-Greater Rochester and Super 15 in Basketball. In 1984 I was selected as the Section V Female Athlete of the Year and inducted into the Section V Basketball Hall of Fame.
My dream came true when I accepted a basketball scholarship to Division I Colgate University, where I completed my undergraduate degree and played four years of basketball.
Realizing I wanted other young girls to have the same opportunities as myself in athletics, I wanted to give back. I taught physical education in the Rush Henrietta School District while coaching Varsity Softball and JV basketball for 11 years.
Spending my summers working at Camp Good Days, first as a Lifeguard, Program Director, and then Camp Director, I realized that I wanted to do more for the children and families that CGD served. Currently, I am the Executive Director, assisting Gary with the day-to-day operations, fundraising, and spending as much time as possible down at the Camp in the summer.
Camp Good Days began in 1979 when Gary Mervis’s youngest daughter, Teddi, was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor, and he wanted her to realize she was not alone in her battle. He had no campers, volunteers, or funding, but he had a dream. For the first three years, Gary took children with cancer, medical staff, and volunteers to the Adirondacks for an outdoor camping experience far away from the hospital’s sterile environment. From there, Camp Good Days spent eight years at a recreational facility on Canandaigua Lake. At that point, Gary was able to secure funding for a property on Keuka Lake to build a recreational camping facility. Entering our 43rd year, Camp Good Days has provided programs and services for over 50,000 campers from 36 countries and 22 states.
Camp Good Days’ mission is to provide year-round recreational and support programs for children and families touched by cancer and sickle cell.
Tell us a little bit about the Camp’s summer programs, and what services they provide.
For the last two summers, we have offered Family Camp, where the entire family can participate in all the traditional activities we offer at our regular camps. Family camp has been a massive success, allowing us to reach new families who have never been to Camp. Our traditional summer and year-round programs are also offered for children who have (or had) a parent or sibling with cancer. This year, we are also back to offering four weeks with children only. We also have weekend retreats for women and men dealing with cancer and one weekend for men with prostate cancer.
What is your favorite thing about what you do?
That we can interact with the families and children all year round. We have many activities and events throughout the year for the families. Staying connected with the families year-round is rewarding and reminds us of why we work so hard to raise the funds needed.
What has been your greatest challenge in having a non profit, especially one such as Camp Good Days and keeping it going for so long. What is the secret to your success?
One of the challenges has been raising funds needed to provide all that we do. In 1979, Gary made a promise that all programs and services would be free of charge to those who qualify. Forty-three years later, CGD is still free of charge, knowing that nothing costs today what it did in 1979. The other is that Camp Good Days was built on many volunteers and staff who truly believe in what we do. Reaching those people who are needed and can help Camp Good Days in both big and small ways is imperative to keep the mission of CGD going for as long as it is needed.
Who are some of the strong women that have inspired you and why?
The impact of seeing a loved one go through so much pain and discomfort puts things in perspective of all the insignificant small things that really don’t matter at the end of the day. Personally, watching my mother battle cancer with surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation was extremely difficult. Despite the outcome, she did everything she could to beat cancer, which was inspiring and brave to me.
From a professional perspective, I have always admired women who have significantly impacted the world of sport. Babe Didrickson Zaharias was one of the greatest female athletes of all time. She excelled in every sport she played in the ’30s and ’40s, including participating in the Olympics. In the ’50s, while battling cancer, she continued to play in the LPGA but eventually lost her battle with cancer at age 45.
The biggest thrill I ever had was having dinner TWICE with the legendary Tennessee Women’s Basketball Coach Pat Summit. There was no greater impact on women’s basketball for so long than Pat Summit until she lost her battle with Alzheimer’s at 64 only a few years ago.
And, of course, if it weren’t for Billie Jean leading the way with many others to push for Title IX, I would not have had the opportunity to attend Colgate University on a basketball scholarship.
What do you feel is the key to being a successful woman in business (non profit or otherwise) in this day and age?
The most significant piece of advice is to Adapt and Adjust no matter what you choose to do. Life will throw you curveballs, and if you cannot pivot, it will be tougher to achieve your goals. It’s also essential to have perseverance, commitment and to never give up.
What have you found to be the most successful and influential method of promotion for Camp Good Days?
Word of mouth is the most significant way to reach those who could benefit from our programs. Because of HIPPA, we depend significantly on families, doctors, nurses, and volunteers to share our information and their wonderful experiences with CGD.
Tell us about some of your goals and dreams for you personally and for the Camp and its services.
I am working toward and hoping that the next chapter of CGD is in good hands and is in better shape when Gary and I step back from our roles. We both hope Camp will be here for as long as needed and succeed. We hope there will be cures for cancer in the near future, but until then, Camp can continue in the same capacity as now. I look forward to someday sitting on a beach, reading a good book, and knowing I did everything possible to ensure CGD’s success.
Who do you look up to for inspiration or mentorship?
There have been many individuals in different ways that have significantly impacted me throughout my life, but the biggest has been my husband, Gary. We both have a passion for politics and sports and can enjoy these things together. He has given me so many experiences personally, such as meeting inspiring professional athletes, attending amazing events, and allowing me to become such a big part of Camp Good Days. Understanding what he has built with so many wonderful giving people through the years has truly amazed me.
Gary has very high expectations and is demanding to be the best you can be. He does not like to accept mediocrity, so he expects me to try and be my best which I am grateful for. He has pushed me to be better and grow professionally.
How have you found it to be working with your husband Gary in creating this amazing organization over the years?
More often than not, it has been wonderful. We have grown to think alike in many ways. The times that we have disagreed on how to get to the same result have been challenging, but we both learn from each other in the process. But overall, we share so many memories together that we realize the good times far outweigh the tough times.
What is your “why”? Why do you do what you do?
Helping people less fortunate than myself is why I continue to work with CGD. I am humbled and proud to help so many people. I know I am a part of something much larger than myself, and I hope my life has meaning.
What makes you truly happy?
At the end of the day, I did my best to help ensure CGD’s success. To hopefully mentored others in the process, and when people have shared what Camp has meant to them, I accept that I made a difference in some way.
What is one piece of advice you have been given that you have never forgotten and would want to pass along to others?
Adapt and adjust and keep moving forward.
What’s the most important risk you took and why?
Leaving a job with a pension, security, and the possibility of advancement in public school administration after obtaining a Master’s in Education Administration and CAS ( Certificate of Advanced Study) with NY State was a massive pivot in my life. But I realized I had a different calling and decided to take the chance to come in full-time with Camp Good Days.
Since the Camps are provided free of charge, how do you raise the funds to cover the costs for the campers? What has been most successful for fundraising?
Day-to-day donations, general contributions, and memorials have significantly helped us. Special events such as our Finger Lakes International Wine and Spirits Competition and Auction, Tour de Teddi, our longest-running fundraiser- The Dance for Love at St John Fisher Univerisity (40 years), Tournament of Love, Worlds Largest Disco in Buffalo, 11 Day Power Play in Buffalo, The Fayetteville Manlius High School 24 Hour Dance Marathon and so many outside groups. Campgrounds of NY(CONY) and KOA have also supported us financially for many years.
Tell us about one of your most memorable campers.
There have been so many in 31 years, but one of the most memorable campers was a boy named Greg Harrison. He and I had such a special bond that his family became a big part of CGD as his brothers attended Camp. I still have his picture in my cabin.
How have you successfully balanced your personal and professional life over the years?
This year has been the most challenging as most of my time is committed to my professional life. Being in a leadership position with a nonprofit comes with demands, and it is hard to turn it off at home. Our phone is constantly ringing as we have always felt we should be available at any time for staff, volunteers, and most importantly, our families and campers. It has been challenging to get away from it all, but we try our best to grab moments when we can. In our free time, we have our dogs and cat that keep us busy, and we enjoy spending time with our family.
What do you have coming up for Camp Good Days?
Saturday, September 10th, is the Tour de Teddi, a bike ride that starts at the Recreational Facility in Branchport and has two routes. You can register and bike around the entire Keuka Lake, which is 46 miles, or Hammondsport and back, which is 28 miles. Last year over 400 riders participated, and a picnic lunch at the waterfront was the highlight at the end. We are back in person with our Wine Auction Dinner at the Holiday Inn Downtown on Saturday, November 5th. The Courage Bowl is an annual football game between St John Fisher University and SUNY Brockport on Saturday, October 1st at Brockport. Some of our campers get to be Honorary Coaches and Cheerleaders with each team, and proceeds benefit CGD.
Please give our audience more info on volunteering, donating, or even where to connect for camper information.
For more information on supporting Camp Good Days financially, becoming a camper, or volunteering, please visit our website at www.campgooddays.org or call us at 585-624-5555.