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Paradise Farm Camps Keeps Cultivating Memories in Chester County

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Photo by Tessa Marie Images

With a history that dates back to 1875, Paradise Farm Camps is a model for positively impacting youth amid nature in Chester County.

“Yes and no,” says Steve Molineux, who’s not entirely sure whether he’d call his family underprivileged. “We got Christmas presents. We had a car. But if a tire went, we had to wait for someone to get paid so we could get a used one.”

Back when Molineux was growing up in Glenolden, Delaware County, being underprivileged was a requirement for attending Paradise Farm Camps. Neighborhood parents fostered children, and when they were heading to “Paradise,” Molineux was also offered the opportunity. “I talked to my parents, and we fit the economic background, too,” says the 59-year-old Delaware County lawyer.

paradise farm

Paradise Farm Camps president and CEO Andy Schaum. Photo by Tessa Marie Images

Decades later, Molineux would serve on its board. As he was arriving for his board interview one day, president and CEO Andy Schaum saw Molineaux pulling up the driveway to his office in the year-round education center. Then, suddenly, Molineaux vanished. He’d gone to find the cabin he stayed in as a camper. “It was weird going back,” Molineaux says. “It was like finding a box in the attic and knowing what was in it. Having all these memories condensed by time and place, over one summer—it was pretty emotional.”

“There are thousands of stories like that—thousands,” says Schaum.

Paradise Farm’s history of social work innovation and land preservation dates to 1875. The overnight and day programs on its nearly 600 acres have long been a model in the region for positively impacting youth amid nature. Legally, the entity’s name has always been connected with Children’s Country Week Association. Over time, the acreage, which is mostly in East Bradford Township but also includes 80 acres of woodlands in neighboring East Caln, has expanded along with the camp’s reputation as one of the oldest in America. “We can’t prove we’re the oldest,” Schaum says. “We may be, but to say we’re one of the oldest is fair.”

For almost a century, Paradise Farm was an overnight camp for disadvantaged youth. The day camp was launched in 2004, partly to subsidize the overnight program. Camp programs serve ages 4–16 and run from late June through mid-August. Facilities abound—25 cabins, two dining halls, three meeting lodges, an open-air gymnasium, a pool, hard-top game courts, two softball fields, a sand volleyball court, an outdoor amphitheater, hiking trails and vast woodlands.

During the spring and fall, when school is in session, programming for local public and private schools focuses on outdoor education and team-building programs. Summer day camps now serve some 275 campers each week. Slots are typically sold out before winter ends.

Now 59, Schaum was an ice hockey guy, mostly because of the success of the Philadelphia Flyers in the 1970s. He learned to skate from Flyer Barry Ashbee, and legendary goalie Bernie Parent taught him to guard the net at what was then Westtown Sports Center, where he ended up coaching goalies himself. Schaum became Penn State University’s goaltender before its Division I days, and that helped him develop his management style. “If you’re not focused as a goalie, the puck’s in the net,” he says.

Of late, camp management hasn’t been without challenges, especially with COVID-19 and the intense societal focus on child sexual abuse. Schaum also needs to update aging infrastructure. “After my first 10 years, we’d become sustainable and were looking at options for growth,” he says. “Now, we’re trying to get back to sustainable.”

Through the pandemic, it’s been about survival in the woods. “We’re learning that these kids are two years behind,” Schaum says. “Fifth-graders are acting like third-graders. We remain convinced that they need to be in the outdoors. What we do here is beautiful.”

Camp pioneer Eliza Sproat Turner and her all-female cohorts and board members believed that children confined to an urban upbringing would benefit in countless ways from “a country experience.” The women first used their farms—Turner’s was in Chadds Ford. They knocked on doors in Philadelphia, asking parents to surrender their children for a two-week stay to connect with nature. Focused on morals and manners, the summer camps were catering to 3,000 children in the Philadelphia region by 1910.

Two years later, the women began looking for property, securing 152 acres between Boot Road and Route 322 split between two farms owned by Enoch Pearson and Caleb Mercer—an area known as Paradise Valley. The farmer-in-residence grew vegetables for camp use. Milk cost eight cents a quart, and blocks of ice were hauled in daily from Downingtown for $45 a season. Children ran to Valley Creek to wash, paddle, fish, boat and swim. Boys learned to handle livestock and crops for preparation as farmers.

“Then and now, our responsibility is to raise the next generation of citizens,” says Schaum, who now oversees eight year-round employees, 20–25 part-timers in the spring and fall, and 80 seasonal employees in summer.

Schaum arrived at Paradise Farm Camps as a consultant with legal experience in seeking conservation easements. He became president a year later after securing an easement of about 350 acres with what was then Natural Lands Trust. At one point, Schaum had to confront the Paradise Farm board, telling them that if business continued as usual, the operation would lose half a million dollars the following year. Since then, its $1 million endowment has been augmented. Among those who stood by Schaum was former board member Marshall Schmidt. He helped Schaum pave the connections to the Timby family, which established a trust that pays Paradise Farm Camps a quarterly distribution that significantly supports the operating budget.

Schaum also has a great staff. Among the leadership, Jim Mora is his director of programs. Programs administrator Leah Waldeyer is the granddaughter of Arthur Colley, camp director from 1948 through 1982. He was succeeded by a son, Michael, who served in that same role for a decade. Another son, Bruce, remains on the board, and his daughter, Waldeyer, is a full-time staffer.

Waldeyer’s parents met at camp. “If we had trouble coming up with program, we’d ask [family members], ‘What did you do?’” she says.

Schaum, meanwhile, has fostered the importance of stewardship as one of the largest landowners in Chester County. “I’m an outdoor guy,” Schaum says. “I’m here because of the land.”

And thank goodness. “Otherwise, that place would be chewed up and gone,” Molineux says.

Visit paradisefarmcamps.org

Related: A Chester County Family Fights for the Rights of Those With Disabilities

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