Remembering Mott Camp: An experience that helped shape the habits of a lifetime

Mott Camp for Boys children diving in for a swim.
Learning to swim was an important part of the Mott Camp experience.

In the spring of 1929, Charles Stewart Mott purchased land on Pero Lake, about 15 miles east of the Mott Foundation’s home community of Flint, to establish a summer camp for boys. Mott Camp, along with the Mott Children’s Health Center, the Visiting Teachers Program, and the Mott Program of Recreation through the Flint Board of Education formed the core of the Foundation’s first organized program of grantmaking. Together, these programs would contribute to the creation of a national model for community education. Today, the Mott Foundation continues to fund a variety of community school and summer programs for Flint-area youth, with the goal of keeping them safe, productive and connected to their community. A former Mott Camper tells how such programs can have positive, long-term effects.

Back in the 1950s, attending Mott Camp for Boys was Gary Goodenough’s first adventure outside the confines of his neighborhood — his first opportunity, he said, to step out into a bigger world, to experience a different way of life and, best of all, to meet new people and try new things.

Mott Camp for Boys former camper Gary Goodenough (left), his cousin Don Diehl (right) walking on the property where the camp was located.
Gary Goodenough (left) and his cousin Don Diehl walk the perimeters of the old camp.
Photo: Rick Smith

“It came at the right time in my life,” said Goodenough. “I went to Mott Camp during the fourth, fifth and sixth grades, the time when you’re beginning to notice the people around you, think about your future and understand your place in the world.

“You’re at a crossroads at that age.  You have a lot of choices to make.  You need some guidance about which way you’re going to go,” he said.

The old camp, one of Charles Stewart Mott’s first philanthropic projects, served thousands of children — mostly boys ages 10 to 14 — through its 40 years of operation.  Originally designed as a “fresh air” camp for urban children, many of the practices developed there — physical fitness, service to others, teamwork and cooperation — ultimately were integrated into the community school concept that helped to change the ways Americans used their schools and school buildings.

Mott Camp for Boys mess hall
When it was established in 1933, one of the goals of Mott Camp was to make sure campers had three full meals each day, to “improve poor physical conditions by good and sufficient food.”

Closed in 1973, little is left of the camp today, save traces of the foundations of the old barracks and a bonfire circle on the beach at Pero Lake.  The camp site, now occupied by private homes, was deeded to the Genesee County Parks & Recreation Commission with the understanding that it would be sold and that money from the sale would be used to help build a camp near the Holloway Recreation area in Mott’s home community of Flint.

In the summer of 2013, Goodenough, who still lives in the Flint area, set out with his cousin, Don Diehl, to revisit the old campsite.

“For years, Gary would tell stories about Mott Camp.  It meant a lot to him,” said Diehl.  “So I said, ‘Let’s go find it.’”

What Goodenough found were memories and a renewed sense of gratitude for an experience he says helped make him the man he has become.

Mott Camp photo against the backdrop of the property as it looks today.
A silo, still standing decades after Mott Camp opened and closed, marks the main entrance.
Photo: Rick Smith

“The camp was like a little world of its own.  You had to work to make yourself fit in, find your place, figure out who the leaders were or maybe be a leader yourself, sometimes.  The college kids who worked as counselors — I wanted to be just like them.

“Mott Camp taught me there was something bigger out there for me, something bigger than my own little life,” he said.

Now a grandfather of six, Goodenough believes the early mentoring — the investment of time and attention given at an age when he was most receptive to it — planted the seeds of curiosity and concern for others that still motivate him today.

Charles Stewart Mott at Mott Camp speaking with a child and (we believe) Frank Farry, camp director.
Mr. Mott talks with one of the younger campers and (we believe) Frank Farry, camp director.

“Gary gives a lot,” said Diehl, citing his cousin’s lifelong efforts to give back to his community and its children through such organizations as the Big Brothers Big Sisters of America. More recently, says Diehl, Goodenough has rallied an international group of condominium owners to help relieve some of the hardships experienced by families living in the small villages surrounding Puerto Vallarta, where he and his wife have vacationed for the past 20 years.

“It’s not charity,” says Goodenough.  “We get back as much as we give in friendship with each other and the people in Mexico.”

Goodenough’s curiosity about the world outside his “his own little life” has taken him to Europe, where at age 65, he “drifted” through several countries with a backpack, befriending people from all over the world during his two-month stay.

But he worries that too many children today don’t have the opportunities to build that sense of curiosity and confidence that have become lifelong habits for him.

“That’s why I became involved in Big Brothers and tried to help other cities start programs,” he said.  His own “little brothers” were great kids, only needing a chance to “break away and experience new things” under the guidance of a caring adult.

“That’s why the camp — and the community schools in Flint — were so great for me as I was growing up,” he said. “Summertime can be empty for a lot of kids. They need places to go, somewhere to try new things.  And they need mentors, someone who cares — a teacher, a coach, a counselor.

“Because if no one cares, how can they learn to care?”