Current Issue

Apr. 6, 2011

Vol. 111, No. 10


What role for Blairstown?

Princeton examines its ties with a camp that serves urban youth 65 miles from campus

By Carolyn Edelstein ’10 GS
Published in the April 6, 2011, issue

A view of Danielson Lodge from Bass Lake at the Princeton-Blairstown Center.
Courtesy Princeton-Blairstown Center
A view of Danielson Lodge from Bass Lake at the Princeton-Blairstown Center.

José Gonzales taught his students in no ordinary classroom — the children would kneel at the foot of a waterfall, attention fixed on a hemlock clinging to the cliff face. Their teacher was a masterful orator. A former fighter pilot and theater major before his career in experiential education, Gonzalez would lead the youth through confidence- and leadership-building activities in the outdoors. “See how the hemlock’s fight to grow has made it beautiful and strong,” he would say. “It won’t blow over in the first storm.”  

During 30 years with the Princeton-Blairstown Center, until he retired in 2001, Gonzalez brought hundreds of campers from the inner cities of the ­tristate area to peer at the tree. The children would unpack the analogy, discussing how struggles within their environments have shaped them.  

The Blairstown Center is a 263-acre wooded campground 65 miles from Nassau Hall that offers hiking trails, high and low ropes courses, a river, and Bass Lake. Against this backdrop, the camp runs weeklong social and emotional learning programs for at-risk urban youth.  

But Blairstown recently has been weathering its own challenges. The departure of two executive directors in three years and the dwindling involvement of Princeton students in recent decades have shaped ongoing discussions between the University administration and the center’s leadership. A question mark hovers over the relationship between the two ­institutions.  

Blairstown operates as an independent support organization of Princeton, with a private $20 million endowment managed by the Princeton University Investment Co. The University contributes 2 percent of the center’s $1.8 million annual budget and offers free use of University office space, information technology, and legal counsel. Blairstown staff members are entitled to University-employee benefits.

In return, the University expects that, like all its support organizations,   Blairstown will contribute to Princeton’s core mission. “For many reasons, it remains important that Blairstown benefits Princeton students,” said Chris Shephard ’98, co-president of the Blairstown board of trustees.  

The center’s leadership is developing a new strategic plan for the organization. Janet Dickerson, who retired in June 2010 as the University’s vice president for campus life, assumed co-presidency of the board with Shephard in December. She said that the planning initiative will look at how best to support both the University and the students “from urban areas or families who are underserved, for whom outdoor activities can enhance their experience in post-secondary education.”

Princeton, Dickerson said, long has recognized that Blairstown “was directly engaged in helping the University transition to a modern university, one that is integrated and that has made civic engagement one of its high-priority goals.”  

Blairstown’s role as a center for civic engagement for Princeton students stems from its founding. The center emerged from the Princeton Summer Camp, created in 1908 for underserved boys by a student evangelical group, the Philadelphia Society of Princeton.

In 1930, Princeton students purchased the land of the current Blairs­town site, located in Hardwick Township. The camp remained almost entirely student-run until the 1970s, and now operates as an independent 501(c)(3) organization.  

Though programs offered by the center have changed over the decades, the “power of service, adventure, and reflection in the outdoors is an old idea,” Shephard said. In 1973, then-executive director John Danielson ’58 transformed the camp into a year-round facility and introduced its experiential education model. Danielson founded the freshman orientation program, Outdoor Action, at Blairstown in 1974.  

In 2006, Blairstown launched programs in urban schools to help students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds enroll at institutions of higher education. Four facilitators run weekly sessions throughout the school year for a total of 350 students at three schools in Trenton and one in East Harlem. The programs include visits to both Blairstown and the Princeton campus.  

To involve more Princeton students, the current executive director, Wardell Robinson-Moore, plans to hire a full-time staff member dedicated to student outreach. She hopes to see more student groups use the facilities and to attract students interested in urban youth and education issues. “In the last three years,   we’ve seen a steady increase in the number of students coming up,” Robinson-Moore said.  

While groups such as Outdoor Action, the Student Volunteers Council, and the Woodrow Wilson School graduate program have used the camp for years, new groups arrived last year, including the varsity lacrosse team and the Undergraduate Student Government. USG president Michael Yaroshefsky ’12 said the retreat was “remarkably successful,” praising both the staff and the beauty of the camp.  

Shephard also has invited students to help lead Blairstown. In December, the trustees elected two M.P.A. students from the Woodrow Wilson School, Larry Handerhan and Elina Sarkisova, to join their ranks. Seven alumni sit on the 21-member board, and another alumnus is a staff member.  

Cynthia Cherrey, Princeton’s vice president for campus life, said it would be premature to discuss the outcome of the talks with the center. Questions remain about how the institutional arrangement affects Blairstown’s ability to “give young people opportunities to challenge and define themselves,” she said, and how Princeton students may contribute to that mission.  

Dickerson said that results of the discussions should grow clearer in coming months.  

Shephard said board members hope the center will continue as a support organization of the University. “Imagining Blairstown striking out on its own is a bit like imagining the molecular biology department leaving,” he said. “Blairstown is inextricably linked to the Princeton community.”
Campers from Princeton, New York, and Philadelphia gathered for this 1948 photo, which includes about a dozen University undergraduates. Standing, far right, is Everard ­Pinneo '48, former camp director and current board member.
Courtesy Princeton-Blairstown Center
Campers from Princeton, New York, and Philadelphia gathered for this 1948 photo, which includes about a dozen University undergraduates. Standing, far right, is Everard ­Pinneo '48, former camp director and current board member.
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4 Responses to What role for Blairstown?

Susan Danielson k'58 Says:

2011-04-07 15:26:56

I grew up at the Princeton-Blairstown Center. My father, John Danielson (Princeton Class of 1958), spent most of his professional life serving the center (first as one of the visionaries, then as Executive director, then director of development, and finally as a Board of Trustees member). My father passed away almost exactly two years ago, but I feel confident speaking on his behalf. He was always very grateful for the education that he pursued and received at Princeton University; however, the education that found him and changed the course of his life, he encountered through his involvement with the Princeton-Blairstown Center (PBC). He was able to take the foundation of his Princeton University education and apply it in the service of the nation supporting the work of the enter to empower under-served youth from the NJ/NY/PA region to chart courses for themselves that they otherwise might not have been able to. My father told us often that parenting was his most important work, and that second to that was the work he did through PBC. I can confidently say that my father's legacy took root at Princeton and took flight at Blairstown. As a second-generation PBC staff and board member, I believe that it would be a tragedy for the relationship between Princeton University and the Princeton-Blairstown Center to dissolve or change in a way that would interfere with PBC's (and by extension, Princeton University's) ability to serve the children of the nation in the way that it currently does and historically has. Warmly, Susan Danielson

Mike Ippolito '60 Says:

2011-04-08 09:16:22

An esteemed '60 classmate and teammate contacted me recently, having read this interesting and informative article on the Blairstown-Princeton connection over these many years. He pointed out, and I learned after reading it myself, that no mention was made of the Princeton football team's pre-season training sessions at Blairstown during the '50s and '60s (not sure when they ended) under Coaches Charlie Caldwell and Dick Colman. The football-playing alums from that era will recall, I'm sure, some grueling weeks of "fun-in-the sun," 2-a-day practices, etc. in the bucolic Blairstown environment where we learned that Princeton football was truly single-wing football. Mostly, I remember lots of laughs, getting to know some great teammates better, and how happy we all were when we broke camp and headed back to "civilization" on the Princeton campus. No discussion of Blairstown is complete without mentioning how important it was to Princeton football during a very successful period in the program's history.

Brett Tomlinson, PAW Says:

2011-04-08 10:32:30

Thanks, Mike. Readers who are curious about Blairstown's football connection might want to check out a 1967 PAW photo essay of training camp, reproduced on our Weekly Blog last August:

Gilbert Baez Says:

2012-11-09 12:33:30

Susan Danielson, your father was a wonderful man with a vision that helped change the course of my life. I grew up in a broken home on the very hard streets of Philadelphia. My mother left my dad with five boys. The staff at the PBC changed the course of my life. By any sociological standard I should be strung out on drugs, in jail or maybe even dead. Instead, I've spent the past 25 years covering news around the world as a TV news reporter for both CBS and ABC local TV stations in North Carolina. PBC opened my eyes to a much broader world, thanks to the students from Princeton University who took on leadership roles at Princeton Summer Camp and the Princeton Education Center at Blairstown. Susan, I remember when you were born. Your father would be proud of your continued service with PBC. It's a place that has touched and changed the lives of countless inter-city youth. My hope is that it continues to do so! Warmest regards, Gilbert Baez, Reporter, ABC 11 Eyewitness News
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CURRENT ISSUE: Apr. 6, 2011
Blairstown's football connection
From 1949 to 1972, the remote camp hosted preseason training for the Tigers.