One Happy Camper Went on to Change the Lives of Many Others

Executive director of The Felix Organization Amanda Ricken Simonetta on channeling her love for childhood camp into a program that benefits thousands of children in the NYC foster care system

| 12 Sep 2022 | 11:32

As a child growing up in Woodstock, New York, Amanda Ricken Simonetta was “a complete and total camp fanatic.” From the age of 8 until she left for college, she attended sleepaway summer camp at Frost Valley in the Catskills and when she aged out, returned as a counselor there and even got married on its grounds.

The now-45-year-old has turned that love for camp into a career that changes the lives of New York City children living in the foster care system. A graduate of NYU with a master’s in school counseling, she was asked to design the camp program for The Felix Organization and more than happily took on the labor of love. “And so, of course, as soon as I heard ‘camp,’ I was like, ‘Oh, I’m so in,’” said Simonetta, who lives in Beacon, New York.

The organization was founded in 2006 after Darryl McDaniels of the Queens hip hop group Run DMC fame and Emmy Award-winning casting director Sheila Jaffe – who at the time were both in the process of looking for their birth families – were introduced. “They felt so fortunate for the successes that they’d had in their lives and they just said, ‘What about all the kids that don’t get this opportunity, that don’t get adopted, float from foster home to foster home and age out of foster care?’”

Camp Felix, which just celebrated its 17th summer, serves New York City children from ages 8 to 13 in the foster care system who are receiving support from The New York Foundling, one of the city’s largest and oldest child welfare agencies. All campers are either in a foster home, given services to prevent removal from their homes or attending the charter school Haven Academy, created specifically for children in foster care.

From that original program, they’ve grown to a total of five overnight camps and two day-camps and this year alone, served 2,000 youths, which Simonetta explained happened organically. “We started with one and we’ve just blossomed, and it’s come from a place of seeing over these 16 years what are the needs of the kids and how can we jump in to meet those needs,” she said.

You first moved to the city to attend NYU, right?

I always knew that I wanted to live in New York City and my parents didn’t want me to go to NYU because of the price tag and that was my dream. So I started out at UMass Amherst and did one semester there and it just was not for me. And so I worked for that first semester on applying as a transfer to NYU and my parents were like, “We’re not doing a thing. If you do everything and could get in and get financial aid, then you could go.” So I made it my job and by the next semester I was at NYU and loved it from the second I got there.

How did your job launching Camp Felix come about?

My background is in education. I have my master’s degrees in school counseling, and I was actually a guidance counselor for many years. But I had a caseload of 800 kids and I was like, “I’m not making an impact.” So I started putting feelers out for a job change and the person I reached out to was Michael Lang, who was the promoter and founder of the Woodstock festival, because I had been his assistant on the Woodstock ’99 festival.

Are you serious? I’ve been watching the Woodstock ’99 documentary.

I actually make a cameo in a couple places. I was on the couch as one of the exhausted workers, but mostly I’m just dialing phones in the background, which checks out. That was pretty much my job. But I remained really close with Michael Lang; I really saw him as a mentor in my life. And he was on the board of a small organization that was just getting started called The Felix Organization. And he said, “You know, this organization I’m on the board of is starting a camp, and I think this could be a really perfect fit for you.”

They basically hired me to design the program. There was nothing really in place and so it was about figuring out how to recruit campers, put the camp schedule together, what the activities were going to be, bringing people up to the camp site to do different activities with the kids, figuring out how to work with the health department and the camp applications. It was all of the nitty-gritty ins and outs of running a camp and so I was so in. I actually took a friend of mine who worked at Frost Valley at the time, who was kind of higher up, out to breakfast and I just said, “Ok, I need all the information.” So a lot of the activities and things that we do that have become signature Camp Felix traditions started out as things that we did at Frost Valley.

Tell us about all of your camp programs.

The original camp, we lovingly call it OG Camp Felix, which we started in 2006. We were located at a new location this year ... a beautiful campsite in New Jersey which has so much more than our previous facility. It has a lake, zipline, climbing wall, so many activities for the kids, fishing, boating, archery.

We launched a brand new camp this summer called Camp Felix Pride and it’s for LGBTQ+ youth and allies in the foster care system and we partnered with The New York Foundling and had kids from The Foundling and a few other agencies attend. It serves that intersecting population which really is an underserved group that really has more challenges than even just kids growing up in foster care. That was launched this year at a site up in Connecticut. It was a weeklong camp and it was amazing and beyond what we expected in terms of the kids jumping right in. The staff was amazing. We’re looking to expand that program quite a bit in future summers.

Our third camp program is called Camp Felix West and that’s an overnight camp for kids in the Los Angeles foster care system. Our fourth and fifth camps kind of are in tandem because they are our teen overnight programs. One is called Bryan’s Camp Felix and that’s for New York City-based teen boys in foster care and then we have a teen girls’ getaway, sort of the sister camp for teen girls in the foster care system. Both of those take place at this great location called Club Getaway in Kent, Connecticut. Those are each a week long and more geared towards the teen population, which is really a higher risk group in foster care because they’re closer in age to aging out of the system with no safety net. And those kids are less likely to be adopted.

Then we have two day-camp programs which actually came out of the pandemic. They were a result of not being able to do overnight camp in 2020 and partially in 2021. One idea came from Sheila [Jaffe], one of our founders, who said, “Let’s take them on day trips, that’s something that a lot of kids have as part of their childhood with their families.” We worked with this partner organization called Good Shepherd Services and took kids from girls’ group homes who were all quarantined together in the city and we said, “Let’s put them on a bus and take them to these beautiful destinations in upstate New York, to the beach, to the mountains.” So we did a series of eight Friday road trips and we called it Camp Felix Road Trips and it was such a hit with the kids; they loved it.

Our last program is the Camp Felix Garden program which is the only program that doesn’t serve New York City kids, besides our L.A. program. We work with an organization called the Children’s Home of Poughkeepsie, and that’s in upstate New York in the Hudson Valley. These kids live in a residential home and we thought, “What if they built a garden on the property that they can tend ... and also have a safe space to go?” And we did just that.

There is also a program where over former campers return in leadership positions. Give us a story about a camper who came back to work there.

One real standout case is a woman named Tiffany Araya, who works full time with The Felix Organization as our program and marketing manager. She was a camper at Camp Felix way back when and she was so brilliant and talented and wonderful that we recruited her right out of college to come work for us and she’s actually the camp director of our teen girls’ camp now.