Armando Toppi admits he wasn’t necessarily on the right track as teenager growing up on Rochester’s Norton Street. At 17 he enjoyed the city life, often hanging around the wrong crowd and getting into trouble.
“I wasn’t the best kid,” Toppi said. “But in 1973, a family friend asked me to ride along to pick up one of my friends at Camp Stella Maris. It was divine intervention, really. I went and one of the priests asked me if I wanted to volunteer at the camp. I agreed, and they picked me up the next day. The rest is history.”
Toppi, also known as “Tiz” to campers and staff, enjoyed the camp so much that first year that he has returned as a staff member for the last 34 years.
“If it weren’t for (Camp Stella Maris), who knows where I’d be,” the Corning resident remarked. “The camp has meant so much to me. It’s such a spiritual place, and it’s just amazing to keep coming back and seeing the staff and campers. Now I see the campers from years ago sending their own kids. It’s remarkable.”
Toppi is especially looking forward to camp this summer, because 2006 marks the camp’s 80th anniversary.
“The fact that we’re still around means we’re doing the right thing,” he said. “Eighty years is a great accomplishment, and you think that the kids change, but the experience is the same. They gather together in their faith and share such great memories. It’s really a magical place.”
Founded in 1926 by two seminarians, Camp Stella Maris initially was operated by clergy and served only boys. Since then, it has grown into a co-ed camp serving 3,000 children annually in seasonal resident and day camp programs.
A self-supporting affiliate of the Diocese of Rochester, the camp is located on Conesus Lake in Livingston County. As part of its anniversary celebration, camp officials have decided to launch a staff alumni association and reunion.
“We are incorporating the 80th anniversary into everything we do this summer,” said Natalie Anderson, executive camp director. “We are bringing back as many activities as we can, and trying to reunite as many staff alumni as we can.”
Leading up to a staff reunion on July 29, a grassroots effort is underway to reach as many of the alumni staff as possible. Camp officials estimate staff alumni in the thousands, but the database lists only several hundred.
“When I first came to Camp Stella Maris, I heard time and time again past staff talking about their incredible memories of their summers here,” Anderson said. “That’s when I realized the magic doesn’t stop with the campers. There is a passion in their words unlike anything I had ever heard. Colleges have alumni associations, so why not camp?”
Father Robert Schrader – who was a counselor at the camp in 1972 and served as its chaplain and on its board of directors during the 1980s – noted that Camp Stella Maris provides a great opportunity for ministry to children.
“I enjoyed it when parents came and dropped off their kids on a Sunday,” remarked Father Schrader, pastor of the Winton-Culver Catholic Community. “Families traveled from all over New York and beyond. Many of the parents had been campers, and it still goes back generations.”
Having also attended camp with his brother during the 1960s, Father Schrader said he’s had the opportunity to see Camp Stella Maris both as a camper and as a priest. “It’s a wonderful opportunity to talk about God and do different activities related to faith. Good faith in a Christian environment — I think that’s why it’s been such a success.”
Camp director Fiona Willis, herself a former camper, is working on the launch of the alumni association and looking forward to the reunion.
“There’s nowhere else like it,” she said. “You’re thrown together at all ages and personalities and you have this amazing experience in a faith setting. You learn a lot about others and yourself.
“To me, the anniversary is a springboard for the alumni,” Willis added. “It’s a way to get everyone connected again. We shared so much together and many of us look back with such joy. It would be great to capture some of that again.”
Former members of the staff at Camp Stella Maris can register for the staff alumni association at www.campstellamaris.org or by calling 585-346-2243, ext. 132.