Good Neighbors: Volunteer serves as camp grandma

For six weeks each summer, Cindy Ferjanec of Clifton Park becomes grandma to an active, giggling, ga
Cindy Ferjanec, rear, volunteers at the Okte Elementary School in Clifton Park’s summer recreation program.
Cindy Ferjanec, rear, volunteers at the Okte Elementary School in Clifton Park’s summer recreation program.

For six weeks each summer, Cindy Ferjanec of Clifton Park becomes grandma to an active, giggling, game-playing brood of about 135 children.

For three hours each weekday morning at the Okte Elementary School site of the town’s summer recreation program, Ferjanec can be found jogging the outdoor fields alongside the fledgling soccer stars, wiping fingers stained with glittery ink from stamp art, topping snow cones with cherry flavoring or joining the youngsters wearing their clothes inside out on backward day.

With just two grandchildren of her own, Ferjanec was inspired to become a summer camp volunteer five years ago when her then-5-year-old granddaughter, Taylor Davies, first stepped foot into the doorway of the Shenendehowa district elementary school that she didn’t attend.

“Taylor goes to Ballston Spa schools, so for her, it was a totally new place with all new kids,” Ferjanec said. “I went to drop her off and saw more than one child crying because they didn’t know anyone, and I stayed to help and just kept going back, and here I am today. I’ve never regretted one single moment with these kids.”

Over the years, Ferjanec, a former nurse for infants and young children, has come up with imaginative ways to draw campers out of their shells and make them feel important.

“I went up to one little boy and asked for his help finding a raccoon in one of the classrooms,” Ferjanec said. “His eyes opened wide and he searched with me for a raccoon that wasn’t there, but in the process forgot all his worries. That’s my goal: to make sure every single child here leaves at the end of the day happy and wanting to come back.”

A firm believer in encouraging the unique abilities in youngsters, Ferjanec doesn’t push any activity on children who aren’t having fun.

“There was a boy one morning so frustrated trying to do the hula hoop, and I took him over to dodgeball instead and he did great and felt like a hero,” Ferjanec said.

Ferjanec’s interest in the welfare of children dates back to her training at St. Joseph’s Infant’s Hospital in Troy, where she saw firsthand the heartbreaking struggles of little ones.

“I held a baby that died in my arms. That’s something you never get over,” Ferjanec said, wiping away her own tears. “I held children who were abused and rocked them all night long. I realized then that no child should be in such great pain. If I had a lot of money, I’d open a home for kids in need.”

Living within walking distance of Okte, Ferjanec strides energetically to the camp site each morning before 9 and is one of the first people the children see waiting to greet them as they climb down the school bus steps. She calls many of the children by name.

“Parents tell me they feel relieved leaving the kids in our care,” Ferjanec said. “I’m no different from anyone else. Anyone can give these kids this love and attention. I just have a big heart.”

Over the course of five summers that she says have “flown by,” Ferjanec has welcomed kindergartners into the camp program that she once saw in baby carriers.

During the school year, Ferjanec volunteers at Wood Road Elementary School in Ballston Spa.

Ed Martinez, director of the Okte recreation site, said Ferjanec treats all staff members, including the many high school-aged camp counselors, like family.

“She’s just a great person and she’s everywhere,” Martinez said. “You look around in any situation and she’s the first one there to help out.”

Ferjanec said she wouldn’t dream of taking monetary compensation for her active work days.

“You can’t put a dollar amount on what these kids give back to me,” Ferjanec said. “I get it back a hundred times over. When the season ends, they hug me goodbye and I feel that little tug at the heartstrings. I leave with so many happy memories.”

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