Deb Jorschick is the executive director of the Essex-based YWCA. The YWCA’s Camp Hochelaga is the last of its residential camps in the country. (Photo by Cindy Chittenden)

Deb Jorschick never thought she’d stay at an overnight camp, let alone direct one of the most recognized camps in Vermont.

But that’s how her career as the YWCA executive director began. Then a freshman in college, her friend convinced her to go to camp with the promise Jorschick could be in charge of land sports.

“I was like, ‘OK, sure,’” Jorschick recalled from her sunny Essex office. “My friend backed out, but my parents told me that since I signed the contract, I had to go. When we drove up to the camp, the first thing I saw were tents. I said to my parents, ‘I am not staying in a tent all summer.’ I ended up going and loved it.”

The camp was Camp Hochelaga, founded in 1919 in South Hero for girls ages 7 to 17. The camp has residential daylong and mini camps that offer activities to build character, self-esteem, self-confidence and leadership skills, its website says. The camp is YWCA’s “anchor program,” though it also puts on anti-racism and anti-violence campaigns.

For more than 30 years, Jorschick wore many hats at the Y before becoming executive director in 2013.

She first worked in a brick building next to Winooski’s Woolen Mill. With 20-foot ceilings, the space’s heating bills became too expensive, and Jorschick had to cash in reserves to make payroll. YWCA had to find a new office with lower costs, ample parking and a central and accessible location.

A friend who worked in Post Office Square let Jorschick know a space there was vacant. Shortly thereafter, she signed a lease.

“The best thing about being in Essex is the location,” she said. “It was hard to navigate in Winooski. The heat and electricity are included, which is a huge cost savings to us. At the end of the year, after filing our taxes, we actually turned a small profit.”

The YWCA is 100 percent dependent on donations. IBM and Global Foundries donated grant money last year to provide new paddleboards for Camp Hochelaga, and for the last five years, lent a team of volunteers to help set up the camp. Ben & Jerry’s and Keurig Green Mountain provide volunteers annually throughout the season and, this year, Comcast paired with members of UVM Athletics to construct a custom fire pit and a gravel path that leads to the water.

Jorschick encourages donations of all kinds. Sleeping bags, bedding and pillows are helpful for the international staff and campers who travel with limited items. Yoga mats for the Y’s women’s retreat in August and items like rain boots, summer hats, toiletries and nonperishable food are always appreciated.

On a larger wish list, the camp is looking for a golf cart to help the handywoman get around the tough terrain now that she’s had a hip replacement.

At camp, no social media is allowed, which has proven to be a life-changing experience for the campers and their parents.

“We have parents say, ‘This is not the same kid I dropped off on Sunday and picked up on Saturday,’” Jorschick said. “At camp, they have to be responsible for their area. The elementary kids sleep in cabins by themselves to create independence. Some of the campers become counselors-in-training. They learn how to supervise, organize and write a lesson plan. All of this transfers into real-life experience.”

Camp Hochelaga in Vermont is YWCA’s last residential camp in the country. Jorschick gives credit to camp alumni for keeping the magic alive. This includes one of the oldest alumnae who is in her 90s and travels twice each summer to the camp to enjoy eating lunch on the porch and singing camp songs.

The YWCA hopes to eventually provide an after-school program for kids who attend the Island schools focusing on leadership skills and education on sexual violence and racism.

For Jorschick, that first trip to Hochelaga and her subsequent years at the YWCA have changed her perspective on life, making her more assertive and empathetic to other women’s struggles, she said.

“There are women that have young girls that have come through our scholarship program … it would break your heart to hear what these girls have witnessed at a young age and what their home lives are like,” she said. “ If I can provide for them one week of camp, it’s respite that they desperately need.”