Categories: Feature Story
      Date: Feb 27, 2009
     Title: Fields of Dreams

Sports camps stress fun, skills and exercise in a safe environment

By Merrilee Witherell

What can parents expect when they choose a sports camp for their child? It depends on the camp.


What can parents expect when they choose a sports camp for their child? It depends on the camp. The factors to consider are numerous and varied: your child’s interests and talents, the location, the cost, the coaching staff, whether your children of different ages can participate together (or whether they want to), and whether it would be best to work on skill-building for a sport your child already likes, or to use the opportunity to try something new. 

Many parents like that a camp can expose children to a sport without the time, commitment, travel and rigor of joining a team at school.

Joe Mallaro

Collect ’em all!: Joe Mallaro, 9, holds some of the trophies in the sports-loving household. Behind him are siblings Sam, 17, Vinny, 13, and Abbey, 15, with a box of pins exchanged at the baseball-themed Dreams Park in Cooperstown. 

awards case

cooperstown pin

Cooperstown, the legendary home of baseball, is also home to Dreams Park, a residential baseball camp that benefits from proximity to the Baseball Hall of Fame and Abner Doubleday Field, named for baseball’s inventor. 

Lou Presutti, known as “The Coach,” is one of the park’s creators and owners. The idea for the camp sprang from a long-ago remark by Presutti’s father. “My dad said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if every kid in America could play here in the legendary home of baseball?’” In 1996, Dreams Park was born. 

Dreams Park is a camp where teams form on their own and come to the camp together. They sign up for one week at a time, and tournaments are held all summer long, with teams from all over the United States and Canada participating. The park hosts 1,200 teams each year and always has a waiting list. 

“I think if there’s a young boy, 10 or 11, and he’s beginning to dream the dream, and willing to work for it, my advice to him is to talk to his parents, talk to his coaches if he has them, and if not, just talk to his buddies and get a team started,” says Presutti. “It would be like going on a rocket ship to the moon!” 

One week at Dreams Park is reserved for kids 10 and under; one week exclusively for girls’ teams; and otherwise team participants are 11 and 12 years old. Boys live at the clubhouse for the week, together with their team and the coaches. Since many teams have some girls, but not a majority, the girls have a separate clubhouse that members of different teams share. 

Don’t expect to send your kids and take off for the beach while they’re at Dreams Park. This is a family affair. Families come to Cooperstown and stay at hotels, campgrounds and bed-and-breakfasts. There is a Mom’s Club, a Dad’s Club, and a Grandparents’ Club. 

“This is the game as it was supposed to be played,” Presutti says. “To honor the uniform, honor the game. It is more than skills: It is inspiration.” 

Vinny Mallaro agrees. “The first home run I had just felt great!” the North Syracuse 13-year-old says. Mallaro has participated in Dreams Park for each of the past two years with his team, the Central New York Major League All-Stars. “The coaches helped me through all of the tough times I had with catching or other skills, but it was fun. It was amazing to play with teams from all over.” 

Mallaro’s team raised the funds to participate by selling candy bars, and by doing car washes, raffles, a comedy night and other fund-raisers. 

It costs approximately $1,500 per participant, but Vinny’s mother Karin believes it was worth it and notes that if you do enough fund raising, it’s free. “It’s expensive. It’s worth it. It’s priceless,” she says. “It is so family-oriented, and all the other kids and their parents are there, so you connect with them and it becomes a great family vacation. My only regret is that we didn’t do this with Sam, our oldest son.” Meanwhile, the coaching and skills building is top-notch: Past Dreams Park participants have made it to the big leagues and even the World Series.

A more typical sports program is Lil’ Kickers, a morning soccer camp for kids ages 4 to 9, run by SportCenter481 in East Syracuse. The curriculum was developed by two child psychologists who were also soccer players, and is a franchise operating across the country. 

Janice Vitale, manager at SportCenter481, explains that the idea behind the program is to get younger children used to the idea that exercise is fun. “Our camp is a safe environment for little ones, so parents can feel secure.”

SportCenter481’s All-Sport Challenge is offered in the afternoon for age 5 and older. “We play kickball, hide-and-seek, whiffle ball and soccer, both for skill-building and fun,” Vitale says. Kids age 5 and older can also enroll for an all-day program that includes lunch. 

“For some of the children, this is their first experience with sports, with soccer, and with camp,” Vitale says. “The first day they may be gripping their parents’ hands, and by the last day they are drawing pictures for the coach and they don’t want to leave.” 

SportCenter481 aims to offer a supportive environment. All-Sport Challenge is offered all summer long, while Lil’ Kickers takes place for two to three weeks during the summer months. 

Margaret Liberatore, a parent in Auburn, saw sports camp as an inexpensive way to provide an active outlet for her children during the summer months. Alexis, age 11, Carmen, 9, and Dante, 6, attended Auburn Tennis Camp for four weeks last summer, for a budget-conscious cost of $40 per child. “And it included a T-shirt!” Liberatore says.

Karin Mallaro about Dreams Park: “My only regret is that we didn’t do this with Sam, our oldest son.” (Sam, sitting next to his sister, Abbey, holds a plaque he earned for playing basketball on a special varsity all-star team.) 

Beyond the camp’s cost, Liberatore chose it because she loves tennis and wanted to introduce her children to the experience. “The tennis camp run by Auburn High School coaches takes first through sixth graders together, so all of my children were able to participate at the same time,” she says. A separate session is available for young people in grades seven through 12. “The fact that the camp is run by the high school coaches gave me a lot of confidence in the program.” 

One advantage in Liberatore’s view was the amount of time that the kids actually spend engaged in the activity. “It gives children a chance to get a lot of focused playtime at sport. When you play on a team, you often only get a few minutes of playtime during a game. Participating in a sports camp allows them to really improve their skills and build confidence.” At first, 6-year-old Dante didn’t want to go, and even refused to hold his tennis racket, Liberatore says. “But by the end of the first lesson he was hooked and wanted to play for the entire four weeks.” 

Local colleges, city and town municipal programs, and private businesses all offer a wide variety of sports camps at several price levels. Onondaga Community College and Syracuse University offer numerous camps including ones focused on lacrosse. SUNY Oswego’s selection includes volleyball and boys’ and girls’ ice hockey. Colgate College and Hamilton College both sponsor summer camp programs. Hamilton’s programs include continental squash camps. There really does seem to be something for everyone. And if a summer camp just doesn’t suit your style or schedule, there’s always the Wii. Tennis, anyone?  

MICHAEL DAVIS PHOTOS