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ALUMNI UPDATE

PERROTTI-VERBOVEN AT HOME AT CAMP HORIZONS

              Former Eastern athlete's career path has gone in a rewarding direction

By Lindsay Shafer and Bob Molta
Sports Information Office

 

In 1991, when Lauren Perrotti-Verboven was a senior at Eastern Connecticut State University, she participated in an internship at Camp Horizons in nearby South Windham.

Little did she know that she would be spending the next 15 years there.

The original purpose of the internship was to provide required credits so that she could complete her minor in Recreation and Leisure Management (referred to now as Sport and Leisure Management). However, when the co-founder of Camp Horizons, Inc., Chris McNaboe, saw Perrotti-Verboven’s hard work and dedication, she began looking for ways to keep her on board.

Sisters Chris and Kathleen McNaboe founded Camp Horizons in 1979. As special education teachers, they wanted to create a fun-filled place for children and adults who are mentally handicapped. Today, 26 years later, Camp Horizons has expanded by leaps and bounds and now offers Winter Weekend Camping, Year Round Person Centered Support Services, as well as the ever-popular Residential Summer Camping. Camp Horizons has 133 current campers, ranging in ages from eight to 60 years old. The campers come from all over the world, including places such as Japan, England, California, Texas, and Florida. The camp is proud to recognize that they have a 92 percent return rate on campers.

Employees of CH are actively recruited by the agency. They hail from all over the world, with 70 of the 130 staff members coming from countries other than the United States. This past summer, for instance, staff members came from countries such as Egypt, South Korea, and Holland.

According to camp officials, the main goal of CH is to provide each camper with the opportunity to learn new skills each time they attend a camping session. Moreover, CH wants its campers to gain a sense of fulfillment from the activities, which include arts and crafts, woodworking, pottery, swimming, tennis, miniature golf, basketball and horseback riding.

The program has flourished over the past decade, and one of the individuals responsible for the transition into the international spotlight is Lauren Perrotti-Verboven.

Because Perrotti-Verboven was a senior captain on Eastern’s basketball team that went to the NCAA Division III Final Four in March of 1991, what started as a semester-long internship in the winter of 1991 became condensed into just two months. The abbreviated internship meant that instead of putting in a couple of hours a week, she was required to devote close to fulltime hours -- on top of weekends. The time and effort that she put in over those two months showed McNaboe that Perrotti-Verboven was a special person who might have the commitment needed to get the program to the next level.

For her part, however, Perrotti-Verboven was not quite ready to take the plunge. Following completion of the internship, she still had to student teach in the fall of 1991 as part of her major in Education. Although the McNaboes were offering her a tremendous opportunity, Perrotti-Verboven took the summer off in order to weigh her options.

Throughout the summer, McNaboe was determined to keep in touch with her on a regular basis.

“Chris would call me every couple of months and ask me to come in and help her with things,” recalls Perrotti-Verboven, a native of Torrington. “She didn’t really need my help; she was just keeping tabs on what I was doing, she tells me now.”

Perrotti-Verboven spent the next fall student teaching in nearby Montville, while also acting as an assistant basketball coach at Eastern under former head coach Dr. Bob Miller. Come the next summer, Perrotti-Verboven had no concrete job opportunities, so she accepted a position as waterfront director at CH.

At the end of the summer, another job opportunity opened up when the camp received a one-year grant to hire a year-round weekend coordinator.  She gave up her coaching position at Eastern, but continued to teach at Eastern on a part time basis. The next year, a staff member resigned and Perrotti-Verboven was offered a promotion to the vacant camp director position, where she would remain for the next half-dozen years. As the agency began to grow, new positions were regularly created, and Perrotti-Verboven was always a viable candidate for the top positions. Eventually, she would land her current position as director of operations and human resources.

“We found that we weren’t just hiring one or two full time people per year; every month we were needing to hire more full time people as programs kept expanding,” remembers Perrotti-Verboven. “And we didn’t have a centralized way of doing it, so managers just did their own interviews and did their own hiring. So then they asked if I would do the human resource part… I was already doing it for the summer camps myself but now we had hired an assistant director.” That new assistant director for the summer camp was Eastern graduate Beth Mucci, who had followed the path to CH through the Adaptive PE class.

Throughout her rise through the ranks at CH, one thing has always remained true: Perrotti-Verboven has always maintained passion and enthusiasm for her programs. On a typical day, she’s in her office from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. and puts in many additional night hours, as well. It is not uncommon to find her back in the office between the hours of nine and midnight. Each day is different; some days she will be bogged down with human resource work like interviewing, checking references over the phone, and hiring individuals to staff CH’s numerous programs. Other days, she has more time to spend with the campers. Whenever there is a crisis, it is her job to respond to the incident and follow up in the appropriate fashion. Each day, however, she makes an effort to get all the way to the other end of the camp, even if it means scheduling meetings there.

She begins her day by having breakfast twice: first with the staff and then with the campers. The mornings are a time to assist nurses with medication, coordinate rides for the staff, and account for campers who are sick and who are present. A morning meeting with all of the camp’s administrators is next. At the meeting, everyone gets an overview of the day and issues are discussed. McNaboe will also attend with any new or concerning issues.

Another staff meeting -- run by Perrotti-Verboven – follows lunch. On occasion, she also finds time to meet with the executive director about agency issues.

Although it has been some time since Perrotti-Verboven has been standing in front of a classroom, it is obvious by the way she orchestrates her staff meetings that she has not lost her ability to teach. She is fully aware that students are changing and so is their way of learning. Students are much more visual learners today, and she has recognized that and refocused her staff meetings, and her camp counselor training to adapt to that style.

Perrotti-Verboven’s success is not surprising to Eastern Professor of Health and Physical Education Dr. Dan Switchenko, who was Perrotti-Verboven’s instructor for Anatomy and Physiology and Exercise Physiology. Switchenko was also serving as men’s basketball coach while Perrotti-Verboven was playing on the women’s team under Dr. Bob Miller.

“Lauren is dedicated, first of all, and her employees see that,” observes Switchenko. “She shows them ultimate respect. She wouldn’t ask them to do anything that she wouldn’t do.”

Switchenko, who has written the definitive book on enthusiasm and passion during his 25-year career, saw a similar drive in Perrotti -- the undergraduate and basketball player 15 years ago -- and he still sees it in Perrotti-Verboven, the professional, today.

“We were very, very well aware of Lauren’s leadership abilities when she was an undergraduate. So, for her to have done the job that she has done at Camp Horizons is of no surprise to me,” says Switchenko, who singles her out as the very best captain of any men or women’s sport at Eastern in his 13-year tenure (1981-94) as head men’s basketball coach. “She’s always enthusiastic about what she does – she has a passion for what she does. She has a great attitude. She’s mentally tough. She exhibits all of those leadership qualities that make leaders who and what they are.”

Perrotti-Verboven’s commitment to and belief in young people – both campers and Eastern students – may stem from her own college experience, which almost never materialized. Admittedly lacking direction when she arrived at Eastern (Perrotti-Verboven: “I was only 17 years old and had never lived on my own. I was just goofy.”), Perrotti-Verboven was overwhelmed by the level of play of her basketball teammates in the fall of her freshman year. Intimidated and uncertain, she left the team just days prior to the season’s opening weekend.

As a sophomore, Perrotti-Verboven was willing to give basketball another try, but was told by Miller that she would need to work hard on her skills and that she would need to lose 15 pounds before the first tryout. Fifteen minutes before that first tryout in mid-October, Perrotti-Verboven got cold feet again. Panicked, she called the home of her high school basketball coach, Michael Fritsch. Fritsch wasn’t at home. His wife answered the phone, and offered some gentle advice. “She said ‘you have to go back to playing basketball,’” Perrotti-Verboven vividly recalls. “’I’m telling you, put your sneakers on and go to the gym,’ she said. ‘I know that if (Coach Fritsch) was here, that’s what he’d be saying.’”

Perrotti-Verboven credits numerous members of the Eastern community with pointing her in the right direction, specifically Miller, his wife Dr. Judy Bourell-Miller, and Switchenko. All were members of the Health and Physical Education teaching staff during Perrotti-Verboven’s undergraduate years.

“There is no gray area with Coach Miller,” says Perrotti-Verboven, who often becomes emotional when speaking about the relationship with her former coach, mentor and friend.  “Either you didn’t like him, or you loved him. I was one of those people who will always be grateful to him. All the things that he did for me… I’m sure he’s never told anybody (what he did), and he gets mad if you (credit him).” Perrotti-Verboven is also indebted to Bourell-Miller, who took on many roles. “She helped me map out my day,” says Perrotti-Verboven. “We didn’t look at a specific subject, we looked at my life.”

Switchenko marvels at Perrotti-Verboven’s radical transformation from a confused freshman to a confident and committed upperclassman.

 “For the first year-and-a-half, Lauren wasn’t focused, she had no direction,” remembers Switchenko. “Then, for whatever reason, she began to change, and became focused and directed to the extent that she not only got A’s, but she got the highest grades in each of those classes. The transition was remarkable.”

For her part, Perrotti-Verboven views Switchenko as someone who “doesn’t let me forget the good things that I’ve done. A lot of people won’t let you forget mistakes, but he doesn’t forget when you’ve done a good job. And I like that about him. (As a student) he motivated me a lot. His classes were competitive, which I loved.”

While her professional life appears to be all consuming, Perrotti-Verboven also has a husband of eight years – Eastern alumnus Dan Verboven -- and a family which includes three young children.  Until three years ago, the family resided on the grounds of CH before moving into their own home in Columbia.

Dan, a former captain and four-year baseball letterwinner at Eastern, also developed a love of working with the campers, working for a short time as a mentor. At present, he is the transition coordinator at E.O. Smith High School in Storrs.

Aside from her commitment to CH, Perrotti-Verboven has also helped to make Eastern students aware of job opportunities in the field. When she was teaching at Eastern, she incorporated CH as part of the fieldwork for a class entitled Adaptive Physical Education. When she came across a student that she felt would fit in well at CH, she would work extra hard to keep them on staff after the official internship was over.

One of those students was Beth Mucci. A native of Enfield, Mucci was a four-year soccer letterwinner at Eastern who served as a senior captain in the fall of 2000. Mucci began as a Physical Education major, but “didn’t feel comfortable teaching,” so she switched her major to Sport and Leisure Management, with a minor in Physical Education. She now serves as assistant director of staff services.

After taking the Adaptive PE class in the fall of her junior year, Mucci fell in love with the experience, expressing those sentiments to Perrotti-Verboven. “I told Lauren that I really liked doing it, and that money wasn’t the (most important) thing.” Soccer commitments in the fall limited her involvement at CH; she worked weekends in the spring and came aboard as a counselor in the summer of her junior year. Upon graduation, she was appointed to a fulltime position.

Mucci credits Perrotti-Verboven with providing her with a career opportunity. “If I hadn’t had to take that (Adaptive PE) class, I know that I wouldn’t be here. Lauren opened a door that isn’t necessarily accessible to everybody,” says Mucci, who feels that if not for Perrotti-Verboven, she would have probably ended up with a mundane job in the parks and recreation field.

Like many, Mucci recalls feeling very uneasy during her first exposure to Camp Horizons.

“At first, I was nervous, very nervous. I wasn’t sure what it was going to be like. You go from taking care of yourself in college to taking care of everybody (at CH). But this is a great team to work with. It just kind of flows. You’re all trying to reach the same goal and trying to accomplish the same thing. That’s the kind of job that it is.”

In addition to her responsibilities with the Camp, Mucci also devotes some of her time to the Adaptive PE class by stopping in each semester to talk to the class and help students sign up for volunteer work and for the “Weekends in the Fall” program at Camp Horizons. She also travels to colleges throughout the region recruiting staff members for the summer and weekend programs. She also finds time to teach physical education twice a week at the Montessori School in Willimantic.

Mucci, who lives on the grounds, says that she could not accurately estimate the number of hours that she works in an average week. During the summer, it’s an around-the-clock commitment, starting officially at 8 a.m. and ending somewhere around midnight. During summer camp, “it’s tough when you’re used to going to bed at 10:30, like I do, ” she laughs.

Stratford native Scott Lambeck, a December, 2002 Eastern graduate, is also a valued member of the CH family. A Sport and Leisure Management major and Communication minor, Lambeck currently holds a fulltime position as program coordinator for summer and weekend programs.

Lambeck began his involvement as an intern planning out activities for the Weekend in the Country program. From there, he began running the day program for the children of the summer staff. As a senior in the fall of 2002, Lambeck served as a teaching assistant in the Adaptive PE class to Perrotti-Verboven, who would be teaching the class for the final semester. Lambeck began his SLM studies with an eye on the business and marketing side, but changed over to the health and fitness area after taking a course with Switchenko.

While working with the day camp program in his final semester in the fall of 2002, Lambeck fully realized “that this was a great place to work. I remember thinking that I really liked working with kids, writing lesson plans, doing all of the activities. I actually thought about going back to school for early childhood education.”

Perrotti-Verboven initially hired Lambeck to a part-time position while he was still an undergraduate. Following graduation, he was offered the position as the camp’s first fulltime program coordinator. Having been raised in the state’s more urban area in New Haven County, Lambeck did not instantly accept the offer. “I wasn’t sure if I wanted to stay in this area,” he says. “But now, I think I’ll be here for a long time. It’s a place that’s either for you, or it’s not. You realize that right away. It’s very demanding. From the beginning of June until the end of August, my family realizes that they’re not going to see me much, because you’re involved with this community.

“This place sucks you in – Lauren definitely sucked us in,” insists Lambeck. “Chris (McNaboe) and Lauren train us very well. They’ve passed on their knowledge to us, and we do our best to share that with everybody else. I think that’s why this place runs so well… they’re very good teachers.”

The Lauren Perrotti that Chris McNaboe once hand picked out of a class full of students for her Camp Horizons community continues to blossom. McNaboe talks in glowing terms of Perrotti-Verboven’s contributions to the development of Camp Horizons, Inc. Under her leadership and guidance, the camp runs like a well-tuned engine. It currently attracts hundreds of families and individuals each year, drawing campers and staff members from all over the world.

Perhaps above all else, Perrotti-Verboven still relishes the association that she has forged between her alma mater and the camp. And her accomplishments have not gone unnoticed by the University. This past winter, she received the Distinguished Service Award for Excellence from the Eastern Alumni Association for her contributions to society.

“It helps your self-esteem a bit when you feel like you’re part of the community and you still have a connection to where you went to school,” she says.

“I’ve always liked the association with Eastern – that’s where I came from.”

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