MARQUETTE – It all started with a need. And during the Great Depression, there were many. But two women found it obvious that a multitude of children across the Upper Peninsula needed help.

Dr. Goldie Corneliuson, a field physician for The Children’s Fund of Michigan and Elba Morse, a nurse supervisor of the Northern Michigan Children’s Clinic in Marquette, traveled Upper Michigan caring for children

who were underweight due to poor economic times. But the need was still great and both women wanted to do more.

Their dream was to be able to bring children from all over the U.P. to one area where they could be nurtured and get healthy. Morse knew of an abandoned farm in Big Bay, which set the wheels in motion on a program that is now celebrating 80 years: Bay Cliff Health Camp.

Although the camp began as a program for underweight children, during the 1940s an outbreak of polio devastated the U.P. and prompted Cornelieuson and Morse to extend the camp to more kids.

Thirty children with polio were brought to the camp and tended to year-round in the upstairs dwelling of the farmhouse.

“Polio changed everything. From those days and onward, Bay Cliff really became a place for children with disabilities,” said Tim Bennett, executive director of Bay Cliff.

According to Bennett, between 160-180 children come to Bay Cliff each summer. Nearly 40 programs are offered that serve numerous needs and challenges that many children face. Although Bay Cliff is open all year and serves adults with disabilities too, Bennett said the children’s summer camp is the “meat and potatoes” to the overall program. He added that Bay Cliff is the only camp in the state of Michigan that is licensed to take children as young as the age of three.

“These kids are not homesick,” Bennett laughed. “They are having too much fun. It’s the parents who are homesick.”

In the 80 years it’s been open, Bay Cliff has hosted more than 12,000 children. It is a place that Bennett said takes a person back to a simpler time and focuses on the goodness of life and the goodness in people.

“The work we do is very important … these kids learn to walk, speak and take care of themselves, which is huge.”

The camp not only helps the children who stay there, but the summer employees as well. Numerous staff members at Bay Cliff are college students who are studying many of the fields that are practiced at Bay Cliff.

“These people come from all over the country and they are outstanding,” Bennett said. “My philosophy is heart, then skills. I won’t hire someone with skills if they don’t have the heart for it.”

To honor the camp, the Marquette Regional History Center recently opened a special exhibit highlighting Bay Cliff.

“The camp has transformed so many lives and they deserved this recognition,” said Jo DeYoung, curator at the Marquette Regional History Center.

To help piece together the exhibit, Bay Cliff donated many artifacts including old therapy equipment, braces and wheelchairs. The exhibit will be on display at the museum until June 1. On April 17, a special presentation will be given by Bennett.

“We were so honored that the museum wanted to do an exhibit on the camp,” Bennett said. “It’s a story I think people will appreciate.”

He noted that many former campers appreciate the story too. Many of them come back every summer to revisit their youth.

“We had one man who was a camper in 1935. He loved the place and was a member of the Elks, so he brought a bus full of Elk members to see where he grew up,” Bennett chuckled.

Moving forward, Bennett said they are working to expand educational offerings by holding therapy workshops and bringing national presenters to the camp to help make a difference in the area.

Another fairly recent program centers on post-polio syndrome. According to Bennett, as individuals with polio age, symptoms of the disease return and can be devastating. Bay Cliff Health Camp brought 30 adults back to the camp for a full week of wellness and learning to help them adjust and cope with returning polio. The program was such a success that it is now held every year.

“People think of polio as not being an issue anymore, but there are thousands of people who still are handling it and have survived,” Bennett said.

A third program they are hoping to initiate soon is a wellness program for stroke survivors.

“Often, you have a stroke, go to rehab and then you’re sent home and you’re on your own… we can handle a stroke wellness program extremely well here,” Bennett noted.

He said many professionals from across the country come to Bay Cliff to learn about their programming and bring the ideas back to their own communities.

“Bay Cliff is a forefront for change,” Bennett emphasized. “The past has been incredibly wonderful and successful and the future is going to be even better.”

To learn more about Bay Cliff Health Camp, visit www.baycliff.org.

Abbey Hauswirth can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 240. Her email address is ahauswirth@miningjournal.net