By Aleeza Kazmi and Beth Smith
Red and white strobe lights flash on Lauren Bianco’s blood stained face as she sits in an electric chair with a knife through her head, screaming at anyone who passes her. But Lauren is fine. The blood and knife are just an illusion and in between scaring passersby, she giggles to herself in sheer delight.
Lauren is a volunteer at the annual Spooky Walk at Camp Pa-Qua-Tuck in Center Moriches that runs the last two weekends in October. All the funds raised at the event go to the special needs camp, where she spends parts of her summer.
“I love everything about camp and I love every bit of volunteering,“ Lauren, 32, who is mildly developmentally disabled, said.
The walk is organized by The Moriches Paquatuck Squaws, a non-profit organization that’s sole purpose is to fundraise for Camp Pa-Qua-Tuck. The event raises up to $150,000 each year for Camp Pa-Qua-Tuck and has raised over $2 million dollars since it started in 1989, Marcella Weiss, the Spooky Walk Coordinator, said. The money raised helps ease the burden of parents sending their children to the camp.
“If it wasn’t subsidized by the fundraising efforts, then I don’t think I would be able to send my daughter there,” Barbara Saltare, whose daughter has attended Camp Pa-Qua-Tuck for 7 years, said. ”We do have to pay, but we don’t pay nearly as much as it costs to run the program, because of the efforts of the fundraising.”
Special needs camps of a similar size operate under a $1.2 million yearly budget, like The Southampton Fresh Air Home, the camp director David Billingham said.
The entrance fee to the Spooky Walk is $20, and on Saturday, some waited in line for an hour and a half to go through the 45-minute attraction. Attendees start the walk in the woods, where dressed-up volunteers pop out to scare them, then they go through 4 different cabins, each with their own spooky theme. This year the cabin themes include a psych ward, scary circus, Alice in “Zombieland”, and a monster-mash dance party.
“The Spooky Walk I feel is the best of its kind on Long Island,” Lisamarie Rykowski, who has attended the attraction at least a dozen times, said. “They do such a great job decorating and then staying in character that me and my adult friends go every year.”
Preparations for the event begins at the end of August and it takes nearly 500 unpaid volunteers to run the four-night event, Christina Tagliavia, a Moriches Paquatuck Squaws member, said.
“In the beginning years, I begged and got anyone I could get to volunteer in this,” Weiss, who started the Spooky Walk the year after she joined the Squaws, said. “I remember my kids were playing soccer and I would be running around the soccer field trying to get parents to volunteer.”
After 29-years of Spooky Walks, Weiss said she doesn’t have to go looking for volunteers. They contact her.
The Spooky Walk is the largest fundraiser of the camp, which receives no federal or state funds, Tagliavia said. Camp enrollment is $975 per week, but each camper actually costs the camp roughly $2,500 per week.
“No child gets turned away based on finances. If they can’t afford it, we will find a way for them,” Janice Graf, President of the Moriches Rotary Club, which owns the camp, said.
Lauren has been a camper since 2016 and hopes to return to Camp Pa-Qua-Tuck next summer.
“It’s so important for kids with disabilities and adults, like me, to have the opportunity to go to camp in the summer,” Lauren said, as the white paint covering her face cracked in her smiles lines.