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Rita DeBruyn – First female YMCA MN Overnight Camp Director

Rita DeBruyn

As the first woman in Minnesota to direct a YMCA overnight camp, YMCA Camp Ihduhapi, Rita DeBruyn had immeasurable impact on countless YMCA campers and program participants. The impact can be seen in the self-esteem and confidence built; character strengthened; caring, respect and responsibility fostered; leaders developed; friendships made; and experiences and memories treasured. Rita paved the way for a new generation of YMCA female leaders and role models across the state and the country. With the Rita DeBruyn Endowment Fund, as well as an estate gift in her memory created by her husband James V. Hedin, Rita’s legacy continues. In her spirit and her memory, campers and staff will continue to grow and thrive at YMCA Camp Ihduhapi for many generations ahead. Enjoy this story of Rita’s life and legacy.

By James V. Hedin

Edwilda (Rita) Marguerite DeBruyn was born August 18, 1952 in Fergus Falls, Minnesota, the third of five children to parents William and Florence (Brown) DeBruyn. They loved the cottage that had been built by her mother’s father on Swan Lake, just outside of town, where the family lived most of the summer. Rita grew up enjoying cabin life on the lake. 

When Rita was 5 years old, her family moved to Bates Township, just outside of Iron River, Michigan (in the Upper Peninsula). Her father taught 5-8th grade science and her mother was a substitute teacher, specializing in Latin and English. Rita’s first camping experience began at age 9 when she and her siblings attended the local Iron County Batawagama Youth Camp (means ‘land between two lakes’ in Ojibwe) one or two weeks each summer until she was 13. From ages 14-17 she continued camping at Batawagama, attending the Band Camp week each summer. 

Her love for the camping experience was kindled and grew at Batawagama, along with the ever-present music. Every evening the song with the lines “softly falls the light of day, as our campfire fades away,” was sung around the campfire, ending with “have I kept my honor bright? Can I guiltless rest tonight? Have I done and have I dared, everything to be prepared?” The song was followed by taps: “Day is done, gone the sun, from the lakes, from the hills, from the sky. All is well. Safely rest. God is nigh.” 

Rita did well in high school and furthered her love of music. She joined her two older sisters, Myra and Sindy, and three friends to form a folk group called The Sixpence Singers. They practiced rigorously, learning and performing over two hundred songs. Many of these songs became Rita’s camp favorites (e.g., Open the Door by Judy Collins) as well as other songs she fell in love with (e.g., The Garden Song by Pete Seeger). The Sixpence Singers were popular in the area. Rita and her sisters also took singing lessons, and the three sang regularly at Sunday and holiday church services. 

Rita graduated from high school in 1970 and was accepted at Grand Valley State College in Allendale, Michigan, to pursue a degree in teaching. That summer, Rita accepted a position as assistant cook at YMCA Camp Olson in Longville, Minnesota, where her two older sisters were also working. They once again delved into music, providing the evening fireside songs and singalongs for the campers. The following summer she was hired as a camp counselor at Camp Olson. The campers loved her. In 1972, Rita accepted a summer position as camp counselor at YMCA Silver Lake in Stockholm, New Jersey. During her third year at college, Rita worked part time as a folk singer and, in the spring of 1973, she took a quarter off from college to travel and study in Europe. During her fourth year, Rita worked one quarter as a fourth-grade teacher’s aide. In the summer of 1974, Rita joined YMCA Camp Cormorant in Lake Park, Minnesota, as a camp counselor, creating a new dramatics program. In the winter quarter of her final year of college, she was a sixth-grade student teacher. Rita graduated with honors in 1975 with a major in Group Social Studies, a minor in Music, and a Certificate in Elementary Education. The summer after she graduated Rita worked at YMCA Camp Cormorant as a camp counselor. She wrote “my kids and I together learned about friendship, about trusting, about sharing. As staff and campers, we learned the joy of music, the gentle moments around a campfire with a guitar and camp songs.” 

In 1976 Rita held positions that included Program Instructor at the Fergus Falls YMCA, Day Camp Committee at the Springfield YMCA in Illinois, Juvenile Detention Counselor in Springfield, and Counselor-In-Training Director at YMCA Camp Cormorant in Minnesota. 

In the fall of 1976, Rita accepted the position of Program Director of the Faribault Area Family YMCA in Minnesota. Her responsibilities included Y Brothers and Sisters, Day Camp Chippewa, Youth in Government, Model United Nations, Youth in Law, Youth Advisory Council, Youth Room/Nursery, Photography, Dance, Creative Drama, and Physical Fitness. 

Rita’s accomplishments were many. In 1977, with the support of the Board and community, Faribault Area Family YMCA became a YMCA accredited camp. Rita was instrumental in field testing the revised YMCA camp standards in 1978. She developed the Y Grandparents program for Y little Brothers & Sisters, set up an extensive camp-scholarship program with both Rice County Social Services and the Sertoma Club, expanded the student internship program with Mankato State University and St. Olaf College, increased the annual program budget from $15,000 to $28,000, wrote a grant for Minnesota Youth Intervention, and received allocated funds for 1979 and 1980. For Day Camp Chippewa, Rita coordinated an International Counselor program with St. Olaf College, developed an intensive staff training week, incorporated values strategies into camp programming, developed progressive programming for older campers, began the “Chippewa Chatter” camp newspaper, and increased camp enrollment by 60% over three years. 

Rita’s warmth infused everything she did. Her popular camp ‘rule’ was for everyone to give and receive at least twelve hugs a day. Smiley faces ☺ accompanied her signature. Throughout her life and career, Rita was known for her hugs, smiley faces, and unbounded laughter. 

From her earliest camp counselor days, Rita dreamed of directing a full-time resident YMCA camp. In December 1979, she applied for and accepted the camp director position at YMCA Camp Ihduhapi. While this position fulfilled one of her life’s goals, leaving friends in Faribault was hard.

As the first female director of Camp Ihduhapi, Rita set high expectations for herself. Responsibilities included a children’s summer resident camp, seasonal conference camps for all ages, recruitment and supervision of staff and volunteers for summer and conference camps, budgets, newsletters, committees, publicity, public speaking, community relationships and program evaluations.

  • First Year 1980: The first year was challenging. At times, Rita was filled with doubts about herself and her work, even though her supervisor rated her as excellent and commendable in her performance review. Her supervisor noted and appreciated her creativity, commitment, Christian witness, perseverance and dedication. He said: “Camp Ihduhapi and our YMCA are more relevant because of Rita’s efforts.” Rita also hosted the 50 Year Anniversary of Camp Ihduhapi during her first year as camp director.
  • Second Year 1981: Rita was described as “strongly competent” in her performance review. Specific highlights included her excellent staff, high enrollment, innovative programming, her wellness philosophy “beginning to permeate the summer,” and positive FWS camping. Achievement to goal was 100% or greater, with very high quality in effectiveness. She was noted as carrying heavy responsibility. Rita’s performance led her supervisor to write that he “expected great things to happen at Camp Ihduhapi under her leadership.”  
  • Third Year 1982: As a result of Rita’s efforts, camp participants had a wonderful variety of new camping experiences that year. Her performance reviews continued to show her creativity and commitment. Specifically noted was her diligence with the metro-wide Financial Improvement Plan that kept expenses well within guidelines, and her detail in developing and spreading departmental budgets. Her new gymnastics camp had an excellent first year enrollment. The FWS camping excelled in the total number of people served and resulting income. Rita recruited, funded and trained Youth and Government participants in a quality, growing program. The general attitude of staff in relating to campers and outside professional contacts was especially good.  
  • Fourth Year 1983: Rita’s work continued to show growth professionally. As a result of her excellent programming, camp participants expressed great enthusiasm for their summer’s camping experience at Ihduhapi. Enrollment was 918. Committed to cultural and ethnic diversity, Rita recruited an international camp counselor from Hong Kong, and contracted with diverse ethnic staff in accordance with Affirmative Action guidelines. Never one to shy away from inclusivity, Rita negotiated a contract for a special Epilepsy Camp. Amidst all, Rita completed her coursework to become a Certified Camp Director through American Camping Association.  
  • Fifth Year 1984: Rita continued to embrace cultural and ethnic diversity in staffing. She developed an Affirmative Action plan in collaboration with community agencies, hiring local as well as international staff from Hong Kong and Costa Rica. She conducted successful epilepsy and asthma camps. Administratively, Rita guided the goals and objectives for the Ihduhapi five-year plan, developed department budgets, and raised $1,250 for the World Camp project. Other accomplishments included a revision of staff training that focused on issues of appropriate touch, a plan to participate in World Camp 85 through connections with India YMCAs, a detailed scheduled plan for community phasing to sustain camp membership, and election to the Board of Directors of Minnesota Section of ACA. Her consistent participation in the YMCA Camp Directors conference and acceptance of an ACA assignment that year further demonstrated her commitment to a broad array of interests and growing capabilities.  
  • Sixth Year 1985: Strongly supportive of World Camp 85, Rita traveled to India (see below) and recruited 4 campers and 3 counselors. She raised additional monies for International programs and employed other international staff from Hong Kong and Korea. She also served as Membership Chairman on Board of Minnesota Section ACA. Completing her last CDP, Rita applied to become a YMCA Senior Director. She completed CCD through the national ACA and also applied for Certified Director status. Her supervisor noted that Rita’s strong budget surplus and strong constituent relations were a credit to her commitment to a caring approach, many outstanding accomplishments, and continued growth as a professional. As noted above, Rita traveled to India in January as part of a Hamline University graduate level course called India: Its Philosophy, Psychology, Religion and Art, led by Professors Huston and Kendra Smith. She extended her timeline for three weeks to research women’s issues in India. She analyzed and submitted her findings in a paper that fulfilled the requirement for the completion of the YMCA Research Unit CDP. While in India, she visited the Calcutta YMCA, YMCA Narayanguda, and YMCA Trivandrum.  
  • Seventh Year 1986: In January, Rita was designated as a YMCA Senior Director. In June, she was officially recognized as an ACA Certified Camp Director. Milestones, yes, but Rita wasn’t done. More goals beckoned her. In her heart, she knew she wanted to return to the YMCA after earning a master’s degree. Rita submitted her letter of resignation effective October 17th that included the following: “My seven years here has rewarded me to my depths. Professionally, I have grown to become director of a camp I am proud of – this summer is demonstrating that to me over and over again. The spirit and tradition of Ihduhapi is alive this summer. Loyalty among staff and campers is deep and sure. I feel this in myself, too. This suggests God’s work is being done and done well. The board of directors has been wonderfully supportive of me. I want to perceive my closure to Ihduhapi as a leave of absence from the YMCA. After I receive my masters, I hope there will be a position open which will use my added skills. Leaving is very difficult. But I must do this – just as I had dreamed to direct a full-time resident camp in my lifetime, so have I had a dream to earn a master’s degree. Both are a part of my journey.”  
  • Rita returned to YMCA Camp Ihduhapi as Conference Camp Supervisor in 1992 and 1993.  

In September 1986, Rita began the masters program in the Graduate School, School of Social Work, at the University of Minnesota. In the summer of 1987, she worked as a Graduate Intern at Sentinel House in Minneapolis, a residential treatment program established in 1982 for individuals with severe and persistent mental illness (SPMI). It was that summer she also met and started dating her future husband, Jim Hedin. In her second year, Rita was a Graduate Intern at the V.A. Medical Center-GRECC in Minneapolis. 

As part of her coursework, Rita wrote a paper entitled A YMCA Program Model for Older Adults – Elder Enrichment. Rita submitted the paper to the Minneapolis YMCA, hoping to generate an interest and new program for older adults. She was ahead of her time. In the early 1990s, the YMCA task force assigned to create the National Model for older adult programing used her paper to initiate their planning discussions. 

Rita graduated in 1988 with her Master of Social Work from the University of Minnesota with a minor in Gerontology and a GPA of 3.9. In 1989 she became a Licensed Graduate Social Worker (LGSW). 

In the fall of 1988, Rita was hired as Senior Program Coordinator through Senior Community Services to work with the City of Robbinsdale on their older adult programs. In January 2006, Rita was hired directly by the City of Robbinsdale to continue in the same role. Her responsibilities included program development, transportation coordination, staff management/development, advisory board/committee development, public speaking, volunteer program development, budget preparation and management, community relations, fundraising, grant writing, intergenerational programs, support/discussion groups, older adult clubs, trips for special events, dining, counseling, values clarification, assessment, case management, and educational programs. She was a member of the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), American Society on Aging, Minnesota Gerontological Society, Minneapolis Senior Workers, North Memorial Medical Center Response to Seniors Advisory Board, Senior Resources Transportation Task Force, Senior Resources Coordination Model Task Force, Northwest Area Transportation Providers, Robbinsdale Senior Program Providers, Minnesota Association of Senior Services (MASS), Minnesota Recreation and Park Association (MRPA), Minnesota Senior Federation, Crystal Lake Good Samaritan Health Care Center Board of Directors, Northwest Hennepin Human Services transportation Committee, and the Robbinsdale Jaycees. 

Rita married Jim Hedin in January 1993 with many friends in attendance from every phase of her life. Rita and Jim symbolized the gathering of many into one with a beautiful candle lighting ceremony. A light from an altar candle was drawn by the ushers and passed person to person, each acknowledging their love and support by passing the light onward. Rita and Jim were given the light from the last two friends, using it to light their unity candle. 

Rita continued to embrace the mind, body, spirit philosophy of the YMCA. She joined Shepherd of the Valley Lutheran Church in Eagan where she had been married. Rita supported a musical worship group playing guitar. From 2001 to her death in 2013, she was an integral member of the marriage enrichment organization called Lutheran Marriage Encounter, a weekend retreat for married couples organized and presented by three lay couples and one clergy couple. Rita and Jim were one of the lay couples. Diagnosed with metastasized colon cancer in 2010, she continued working with her beloved seniors until four days before her death on April 15, 2013. She presented at her last marriage encounter weekend just two months before her three-year battle with cancer took her life. 

Rita loved to read books and take educational classes. She participated in two or three book clubs simultaneously along with avidly reading other books that interested her. She was constantly dropping off the pile of library books she had just read. Always drawn to spirituality and philosophy, Rita loved to engage in thoughtful deep discussions. Her laugh was infectious. 

Rita enjoyed outdoor activities of cross-country skiing, camping, biking, canoeing, and swimming. From her early days at Faribault, and no matter what the weather, Rita would run each morning before starting her day at camp or before driving to work. At one point, Jim suggested that Rita exercise inside to avoid the below zero weather she faced on winter mornings. Thereafter, Rita wore out numerous Nordic Tracks, an endless array of books popped up with clothespins so she could read at the same time. 

Rita and Jim bought property on a lake in northern Minnesota in 2001. Fulfilling another of her dreams, they built their own cabin. Rita and Jim spent many wonderful days at the ‘cookie cabin’ by themselves or with dear friends. They enjoyed their cabin and the outdoors during every season, from boat rides, swimming, and fishing to cross-country skiing, crackly fires in the fireplace, and bonfires outside. She was always, ALWAYS reading books. 

Rita was one of those rare individuals one trusted immediately. Her laughter echoed through rooms and hallways. Her hugs were famous. Her love of music was profound, her spirituality and search for meaning was palpable, and her commitment that everyone was to be included and no one ever left behind, made her beloved by all. 

Rita said many times that she loved her life. It showed in her relationships. There’s a story a senior at Robbinsdale shared after Rita’s death that captures her essence. At book club one day, a member asked her, “Do you realize that everyone in this room thinks of you as their best friend?” Rita exclaimed, “Well, I AM!”