SMALL TOWNS: The incredible Camp Daniel

It took three generations of a family 25 years to grant a young man's dying wish to create a happy place for people with disabilities
Published: Jul. 21, 2022 at 10:37 AM CDT|Updated: Jul. 21, 2022 at 6:10 PM CDT
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ATHELSTANE, Wis. (WBAY) - It’s a commitment a family made to their dying son and brother.

25 years later, that promise has become an unbelievable reality.

This week in Small Towns, we travel to Athelstane, in Marinette County, to see the incredible Camp Daniel.

In his short life of just 22 years, Daniel Piantine lived with muscular dystrophy and served as an advocate for people with disabilities.

“He traveled the country speaking to youth groups, schools, churches, promoting disability awareness,” says Tony Piantine, Daniel’s dad.

Daniel’s dream was to have a place where others like him could experience joy and a family-like atmosphere.

During his final days, he called upon his family.

“We were staying with my parents just to be able to spend some time with him, and he was flat on his back on an iron lung during that time -- 24 hours a day for maybe three months -- and he was a prolific writer, he was published a lot, and he was always pushing forward in that vision, and he called me upstairs in the middle of the night and said, ‘I want to ask you a question. I don’t want you to answer. I would like you to get involved starting a camp for people with disabilities,’” says Tony Piantine II, Daniel’s brother.

A promise was made, and in 1996 the Piantine family formed the non-profit Camp Daniel.

The following year, the next order of business.

“The thing was buying the property, where would we do it? First we thought Upper Michigan, but it’s too far for our folks to get to. So we found this and it’s perfect,” says Tony Piantine, who serves as Camp Daniel executive director and treasurer.

Ten acres on Little Newton Lake would become the camp’s home.

And over the next two-and-a-half decades, as funds became available, three generations of Piantines led the effort to fulfill Daniel’s dream.

“To watch them do this for 25 years, I’ve watched every high and I’ve watched every low, and I’ve watched my dad come in with a nail through his hand from building something, so I’ve watched blood, the sweat, I watched tears of things feeling like it’s taking too long but trusting there’s some bigger purpose in that time,” says Annissa Hartwig, Daniel’s niece and Camp Daniel program director.

The result is truly amazing.

The camp is like a mini-Disneyland in the Northwoods.

“We’ve tried to do things first class, and some folks questioned that, but we think the population we serve deserves that,” says Tony Piantine.

“Everything here is for them, built for them, created for them -- and that’s one of the founding values that we have, we want to impart value to our campers, we want them to understand that they’re purposeful and there’s reasons why they walk the earth,” adds Tony Piantine II, known around camp as “Little Tony.”

Campers with physical, intellectual and developmental disabilities, ranging in age from 8 to 80, spend a week at Camp Daniel.

Each day is a different theme filled with activities.

Along with lodges and cabins, the campus includes a number of unique buildings with incredible decorations.

There’s a 1950′s diner, a movie theater, and a dining hall, along with a barn, a game room, a lakeside pavilion and nature center.

A ribbon-cutting ceremony in June welcomed more than 500 guests and formally opened Camp Daniel. It proved to be a highly emotional day.

“It’s 95 percent volunteers that have constructed this, so that culmination of that many years to get this place open has been, there’s not even words to explain how incredible,” says Tony Piantine II.

Especially knowing Daniel’s wish has come true.

“I think he would be so thrilled he’d probably jump out of that wheelchair. He’d be thrilled that this place is so accessible and what he desired,” says Tony Piantine with a smile.

For the Piantine family, the ultimate dream is to offer this amazing camp year-round, and the only thing holding that back is the need for more camp volunteers.

Spend a little time at Camp Daniel and you’ll likely be on board.

It took 25 years but a family fulfilled a young man's dying wish

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