Never underestimate the lasting influence of a summer camp experience on a teenager.
Paula Danoff, 64, won’t. The longtime Winnetkan was a young camp counselor at Camp Echo in Long Lake Township, Michigan, when kitchen duty called for her to make coleslaw for 250 diners.
She used a cabbage grater—only a cabbage grater—to shred head after head of cabbage. An Evanston Township High School student at the time, Danoff could have used all her fingers and all of the calluses on each hand to help her count to 20 afterward.
But that grueling task led to adult jobs in the gourmet food and catering businesses. It also failed to dampen the joy Danoff felt—and saw, from deliriously happy campers—during her four memorable summers as a counselor.
“I wasn’t into pitching tents at camps,” an animated Danoff, sitting at an outdoor table at Beth’s Little Bake Shop in Evanston, says. “I was into the tons of fun the kids had in cabins and during activities outdoors. My whole thing, my favorite thing to say, always was, ‘Let’s have fun!’”
Danoff, a founding member and president of the North Shore Board of the Northwestern Settlement alumnae group, received serious news earlier this year. She will be the fourth House In The Wood Hall of Fame inductee at an October gala in Chicago.
The mission of Northwestern Settlement’s House In The Wood—a 23-acre camp site, located along the shores of Delavan Lake in Wisconsin—is to disrupt generational poverty by opening doors that might otherwise be shut to inner-city children from the ages of 7 to 17.
Danoff ’s inspiring leadership helped triple the number of campers served by House In The Wood, and she shepherded initiatives that transformed the escape from a rustic summer camp into a year-round, STEM-based outdoor education program.
“Some of the campers from Chicago have never seen Lake Michigan,” says Danoff, her expression vacillating between disbelief and sadness. “But they see Delavan Lake and realize, ‘Oh, I’m in a different environment, a place to explore, a setting for opportunities to learn.’ It hit me similarly when I lived in Japan from 1987 to 1993. I remember thinking,‘Wow,there’s another part of this world, a huge part, that I don’t know much about. For the campers at House In The Wood, maybe an activity sparks an interest in science and then they want to become biologists. Or maybe, because of what they had experienced during camp, they’ll pay more attention in school while looking forward to camp the following summer.
“The endgame?” adds the Evanston Art Center President and CEO since 2015, following her eight years as the center’s director of development and communications. “They’ll move on after the camp experiences, grow, and be role models for other kids.”
The eldest of Charles and Patsy’s three daughters, Danoff–holder of many North Shore Board executive board posts since joining it in 1993–spent significant time at the Evanston YMCA during her formative years. It was where she played volleyball and basketball and raced her 5-foot-9 frame in track events. It was where the first high school student elected to the Evanston City Council landed various leadership roles in groups and developed abilities to organize and motivate.
It was where she found out about the opportunity to serve as an assistant summer camp counselor in Long Lake Township and jumped at it. Later, she got to see adventurous, first-year campers actually jump to ride a tire swing attached to an oak tree.
“I was a joiner,” says Danoff, the wife of Jeffrey and the mother of two sons in their 30s. “I was a doer. I’m still a doer. And there’s nothing I love to do more than to work for nonprofits and be as positive as I can around people. I’ve met so many interesting people through volunteer work, as well as friends. The leaders around me? Amazing. Our camp director for 30-plus years, Val Wright, cares, really cares, and Northwestern Settlement President and CEO Ron Manderschied, is a visionary, very charismatic.”
She continues, striking the top of the table outside the quaint bakery with her right hand, the abrupt sound doubling magnificently as an exclamation point’s audible partner. “Ron, I’m telling you, he’s real, the real deal, genuine!”
Forty-two years ago, a 22-year-old Danoff— shortly after collecting sociology and anthropology degrees at Knox College and before earning her MBA in marketing and finance at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management— made a declaration in the presence of her parents at home.
Maybe a table in the vicinity had to brace itself.
“I said,” Danoff recalls, ‘I want to make a difference. I want to be impactful in positive ways.’” She then proceeded to do just that, year after year, as a full-time professional in several fields and as a never-too-busy-to-serve volunteer. Danoff was the special events coordinator for the nonprofit Ray Graham Association and the director of special events for Cystic Fibrosis Foundation in Chicago. Danoff ’s fundraising skills and tirelessness made a difference for Refugees International Japan when she lived in East Asia.
But, in Danoff ’s world, the pairing of “Hall of Famer” and “Paula Danoff ” stuns her.
“It’s such a nice honor, but it’s surprising to me,” Danoff says of joining past House In The Wood Hall of Fame inductees Valerie Hall, Patricia M. Johnson, and Kathy Elliott. “You do things because there’s a need and you want to help. You don’t think about receiving honors or being recognized.”
The House In The Wood gala—presented by the North Shore Board of the Northwestern Settlement— will be held from 6 to 11 p.m. on October 26 at Theater on the Lake, 2401 N. Lake Shore Drive, in Chicago. The event features cocktails, dinner, a live benefit auction and a performance by the renowned cover band Mike & Joe. For more information about the North Shore Board of the Northwestern Settlement or to purchase tickets to the gala, visit northshoreboard.org