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Kay Muller’s late son Ted loved Evanston kids and city summer camps alike, but since his family didn’t have the money to send him and his siblings, he could only attend as a camp counselor.
Ted Muller grew up in Evanston and returned to District 65 to become a teacher, and while he was pursuing his teaching certificate, worked as a substitute.
Everyone loved him, said his mother.
“He substituted all over District 65 schools. He was in practically every school,” said Kay Muller, who spearheaded the creation of the Ted Muller Camp Scholarship Fund after her son’s death 25 years ago. Ted had a way with kids. He never had to raise his voice, she said, and kids responded to his kind demeanor. He also was funny, she said.
“Whenever he was in a school in District 65, they always wanted him as their permanent sub, because he was so good with these kids,” Muller told the RoundTable. “They usually put him in behavior disorder classes. … And he’d come home and say to me, ‘I don’t understand why these kids are in behavior disorder classes. No, these kids are fine.’ ”
After Ted Muller passed away, the family hoped to send one kid to summer camp in his honor. As a counselor, Muller said, Ted could see that the kids who needed summer camp most couldn’t afford it. So, they asked guests at his funeral service to donate funds in place of flowers.
The outpouring of support was so significant, the family knew they had to expand their vision. “God was telling us we’ve got to do something much bigger than send one kid to camp,” Muller said. “And that was the beginning of the Ted Fund.”
The Ted Muller Camp Scholarship Fund works with District 65 social workers at each school. Together, they now send 160 low-income Evanston boys and girls to camp for free. The program identifies kids in second grade and, once chosen, students are fully funded for four consecutive years at any local summer camp of their choice.
Family behind the Ted Fund
Muller and her family have lived in Evanston since 1978, when she and her four kids became a combined family of six with another divorced woman “out of necessity,” she said, because Muller’s ex-husband did not provide support after leaving the family.
People didn’t talk about divorce in those days, she said, so she and her friend, who had recently moved from Nebraska, purchased a home together in Evanston – the first two unrelated women to get a mortgage on a house as tenants in common, rather than joint tenancy.
But money was a problem. The electricity and water would go off every once in a while.
“You moved to Evanston, all of a sudden, you realize everybody isn’t the same here,” Muller said. “Our kids would come home and say everybody’s going somewhere on spring break except us.”
Muller’s white family lived a half block from the Fifth Ward, so she would tell her kids to knock on the homes of mostly Black kids who also were home for break. “That was the cure,” Muller said.
When Ted Muller died, he had already earned a master’s degree, worked full-time job at Haven Middle School and was married.
“Ted, this very funny, wonderful guy who never gave anybody a bit of trouble, didn’t drink too much, never did drugs, never had any issues … committed suicide,” Muller said. “He never complained about anything. He never saw a therapist. We never knew he had any depression issues.”
Muller said that her son was always worried about “those kinds of problems no one can solve,” like Russia, the nuclear bomb and the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest.
The family, against the advice of church ministers, decided to have a public funeral and anticipated about 50 people attending the Lake Street Church service two days after his death. Instead, some 600 people crowded in, including school cafeteria workers, janitors, bus drivers, teachers, principals, kids and their parents.
Muller was shocked.
“You never realize where your adult children have been or what they’ve done because they leave home and they go off and they touch all kinds of other people,” she said. “And you just don’t even know it.”
How the program works
The Ted Fund allows kids to choose the day camp they want to attend, as long as it’s within driving distance, from music to swimming to soccer or sailing camp.
In past years, Ted Fund volunteers put together packets of all the public and private Evanston camp brochures. Elementary school social workers help choose which children will attend by meeting with parents, helping them sort through the packets and find the camp most appropriate for the child, Muller said.
The structure has slightly changed to accommodate virtual learning.
“This is nobody’s career,” Muller said. “Not a single dime is paid to run this program.”
Muller said that the budget for each of the 160 kids is about $900 per summer. The program will not accept a child, unless it has the money to fund four years of camp. “We rely on a number of camps that give us breaks, discounts. So we get a discount from the city, but we still have to pay. You know, in my mind, public recreation should be free,” Muller said.
She said the most popular camps are those that provide the most care, because often what parents really require in the summer is child care.
All of this is funded by community donations. The Ted Fund sends out an annual appeal to community donors and hosts annual fundraisers, but the organization doesn’t have a grant writer and struggles to get grants from local foundations.
“I think that a lot of people just aren’t aware of what we do and how much we do and the contribution we make to the community,” Muller said.
Social workers coordinate selections
Maggie Mosley has worked at Dewey Elementary for 14 of her 40 years as a social worker. She became involved with the Ted Fund in 2008, serving as the liaison between her department, District 65 and the Ted Fund.
This year, Dewey has 12 students participating in the Ted Fund and most kids, she said, are “thrilled to get it” as they see it as a reward. Mosley told the RoundTable that some students who sign up might struggle academically but excel at summer camp, where they are given the chance to “shine” or do what comes more easily to them.
“The summer, after attending camp on the first day back at school, a little boy, who had some speech and language difficulties, came over to me and said, ‘Thank you for making me go to summer camp,’ ” Mosley recalled.
Vonetta Robinson is a social worker based at Walker Elementary School, but who divides her time with Orrington Elementary School. This year, 12 kids from Walker are slated for Ted Fund camps.
Robinson said while selections are discussed between social workers, teachers and principals, the main criteria for kids is that they qualify for free or reduced lunch.
“It’s one of the most fun things I do to be able to make that outreach to a family,” Robinson said. “For many working families, it does meet a summertime child care need.”
Robinson said she enjoys hearing from kids the summer after their first camp, to see the growth in their self-esteem or to learn their they are honing their skills in a particular area if they chose a specialized camp.
“I have to honestly say that when Ted put down his life, because it was obviously too heavy for him to carry,” Muller said, “we picked it up and so did so many other people.”