Mike Ditamore and Jaclyn Standley have similar stories to how they first started volunteering at Camp Moja – one probably shared by many members of the camp staff.
As a young teenager or adult, it seemed like a good service opportunity, if not a bit intriguing.
Years later, they're still hooked and return to help at the annual weeklong camp for special needs adolescents and adults, founded in 1977 by Community of Christ and held at the Lake Doniphan Conference Center, tucked next to a couple lakes among the hill just outside of Excelsior Springs.
As a student at William Chrisman High School, Standley needed service hours as part of the ACE Club (Association for Chrisman Excellence), heard about Camp Moja and thought it might be interesting. “Moja” comes from the Swahili dialect and means number one.
“I just loved it and stuck with it,” said Standley, now in her 14th year at Camp Moja, which started Monday and runs through Friday. “Started out as a counselor, worked my way up and became the budget director and now also office manager. They're always so special people. It's just life-changing, and I've been coming back ever since.
“I didn't know when I did that first year that Mr. Moja worked for the Independence Fire Department.”
Standley's father, Bob Frazier, is a fire inspector who has been with IFD for 31 years, while “Mr. Moja,” the zany, goofy-dressed camp emcee, is known at work as Battalion Chief Mike Ditamore. He's been helping at the camp for 32 years now – the last 23 as Mr. Moja.
Ditamore, 1991 graduate from Fort Osage High School and natural jester, remembers starting out as a somewhat immature counselor, but he soon gained an appreciation for what the camp helps special needs individuals.
“A friend asked me 'What are you doing this summer?' and he told me about this,” he said. “You choose to do it the first time, and then it's a bit like a drug, after that first his you think later, 'I've gotta do that again.'”
Due in part that he usually worked different shifts or at different station as Ditamore, Frazier said he didn't know about the Mr. Moja gig until about 10 years working with him.
“I first came to the talent show five years ago, I was so impressed with these people and their positivity,” Frazier said. “Never a dull moment with Mike; I don't know where he gets it. He does juggling, plays the ukulele.”
For years, Frazier and his family have put together Halloween and Christmas light displays – Lights on Apache Drive – and he and family members dress as Santa and friends and dance and interact with children that visit the light displays. Any donations he receives go to charity.
This year, some money went to Blair's Foster Socks, and for the first time he gave $500 to Camp Moja.
“I believe in their mission,” he said. “I had a lot of campers come to the light show, and the light show is a way to give back to the community.”
Ditamore said the camp not only fills an emotional and recreational need for many campers, but it can be refreshing for the volunteers – a chance to hit the reset button. Over the years, he said, some younger volunteers have even quit a part-time job to make sure they had the time to volunteer.
Ditamore is one of several camp staff members who have been volunteering for 20 years or more.
“It speaks to what Moja does,” he said. “Whatever problems you had coming here, when you leave they're not as big.
“Now we're bringing the next generation (of volunteers) up here,” Ditamore said, referring in part to his 12-year-old daughter Addison helping out. “Maybe in a few years she'll be Ms. Moja.”