BEDFORD-STUYVESANT — City health officials shut down a neighborhood summer camp Wednesday morning after a three-week investigation into parent complaints confirmed that it was being run by an ex-con who lacked the required city permits.
Since July 21, the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene has been looking into a flurry of gripes that dozens of children attending Camp Bed-Stuy have been hauled to dodgy field trips around the city and across state lines with minimal staff and severe disorganization, according to city officials, parents of campers, and former employees.
The inspection and subsequent shutdown of Camp Bed-Stuy came a day after a DNAinfo New York reporter began looking into the camp, prompted by parents of former campers concerned that camp founder, Andre Lewis, 33, was running a dangerously disorganized operation.
"There is nothing more important than the safety of our children. We have been investigating complaints alleging Andre Lewis is operating an illegal camp," city health department spokeswoman Carolina Rodriguez said. "This morning we conducted a multi-site inspection and were able to substantiate the claims. We have issued a notice of violation and suspended the operation."
Any camp in the state with 10 or more children enrolled falls under the regulatory power of its local health department, and on any given day Camp Bed-Stuy has as many as 50 children enrolled, according to parents and a former employee who quit after Lewis stopped paying him.
Lewis, whose Facebook page lists him as "Visionary Leader at Camp Bed-Stuy," applied for a permit to operate a camp at 182 Remsen St. in Downtown Brooklyn, but never finalized the paperwork, Rodriguez said.
According to a Department of Health source, the agency had sent inspectors to check out the camp multiple times, but each time Lewis managed to have groups smaller than 10 and skirted the permit requirement.
But on Wednesday, inspectors showed up at the drop-off sites and managed to “substantiate” the accusations that Lewis was operating a camp without a permit, the source said.
But when the order came around 11 a.m. Wednesday to shut down the camp, Lewis was obstinate, the department source said.
“He was supposed to call parents immediately, but he refused to do it,” the source said. “He’s not the most cooperative guy in the world.”
In an phone interview Tuesday, Lewis steadfastly refused to answer questions about his lack of a permit or allegations of mismanagement from parents and former employees.
Public Advocate Letitia James who had also fielded complaints about Lewis and Camp Bed-Stuy, a day program for kids ages four to 14 that drew on city resources, also called for its shutdown the night before inspectors from the health department took action.
"Parents should be able to send their kids to camp without worrying if they are safe and healthy,” James said Tuesday. “This camp should be shut down immediately, and families should be fully refunded."
Wednesday's shutdown had staff scrambling to reunite parents and campers.
"Effective immediately we're closed," said a counselor who declined to give his name. "I'm just trying to get these kids to their parents."
Lewis, a self-styled educator and entrepreneur, was convicted in 2009 of the misappropriation of more than $500,000 from the Department of Agriculture through the Better Brooklyn Community Center — a nonprofit food-aid program he directed and for which he received federal grants, but which prosecutors said was little more than a sham operation that fed no one.
He was sentenced to 18 months, including time served, and three years probation, and was released in October 2010, with orders to pay full restitution for the funds he stole, court documents show.
Lewis repeatedly failed drug tests, and he was released into a drug rehab program following his release, according to court documents.
Like many New York summer camps, Camp Bed-Stuy has no physical campus, instead sending children on romps around the city and to attractions as far afield as the Poconos, according to the camp’s website. Children are dropped off at 8 a.m. at three locations in Bed-Stuy and Fort Greene — including public schools where they can get free breakfast — and picked up at 6 p.m. at a handful of other public locations, including a branch of the Brooklyn Public Library. The camp cost $500 per session, and was supposed to run from July 3 to Sept. 1.
Several parents complained that children were routinely left at pick-up locations too early or brought hours late, and sometimes staff didn’t show up to drop-off locations in the morning at all. Sometimes when they did show up, they did not appear wearing a camp T-shirt or come armed with paper for a sign-in sheet, the parents said.
Two parents said their child only got one T-shirt, undermining a safety measure that helps make their children in the camp easily identifiable, they said.
One mom, Dalila Scott, said her child never got a shirt at all.
“Think about it, with no shirts how do you identify who’s part of the camp?” said Scot, who withdrew her son last week despite paying for four sessions. “For me, the money is one thing. He shouldn’t be working with kids.”
In one instance that particularly irked several parents, Lewis brought the camp to a political rally on the steps of Brooklyn Borough Hall July 12, where Lewis and a young camper were pictured with Mayor Bill de Blasio and First Lady Chirlane McRay.
That rally was the last straw for Daniel Duncan, 42, who had paid for sessions at the end of June and throughout July for his 8-year-old son, but the first warning sign came when his child returned home one day with a serious scrape on his leg that required more than the basic first aid administered at camp, he said. According to Duncan, he was not notified of the injury and staff did not file any type of injury report.
When Duncan finally decided to pull his son, Lewis refused to refund him the unfinished sessions for July, and he ended up eating the roughly $1,700 he had spent on the camp, as well as the cost of registering his son with a new camp.
For Gary Schwartz and his 4-year-old son Harold, the trouble began almost as soon as he signed up in March, but he ignored early signs of disorganization in the hopes of landing his boy in a fun, local program.
Still, he hoped it would get better once camp began. Then, four days into the first session, his son began crying on the way to camp, wailing that he was tired. When they arrived, a counselor remarked that she wasn’t surprised, as she had seen on her exercise watch the night before that the group had walked 10 miles that day, Schwartz said.
“He walked 10 miles in the sun with that heavy backpack full of stuff they told us to pack,” Schwartz said. “Soon my son was crying every morning as soon as he woke up that he didn’t want to go to camp.”
Parents weren’t the only ones who felt burned by the seat-of-the-pants organization and Lewis’s accused lack of concern for protocol. At least four staff quit in recent weeks because Lewis had simply stopped paying them, according to Ramon King, 28, whom the kids know as Coach K.
King, who said he’s worked for other summer camps in the past, was hired on the spot as activities director when he showed up the day of the orientation about a week before camp started, he said. But unlike other camps, he and three other people hired that day underwent no background checks, submitted no fingerprints, and were hired after only a brief interview, he said.
King quit in late July after three weeks of not being paid, he said. After weeks of dodging King and threatening to file an order of protection against him, according to a series of text messages King shared with DNAinfo.
According to the Camp Bed-Stuy’s website, it has been running for five years, but that claim was impossible to independently verify because the city has no record of any permits ever being filed for the camp.
Lewis's Instagram account shows him running handful of ventures over the last several years, including a tutoring program called Uber Academic, and a summer camp called Uber Camps, which appears to have been rebranded into Camp Bed-Stuy in the summer of 2016.
He also appears to be launching a new venture, After-School Bed-Stuy, a “non-traditional” after-school program that pledges grand plans similar to Camp Bed-Stuy, where “your child can play chess on Monday, take a theater class on Tuesday and launch a rocket on Friday,” all while supervised by “highly qualified staff.”