This I Believe
I believe in the transformational power of summer camp. I believe that the experience for both child-camper and adult-counselor can be so life-altering that neither the camper nor the counselor will ever be the same. Camp is a place outside the day-to-day reality of a camper. It is a place where parents are not watching, and standard social boundaries are loosened. It is a place to try out new things, including new ways of expressing one’s self. For campers, summer camp marks a time where, usually for the first time, the child feels the thrill of freedom but within the safe boundaries of a defined area.
In a time when play times are strictly scheduled, and even young kids are being channeled towards “productive” activities, camp, particularly non-specialty camps, is perhaps the most prolonged time period of social activity without fixed goals that a child has in a year.
There are activities which are unavailable at home, such as a climbing wall or sailing, and a level of energy and activity which will challenge even the most active child. Yet, paradoxically, time slows without clocks and computers to feed the need for “instant” messaging and gratification.
Children spend weeks in close proximity to more kids their own age than nearly any of them get at home. Meals are shared around a common table. Grace is said or sung. The day’s rhythm is more naturally felt, with darkness signaling the end of activities, other than the camp fire.
The first night of a session, campers fall asleep slowly, and awake early the next day, but as the session progresses, the rhythm of the camp, so frenetic yet so unmeasured, allows the campers to sleep well and awake rested.
Each child has a chance to see what others have that they do not. They also experience different “parenting styles” than they may have at home. There will likely be role models other than parents, which can broaden a child’s horizons.
Social structure is provided by college-age student who have never had their own children. For the counselor, it is a borrowing of another adult’s responsibilities for a short time. It is an exhausting two months, and usually does not pay terribly well. But it pays dividends that can not be measured in dollars. Counselors learn to rely on each other for shared responsibilities. Counselors see a wider variety of children, each with their own unique histories, than any of them have in their home life. It is a coming together, a sharing of backgrounds across a spectrum not usually breached in the outside world.
Counselors learn to teach, both in actual lessons and, more valuably, outside them. They learn to see themselves as examples, as authorities, as people who set boundaries. In doing so, they gain an understanding of those in their lives who perform those roles for them. For every counselor who has heard the phrase “you’re not my parent” from a camper, there is a greater understanding of how hard parenting can be, but also how rewarding. I have spent a half hour every day for a week teaching a camper how to dive, watching him go over each and every step in his mind before finally successfully achieving the goal and gaining self-confidence in doing so.
In my own life, I can point to time spent at one particular camp as a turning point. I can name my counselors, and still speak with some of them. I forged friendships among staff members that have endured, even through absences of years. I also gave up eating meat while cooking hamburgers over an open flame one summer’s night in 1983 and remain a vegetarian to this day.
I found a love of place, a warmth of spirit, which has brought me back to that place. I was married there, in the camp, surrounded by friends. It was the most wholesome day of my life, and no fancier setting would have suited as well as a dining hall on a lake. It felt thoroughly appropriate that my bride and I would arrive with our own champaign and then remove all traces of alcohol when we left, so as to restore the camp to its unspoiled condition.
Camp embodies words that seem to have lost their meaning in today’s world. At camp, it is not a fault to be open, trusting, wholesome and collegial. Parents trust camps with their children, but camps are more than safe havens, they are incubators. And those who have been touched by a camp grow up better for it.
I believe that summer camp removes ceilings and walls which bound children and young adults today. Showing a camper an open sky and saying “I dare you to grow into it as tall as you dare and then some.” is a transforming experience for camper and counselor alike. I will always be grateful for my time spent at camp.
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