Here are just some of the things kids bring home from summer camp: campfire songs, legs full of mosquito bites, certification in archery, clothes that reek of lake and horse, a bottle of barely used shampoo and several T-shirts you know you didn’t buy. But they also bring home something else—a sense of independence, confidence, a handful of lifetime friendships (even a potential spouse!) and a sense of belonging not found in the school cafeteria.
In Mt. Lebanon, hundreds of kids are packing right now for summer sleep-away camps. The favorites are diverse: Kon-o-Kwee Spencer, Ligonier Camp, Summer’s Best Two Weeks, Sheldon Calvary Camp, Emma Kaufmann Camp, Camp Redwing, Young Life Camp. Camps may be co-ed or single-gender. Some are tent-rustic and others, cabin-comfortable. They may be religiously based or Scout-organized. But they welcome campers of all backgrounds, and many offer funding assistance for families who can’t afford it.
“When you’re at camp, everyone is equal,” says former Sheldon Calvary camper and counselor Brynn Fuller-Becker, a Jefferson Drive resident and senior at Mt. Lebanon High School. “There’s no, ‘I have more money than you.’ Everyone is running around in shorts and T-shirts. It’s a magical place.”
Psychologist and well-known parenting expert Wendy Mogel, author of Blessings of a Skinned Knee, who spoke to preschool parents in a presentation in Mt. Lebanon a few years ago, did not have enough good things to say about the benefits of camp.
She reiterates that on her website, www.wendymogel.com: “Old-fashioned sleep-away camp is the best antidote to the extreme nature of our culture. We try to protect our children from every danger, from failure and discomfort. Our goal should be to keep them as safe as necessary, not as safe as possible. Even better, you don’t have your nervous, over-intelligent, over-meddling parents there to step in and save you. You have to learn to be a team player, sleep on an uncomfortable bed, and get along with the annoying kid in your cabin.”
Tim Green, the executive director of Sheldon Calvary, an Episcopal camp on the shores of Lake Erie in Ohio, started there as a 10-year-old camper 35 years ago. He couldn’t agree more.
“I want camp to be a place where kids can be comfortably uncomfortable,” Green says. It’s a place to learn and grow and develop confidence. The staff of 90 will give the 1,100 campers who will visit Calvary during this summer’s many sessions a strong sense of emotional safety in additional to physical safety, he says. And while they’re camping, they’ll make hundreds of decisions every day. Decisions are small, like what shoes to wear. (Pick the wrong ones and get blisters…) But the decisions are theirs, and by the time they get to college, “They have this repertoire of experience and decisions.”
Even though most camps in our region are nonprofit, camp is big business. The American Camp Association says camp is a $15 billion industry with more than 7,000 resident camps in the United States. Each year, more than 11 million people go to camps that employ more than 1.5 million people. Diversity is a trend, with nearly 20 percent of camp staff coming from other countries. And although traditional outdoor programs are still the most popular choice, newer specialized camps include college planning programs, health/wellness/fitness camps and cooking with camp-grown food. One common thread: Nearly two-thirds of camps make the kids leave their electronics at home.
An emotional connection
It was the Summer of ’69 and Constance “Connie” (Kelly) Johnson was 10 and lived on Jonquil Place when she and her older sister, Veronica “Ronnie” (Kelly) Ekeroth, learned from their parents, without warning, that they would be going to a week of sleep-away camp. Just like that. I’ve packed ya. You’re going. No discussion.
“I remember my mom purchased fancy sleeping bags,” says Connie, who now lives in Ohio. And with that, the girls were off to Camp T. Frank Soles, a YMCA camp in the Laurel Highlands. She doesn’t remember worrying about it, but clearly, her mom hadn’t been to camp before. “The day we left, my sister and I had on these little dresses.”
That first year the biggest impression came from the long-gone in-ground trampolines. “My mom wouldn’t let me do riflery and archery,” she says. But Connie spent days in the lake, swimming, canoeing and kayaking. Summer days rounded out with horseback riding, hiking and arts and crafts.
“It was very easy to make friends. The people on staff were amazing,” Johnson says. “It was an emotional connection. I liked being outside.”
Chores were a big deal. Setting the table. Serving the meals. Clearing the table. Three times a day. Your space and your cabin had to be spotless, if you wanted to earn a piece of watermelon. And you didn’t want to be the reason your cabin didn’t win.
Johnson loved camp so much, she went back two more times, and then became a staff member for three years starting in 1974, at age 15. She has returned since for alumni days to do service projects to spruce up the camp. “Sitting on the porch, looking across the lake is still one of my favorite things to do,” she says.
Green says many campers want to become staffers and most camps have a counseling in training “farm system,” as he calls it, much like a pro baseball team trains its players.
Fuller-Becker, a Calvary camper since age 9 before becoming a counselor last year, says her first year as a counselor was the best summer of her life. “I had this attachment to camp. I knew how my counselors made me feel. It’s such a privilege to have that effect on others.”
Green agrees that counselors can have a positive impact on the kids’ lives. He recalls his own first trip to camp: “It was the first time in my life I didn’t feel alone in the world.”
HELLO MUDDAH. HELLO FADDAH.
Sam Bloom is director of the Jewish Community Center’s Emma Kaufmann Camp (EKC), on Cheat Lake in Morgantown, West Virginia, which will host 850 kids in a summer. Parents often ask him what the camp will do, if their child is homesick. “Parents have to feel comfortable that we’re going to take care of their kid,” he says.
But it’s not just the kids who sometimes have trouble adjusting. Parents can have difficulty separating from their children, and some are sending them to camp later than previous generations. The camp staff assures parents that they’re well equipped to handle homesickness, with a well-qualified staff of 130.
And what do they do to comfort the parents? EKC sends newsletters, posts hundreds of pictures of campers online every day and, like many camps, requires campers to send handwritten notes home.
Retired Mt. Lebanon elementary health and phys ed teacher Kathy Pattak (nee Kramer) met the love of her life in 1972 when she was a counselor at EKC. She and Alan became friends, got closer through the summer and returned the following two years. “They say if you can make it through three summers [together] at camp, you can make it through anything,” she says. This summer marks their 40th year of marriage.
Pattak says parents who are considering sending a child to camp should ask about a typical day there. Also, ask what the camp expects from your child, how much communication you will have from the camp and how much communication you will have with your child. Some camps do not allow email.
“We know what camp does for kids,” Bloom says. “It gives them confidence. It gives them an opportunity to live in a community-style environment. It’s not just about them anymore.” Kids bond easily, he says, when they’re away from constant parental supervision and, working within the rules and structure of the camp, are free to be themselves—to stay up at night laughing and telling jokes.
And although campers acquire lots of physical skills, Green says the take-homes run much deeper. The campers may have things they need to work on, but “I want [campers] to understand they’re perfect the way they are in many ways,” he says. “I want them to find their best self at camp.”