In the summer of 1984, I turned nine. Finally, I was old enough to attend resident camp in the Wisconsin wilderness. For months I had been looking forward to the freedom of time away – the joys of spending my days canoeing, swimming, making crafts, and hiking in the woods, far removed from my urban landscape and typical routine.
The reality of summer camp was even better than I could have imagined. That first year, I lived with seven other girls in a rustic A-frame cabin draped with heavy canvas walls that smelled of mildew and pine needles. My bed was a thin mattress placed on top of a wooden board, where I carefully spread out my cozy sleeping bag that felt like a hug from home. A flowing mosquito net covered my bunk to protect me from things that bite in the night. At the far end of the room, I had a small cubbyhole to store my belongings, and a single nail to hang my rain poncho, swim suit and towel. My God! They were the worst living conditions I had ever experienced – and I relished every moment.
At camp I quickly learned that “the rules” were a framework for establishing order. It was up to me to choose my attitude, participate fully in the community, make good decisions, and accept the consequences of my actions. My counselor served as a guide on my journey, but the success of the camp environment truly rested on the shoulders of each young woman. At a very young age, we were entrusted with building a positive and supportive atmosphere. And overwhelmingly, we rose to the occasion. In a parentless world, we learned how to navigate conflict, manage abundant free time, and thrive without gadgets and gizmos.
Summer camp taught me many important lessons, but the three that have had the most profound and lasting impact on my life are these:
1.) Quiet moments can breed boredom or creativity. Choose creativity.
Summer camp was a great mixture of planned activities and “downtime”. During my very first day, those quiet hours felt excruciating. I wanted to be meeting new friends and participating in one activity after the next…I wanted to be “doing”. Funny thing, by day two, after spending hours surrounded by 100 other girls, I ached for the quiet times. It was up to me to decide how I would spend those moments….would I be bored or could I entertain myself? On most days, I would find a shady area beneath a pine tree where I would write stories in my journal or pen letters home. The solitude birthed my love of writing. And when you find a passion, you are never bored again.
2.) From uncertainty comes courage.
Though I was excited to attend camp, there was some apprehension about the experience. Would I make friends? Would the other girls like me? Would I get homesick? When my parents dropped me at the camp gates with my duffel bag in tow, I had to push away that self-doubt and make the most of my new reality. Today, I carry the confidence of that nine-year-old girl who thrived in the unknown wilderness and made friends with children from all walks of life. Because of camp, I know that most of the time, fear is a mental state that can be overcome when I confront that which frightens me.
3.) The world is mine to explore.
In the summer of 1984, I was a young girl who longed for more independence and adventure. Every path was new and waiting to be traveled. The experience made me incredibly curious about the world around me.
Fifteen summers later, I was on a plane headed to a new continent to live and study abroad. There I was, traveling to a foreign land where I didn’t know a soul, didn’t speak the language, and had no idea what was waiting for me. Just a girl and her duffel bag. However, that sense of being alone in a strange place was nothing new. Camp had not only prepared me to make the most of the unknown – it had motivated me to seek it out.
This time of year, I am always excited to see children heading off to camp with their pillows and sleeping bags tucked under their arms. In this author’s opinion, there has never been a more important time for summer camp. The experience helps kids step away from the constant noise and stimuli that surrounds them so they may develop self-sufficiency, confidence, and creativity – tools that will serve them well throughout life.