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Monday, July 4, 2022

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Away to Grow

Camp fuels independence,

lifelong friendships

As summer approaches, tweens and teens may be yearning for a little more freedom. For me, sleep-away camp changed my life. I will never forget the experiences and the people I met.

Having spent several summers away at camp, I wholeheartedly recommend the experience. It really taught me a lot about myself and showed my parents I was a responsible young man.

Camp often is touted as a way for children to build responsibility, broaden their horizons, develop lifelong friendships and build self-esteem. I can attest to the fact that camp did all this for me and more.

The summer after my freshman year of high school I got to spend a few weeks at a program in New York. As a 14-year-old, the idea of being away from home was exciting and terrifying. Fortunately, my parents talked me through my worries, encouraging me to go. I am glad they did.

It was a humid August morning and my alarm clock’s so-called chime pierced the air. The persistent buzz filled my dark room in efforts to awake me from a deep sleep but my eyes were already open in anticipation of my first trip on my own. Even though it was 4:30 in the morning, I sprang out of bed and dressed in record time. Dad helped me lug my 50-pound bags into the car and we zoomed off to the airport. As we drove on empty Miami streets, thoughts of what was to come filled my head. Who am I going to live with? What was the food like in the dining hall? Am I going to be homesick?

I arrived at camp as a cool New York summer evening was settling in. Boy was I glad that I packed sweaters. As we unloaded from a three-hour bus ride we received our bunk assignments and were sent on our way. I followed the map to bunk B9B and I silently prayed, “Please let me have a good summer!” Before camp, I was most intimidated by sharing a cabin and three showers with 10 other campers and three counselors who knew nothing about me. As I walked in, I was immediately surprised to find a relatively clean center room with bright red, wooden bunk beds that lined the perimeter of the space. The first counselor I met greeted me with a bright Australian twang, “G’day mate. Take any empty bed you like.” I immediately grabbed the first bottom bunk I saw.

As I began to unpack, more bunkmates and counselors trickled into the cabin. The anxiety of meeting new campers took a back seat to the excitement of settling in. All of the old timers understood the pressure of being away from home for the first time and made sure to extend a big welcome. Three of my bunkmates who had arrived a little earlier in the day were from Spain and spoke little English. I found myself becoming an impromptu translator, being fluent in both English and Spanish. It was so thrilling to know that there were other kids who had the same interests as me. I knew that sleep away camp was for me.

My first full day was a little overwhelming. As opposed to spending all day with my bunkmates doing different activities, each camper could choose six activities daily. We chose our activities for the day during breakfast. Options included everything from water skiing to piano lessons to woodworking to drama. Selecting different activities every day was great because it helped me meet more campers and staff members.

The program I attended and the majority of sleep-away camps have strict rules about calling home. At my camp, we were not allowed to call home the first week. We were encouraged to write letters or send e-mails. At the time, the rule didn’t make much sense to me but I now understand. First-time campers typically will experience a day or two of homesickness, as I did. Settling into a new environment with new people can be daunting. My counselors helped me to focus on my new friends and activities and within a day or so I was more preoccupied with how many days I had left at camp and whether I would be returning the next year. However, it’s best that parents talk about homesickness with campers before they leave home. My parents explained to me that nothing would change while I was away and that they were just an e-mail away.

As my camp days drew to a close, I began to think about how I would stay in touch with the amazing people I had met. I must have swapped e-mails and phone numbers with hundreds of campers and counselors from around the world. There are many with who I’m still in contact.

Going away to summer camp can be a very meaningful experience, as it was for me. While it can be expensive, it’s worth it. Plus, there are programs that provide scholarships and financial assistance to put camp in reach of families at all income levels.

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