There’s No Place Like Camp
It’s whatever you want it to be. More importantly, it’s whatever you need it to be.
Summer camp is like your favorite meal from your favorite restaurant: you can try to replicate it, but you won’t be able to.
There’s also nothing you can say to adequately describe it to others.
“Okay, so it’s like we’re in the woods but we’re not, you know?”
“There are sports and yeah there’s a lake but it’s not really about that stuff”
“Anyway we all sing and dance at breakfast”
The world is separated by “camp people” and “not-camp people” and I am proudly the former. I wear it like a badge of honor (the badge is a mosquito). And like many, I’m heartbroken as I see camp after camp officially close their doors for the summer.
To be sure, it’s the right decision — and an expected one. The number one priority for any camp should be protecting the people within its boundaries. But just like many decisions in life, the right ones are often the toughest.
Calling it “summer camp” doesn’t really do it justice. It’s a place to learn how to be independent. To learn how to coexist with others (you learn quickly with 13 roommates). It’s where you learn to think creatively (no cell phones will do that). It’s an escape for so many. It’s a place to put yourself out there and discover your unique voice. It’s a place to fail in a controlled environment.
Camp is whatever you want it to be. More importantly, it’s whatever you need it to be.
My relationship with camp is personal. It’s where I spent 13 summers and many more visits.
It’s where I met some of my best friends. It’s where I discovered my love for music. Where I had first kisses. Where I had my heart broken. Where I developed a sense of humor and learned to laugh at myself. It’s where I found my Jewish identity. Where I learned that there is such a thing as putting too much laundry detergent in your laundry (RIP my sweatshirt). It’s where I learned to literally dance in the rain. Where I learned the importance of going outside and taking a walk. Where I learned that you can never have too much sunscreen or too many pairs of socks, or to never underestimate the power of a good chocolate chip cookie.
It is no exaggeration to say that I wouldn’t be who I am today without camp.
But what we learn from camp as individuals is only part of it. The true impact comes from the relationships we build; the things we can’t really quantify.
I’ve both seen and felt the tangible impact camp makes. People feeling included for the first time in their entire lives. A kid discovering a new skill or passion in real-time. Shy campers turning into outspoken heroes. People practicing acts of selflessness day after day after day. The impact of these experiences reaches far beyond the summer.
I’ll never forget an email I received a few months after camp one summer when I was a staff member. An email I still often read. It was from a camper’s parent:
“I can’t thank you enough for the impact you had on [redacted] this summer. He has a newfound confidence and sense of self-worth. He’s putting himself in better situations and making new friends. He finally decided to try out for the school play and got the part!”
This story isn’t unique, and that’s the best part. Because that’s just what camp does. It instills confidence. Changes lives. It empowers people. If camp were personified, it would be someone sternly, but gently, telling you over and over, “Whoever you are, you’re enough. Now go put on sunscreen.”
To many, making the school play may not seem like a big deal, but to a quiet kid who arrived at an overnight summer camp sitting by himself clutching his luggage for dear life hundreds of miles from home, it’s everything.
I don’t think it’s so much that camp changes you, just that it has this funny way of unlocking something you’ve always had.
As we enter a summer without camp, we have a unique opportunity to reflect and rebuild. We’ll find other ways to connect. We’ll hold reunions. We’ll see old friends (albeit virtually). We’ll find creative ways to empower future generations. To instill confidence. To make people feel included. We’ll look for ways to keep that “camp weirdness” around.
And ultimately, we’ll remember that it’s the people who give a place its purpose.
Before we know it kids will be running around and laughing, staff will be playing pranks, rain will have just ruined an event, someone will have just made an insane catch in a game of ultimate frisbee.
But for now, as we self-isolate and social distance, I think it’s okay to click our crocs together three times and acknowledge that there’s no place like camp.
As long as we also acknowledge that it’s us who make camp so special in the first place. And that together we can look for other ways to bring that magic into our everyday lives — even if we’re doing so with less mosquito bites.