Every summer, millions of kids across the United States flock to the outdoors to experience the magic of summer camps. Ranging from day camps to overnight adventure camps, campers, counselors and parents all have the same reaction: summer camp is one of the most crucial experiences to the growth of modern day youth.
The United States was the pioneer for summer camps. Almost 150 years ago summer camps were created for kids to escape the hot, dense inner cities. Since then, summer camp has grown into a norm for many across the country but the question is, what keeps drawing kids back to summer camp year after year?
I have been fortunate to spend almost half my summers as a youth at a summer camp. Over seven summers, I have spent a total of 14 weeks at Camp Ondessonk in southern Illinois. Seven of those weeks were as a camper, three as a Counselor-in-Training and four as a Leader-in-Training (volunteer counselor). I was just recently hired for another five weeks this summer as a lifeguard.
Many of my friends and family have heard me talking about my experiences at Camp Ondessonk for many years (I am sure many of them are tired of the name Camp Ondessonk) only because summer camp has a special place in my heart. This attachment proves to be a common feeling around the United States.
For Aubree Malloy, a junior at Springfield High School and a counselor at Durley Youth Camp, the magic of summer camp lies in the absence of technology. “Our culture is so focused on technology and at camp you get to unplug and reconnect with nature which seems to be really rare in youth now,” Malloy said. In modern society, youth are constantly looking down, sucked into the bright screen of a phone or laptop. Rarely do they look up long enough to enjoy nature. Some of the best moments as a counselor come when first year campers (about 60% of those campers come from an urban setting) experience their first pure, clear night in the middle of the woods. Their mouths drop to the ground as they see the night sky in its purest form, unaffected by city lights and noises. The sense of satisfaction campers get when they unplug from the hustle and bustle of the modern world and appreciate nature for the first time in their lives is undeniably important. The honest truth is that these oases’ are disappearing; who knows, maybe the next generation of children will not be able to experience the authentic outdoor experience.
Summer camp also teaches the important skills of independence and face-to-face communication. In the past 20 years, parent-child relationships have become much more nurturing. Parents are more involved and controlling of their children than ever before. Kids learn to rely on their parents to solve problems, get out of trouble and communicate with others. Thus, when these reliant kids are thrust into an unknown environment, the results can be traumatizing. Not only have these well-meaning parents caused a lack of communication, technology has also attributed. People no longer have to meet face-to-face with a person with the invention of Skype, text messaging, and calling.
Jaci Gunther, a senior at Springfield High School and a former counselor at Camp Ondessonk, notices a distinct change in the social instinct of campers after a week of summer camp. “More often than not, first year campers who haven’t been away from home for long periods of time cry because they are homesick… And almost all of those campers, by the end of the week, will be crying because they don’t want to go home. You can see as the week goes on, they rely less on the counselor and more on their peers, using teamwork and a new sense of face-to-face communication to become more independent.”
Counselors at summer camps are employed mainly to keep campers safe and guide them in a direction for growth and learning. Rather than doing tasks for the campers, counselor responsibilities are to steer campers in a direction of self-learning and understanding. When campers learn those new skills of eye contact, teamwork, independence and decision-making through counselor guided tasks such as riding a horse for the first time, ziplining into a lake, or traversing through a dark split rock riddled with spiders, they blossom with their newfound skills. Campers make the ultimate decision of what they can and cannot do, providing decision-making skills for the present and future.
Looking to the future, we strive to create an environment for our friends and family that is both welcoming and accepting. Currently, however, this world is plagued by a society filled with bullying, racism and judgement. For many, including myself, camp is a place where everyone learns to love and accept each other. Campers and staff call it coming “home.” “It’s something that is hard to put into words, but it truly is home to me and to many, many others. It’s a sense of being accepted for who you truly are, being surrounded by the best of people in a place that’s indescribable,” Delaney Gebhardt, a senior at Springfield High and a counselor at Camp Ondessonk, said. The sense of belonging draws people back to summer camp where they can escape the constant stress and judgement associated with school and home-life and enjoy life, even if it is just for a week at a time.
Summer camp is a sanctuary for many where they can make lifelong friends. In fact, the majority of my extremely close friends live hours away from me. However, we are all connected by one commonality. Camp. Something magical happens when you cram 40 crazy campers into a cabin in the middle of the woods with counselors who are equally as wild. Camp really does provide that second home, filled with the most loving and nurturing family.
Besides the fun you have at camp with your friends, staying up late telling stories or stargazing, the activity areas at summer camp are legendary. The most important rule at Ondessonk is “Have FUN.” At very few other places is the main goal to have fun. The fun experienced at camp is unlike any other fun that campers have experienced before. Campers are tasked with new challenges such as horseback riding, shooting a rifle or bow and arrow, climbing a 40-foot rock wall, going down an all natural rock slide, starting a fire with one match and creating a boondoggle masterpiece. At first these challenges seem daunting, but by the end of the week the campers cannot help smiling because they conquered their fears and created lifelong memories.
This past summer one of the activity areas I worked was at the high ropes course. At the high ropes course, Camp Ondessonk has four main elements: a 35-foot tall zipline, a 40-foot tall rock wall, a giant swing and a flying squirrel. My job was to bellay campers up to the top of the zipline. Very often I had times where a camper came to me crying because he was scared of heights. His arms trembled in fear, but I encouraged him to step out of his comfort zone and into the growth zone. Some would get to about five feet from the top of the tower and they would seize up. One of my jobs was to inspire these campers to keep going. Many would cry “I can’t do this anymore!” or “I am so scared I am not having fun anymore.” However, once I convinced them to finish the climb the campers would all zip off the platform into the open air. As they soared through the air, those campers who were crying at the start, were the ones who yelled HEEPWAHHHH (Camp Ondessonk’s word for all things good) the loudest. That experience of overcoming a fear was the highlight of their week.
As a counselor, that is why I keep coming back. It takes a special type of person to willingly volunteer his or her time for many weeks with limited contact to the outside world. The campers are what brings you back. Camp has had such a huge impact on my life and so many others’ lives that the opportunity to have the same impact on a little camper is heartwarming. I can honestly say the best moment I have ever had as a counselor was when my eight year old camper said to me; “Tyler, thank you for being my best friend.”
As a camper, you are enchanted by the mysterious unknown of summer camp, pulling you back year after year. From the wise words of Gebhardt, “Every camper discovers something they love to do, or they find a lifelong friend, or they overcome their biggest fear… whatever it is, camp changes each and every camper.” As summer slowly approaches, I encourage all of you to seek the orange fire, the fishing wire, the cabin walls or that morning bugle call in the little slice of heaven on earth– summer camp. I’ll be back next year.