by guest blogger, Logan Samuels
If you’ve known me in the time between being age 9 and now at 20, then you know that I have never spent a summer home during that time. For about half of my life, I have spent my summers at sleep away camp…Surprise Lake Camp, to be specific. Every summer, I got in the car or on the bus and trekked off to Upstate New York for either 4 or 8 weeks depending on the summer, and then spent four years as a staff member. I was in 5 different units, one staff-training program, one aide job for two years, one management position and then an administration position last summer. I made dozens of friends and had amazing experiences like going to Boston for the first time in my life and falling in love with it, or interviewing for Work Program and realizing how much I really loved leadership. I learned typical camp things like how to Kayak and how to roast the perfect s’more. I did Drama hobby and specialty every single year I went to camp and got the courage to move from doing stage crew and making a cameo as a cloud to having a lead in a musical. I also learned bizarre things like how I would never be cut out for the Israeli army, how to use a fax machine and operate a switchboard, or how to orchestrate a laundry system for an entire sleep away camp.
Yesterday was the session 1 arrival day for campers at camp, and it was the first summer in a decade that I found myself far from Coldspring. I donned no staff shirt, held no duffel bag and spoke to no parents on the phone explaining between what city blocks their child could board the bus up to camp. Instead, I was sitting in Maryland, at a meeting debriefing a college admissions camp event and collaborating with other team members to come up with ideas on where to present our research at conferences. Yesterday, was the first day that it really hit me.
If you aren’t familiar with SLC, or sleep away camps in general, I should really elaborate. Sleep away camp is pretty much like day camp, but it runs 24/7. As a camper, you follow a schedule filled with sports, arts and crafts, nature hikes, rock wall climbing and whatnot, but you also eat three meals a day at camp, live there for weeks on end without your cell phone or a laptop, go on overnight trips, have special day trips to waterparks and amusement parks and just experience something so truly unique that words can’t even explain it. The people you meet at sleep away camp are such amazing, close friends, because you do everything with them and then you spend each night with them as your roommates. Minutes are hours long, and days are weeks long, and the weeks feel like months in terms of excitement and friendships and relationships growing, but at the same time, all of camp goes by in the blink of an eye. There are so many cheesy but awesome experiences too like Olympics or nestling or paper plate awards (but I won’t go into detail) and one of them is your 5-year sweatshirt. You get it after five years of being a camper, and yes, it might just be a sweatshirt to you, but anyone who goes to camp knows that it is worthy of a standing ovation, a really big deal, a Chipwich and bragging rights for life.
If you loved every minute of being a camper, which most people do, the next step up the ladder is to become an aide, or a sort of junior staff member where you get to be almost an intern at one of the jobs at camp. These two years of your life are awesome in a different way and let you experience a job, while still being a camper at heart. Things are different yes, and it’s more about trips to the movies and grabbing coffee with friends rather than hanging out at arts & crafts, but it lets you be with your camp friends you’ve always known and hang out with them during that transition from camper to staff. And then comes your year as a staff member. There are dozens upon dozens of jobs and people that go into making a camp work and it’s hard to explain all of them, but know that for every for instance or question you have, there is someone in charge of it. Yes, there are counselors who are the heartbeat of the camp leading campers around, but there are so many other supporters and backbones to keep camp at its best.
Camper Logan told everyone she would be a counselor every year she was a camper, but it just never really happened. I actually started my camp career in the health center, a place I loathed as a camper, because I managed to get injured or sick every summer, but I felt the need to pay my dues and give back to the wonderful nurses who had gotten me through all of my summers as a camper. The health center taught me so much about the inner workings of a camp and what it’s like to get the campers to bounce back after they’ve been under the weather. I learned amazing skills and some medical background, (and how to make the perfect grilled cheese). Post-camp work and my last year brought me to the office of the camp. The only metaphor that I can think of for the office would have to be a beehive. It sits apart from the rest of the camp, yet always in sight, and is always thrumming and vibrating with energy and chaos. The phones never cease from ringing. Everyone is always running around with papers and memos and laundry bags and files. It is perfectly organized chaos and it runs beyond dawn until dusk and tackles tasks from the mundane to the utmost ridiculous. The office was always pulsing with news and events, every player in that office dealing with a large amount of work, but everyone was always so eager to do their job the best they could, going well beyond the 9-5 shift, running the behind the scenes on every one-on-one camper issue to breaking out for olympics to dealing with bunking to taking care of our staff to ordering helicopters and magicians and mystery bus trips or hospital bills or getting packages to campers, you name it. Busy, busy bees for sure.
The days are long and the tasks are difficult no matter what the job, but every summer we come back, ready to do it all again. Ready to make every camper’s day the best it can be. Always answering “Oh, I’ll actually be at camp!” instead of making summer plans no matter who asks. However, everyone says that there’s a time to leave camp. Don’t worry, they say, camp will always be there to welcome you back, when you’re ready to come back. I never believed that though. After four years as staff, and half a lifetime at camp, I felt ridiculously guilty for not coming back for my five-year staff jacket and for a job I had loved so much. I still feel guilty too, but I realized something. I don’t think you ever realize that there’s a time to leave camp. It kind of just comes up. I was presented with an academic opportunity, and I chose it over camp this summer, but it allowed me to step back and truly appreciate what camp has done for me. I know I’ll be back too, and that if I have kids, I would send them there, but I think it takes leaving to really appreciate what you learned from being there. Yes, I left camp for another opportunity, but would I have had the opportunity had I never gone to camp?
Sleep away camp isn’t for everyone, but it definitely was for me and crafted me into the person who I am today. It taught me so many skills and gave me so many experiences and allowed me to meet people who actually changed my life. It’s really hard to see pictures of my friends in staff shirts learning the ropes or new campers with huge cheshire grins ready to take on the world, but I was in their shoes once. Camp made me who I am today and prepared me to leave and to go out and see the world for myself and apply what I learned to true experience. It’s easy to beat yourself up for changing your course and doing something different for the first time in your life, but camp has truly allowed me to do that. I may not be getting my five-year staff jacket this summer like I’d planned, I won’t see an Olympic breakout, or nestle or even get a chipwich at the all-camp show, but I will finally get to see me as the person camp has created and prepared for the world beyond. I know I’ll drive back up that winding, dirt road someday, maybe sooner than I think, but this summer, I have learned to stop regretting that I didn’t go back and instead, be grateful for camp allowing me to move forward and take all of my camp skills and memories to go out and change the world.
So now that Leavin’ on a Jetplane is going through my head, I have to thank you, 10516. I won’t see that gorgeous lake every day, but I have been prepped and prepared to battle every current, every ripple and every tidal wave that I come across on my adventure, so this is my bus note to SLC until we meet again.