what i learned at summer camp

i have never been a camper. i faked sick in order to leave outdoor education camp early as a fifth grader and am known for the “i love NOT camping” sign in my van. i’ve signed on for long, group road trips, slept on church floors, been on serve trips and retreats, but camping has never been among the activities i desire to experience. until this past week.

months ago a friend asked if i might consider serving on a planning committee for an upcoming high school camp. not just any camp, this is the one that my husband grew up going to and that both my children adore. i couldn’t just say no. so, i said i’d help with the planning but i just couldn’t work out actually being there all week, missing the time with clients and invading the camp space that my daughter needed as her own. one meeting into planning, however, i was hooked on the team and couldn’t imagine spending four months planning only to miss the actual event. i was in and i was going to have to deal with my camp phobia and hesitancies about leaving work to “work.”

on the morning i left for camp i realized that i had mindlessly chosen my “not so much a hugger” t shirt to wear. knowing that a cigar is rarely just a cigar, i chuckled at how my unconscious mind was working to communicate with my fellow camp staff. “don’t hug me and we’ll get along fine this week” didn’t seem like the best message to lead with so i changed clothes and drove to camp, fearing how i’d fare. an introvert in an extrovert’s body i knew that sharing the week with 350 high school aged campers and 50 staffers would be a stretch. while exceedingly comfortable speaking to large groups, i’d never “taught” high schoolers and i’d never worked with youth or youth workers. i figured i’d be the oldest person at camp by at least 20 years and i was confident that i was going to be asked to gain “street cred” with the campers and staff by looking ridiculous in skits or by eating bizarre concoctions that i was dared to consume. i was somewhat terrified by the time i arrived.

come to find out, i had nothing to be terrified of. as it turned out, i loved camp. not liked. not tolerated. loved. truly. when the week ended i felt truly sad to leave the packed, exhausting, demanding, hug fest that my week had been. i drove away a different person, working on how i’d make time next summer to return. i want to return. here is why:

1 i learned about myself. there is nothing like a new experience to teach me about the places in which i am stuck or unaware. being completely out of my element, having to ask for help and/or information (how does meal time work here? where do i need to be when?), and not being in complete control of my time brought me new insights. come to find out i actually can fall asleep before midnight, i don’t need to snack between meals, and when free time is built into the schedule i actually enjoy it rather than filling it with tasks.

2 i learned how to share. i didn’t just get to do what i wanted. all five of us on our team needed to come to consensus. i couldn’t just put things where i wanted them or arrange the programming as i saw fit. i needed to listen and bend and flex. i had to make space for others and usually found their ideas to be better than my own after i got over the initial sting of disappointment of not getting my way. i had opportunities to serve my team and to have them serve me. humility is most authentic when learned first hand.

3 i learned to take risks within my team. at the beginning of the week i took on a task i didn’t like (partially because i knew it would teach me alot) and, when i became over burdened by it, i asked others to take it from me for a day. this is something i avoid at all costs in my day to day life. in order to accomplish new tasks placed on my plate at camp, however, i had no choice but to either go without sleep (which i seemingly needed more than i do at home because i was spent at the end of each day) or to ask for help. this was no small task for me and yet the payoff was huge. i admitted, to myself and others, that there were limits to my ability to accomplish and, in so doing, embraced my humanity more openly and received gracious care from others.

4 being uncomfortable (and out of control) grows me. i ate what the cooks made, when they made it. i was on the camp schedule and was where they wanted me when they wanted me there for 7 full days. i had very little cell phone coverage and no internet. i couldn’t “fill my time” by being productive or mindless with either technology. there was no fridge to raid when i was bored. i learned how often i rely both on things outside of myself and on my freedom to escape a situation to divert attention from feelings of discomfort and/or tasks i don’t want to tackle. this week was different. in quiet moments i was faced only with myself and my resourcefulness or lack thereof. in following the preset schedule i learned to “submit” to the needs and rhythm of the group. these were powerful points of learning and growth for me.

5 i found out that my age didn’t matter. i never imagined that i would fall into the nearly universal rut of fearing irrelevance as i age. sadly, however, this has not been wholly true. spending a week with high schoolers and young adult staff, however, challenged my thinking. they saved me seats at dinner. they told me i was “rock star,” “adorable,” and (my favorite) “smart.” they wanted to braid my hair and talk neurobiology during free time. they taught me card games and dance moves and asked for the names of the tracks i played as we gathered. they borrowed my clothes. by the end of the week i was wearing my pajamas and baseball caps all day and not caring about the dark circles that come with age and exhaustion. i felt energized by the community i was embedded in and somehow even began initiating hugs with this family i’d spent the week with. the years between us melted away in every good and meaningful way. the truth they spoke to me was every bit as important as the truth i spoke to them.

the reason i feel compelled to share these lessons here is that i want to challenge each of us to think ahead about next summer. to decide NOW if there might be places where our presence might not only matter but might also grow us in new and important ways. if we think and dream and plan NOW about making a difference THEN, it might actually make its way on our to-do lists to research camps, complete volunteer applications, and pencil a week off next summer to serve.  in so-doing we open ourselves to the truly surprising experience of being grown while helping others to do the same.

if you’re bereft of ideas as to where to start in finding meaningful camps to volunteer with, here are a few of my favorites:
camp to belong (http://camptobelong.org) this amazing camp offers siblings who live apart from each other, in the foster care system, the chance to reunite for a week at camp. this is an amazing organization that operates internationally.

twin rocks friends camp (http://www.twinrocks.org) twin rocks is a beautiful quaker camp on the oregon coast. they have opportunities for week long service or summer long internships. 


  1. Doreen, You put into words many of the feelings I have had about camp over the years. It is funny how our perspective of things is often tainted by fears of unknowns. I too was afraid of summer camp until I spent the summer of 2006 working at Twin Rocks in their summer staff program.

    I appreciated this read and have already thought of a few people that I am going to share it with.

    It has been a blessing to get to know you over the last week and I look forward to kindling a long friendship with you, your family, and camp for years to come.

  2. LOVED, LOVED, LOVED having you there. I'm a little surprised you didn't post a link with your lip sync?! which we ROCKED.
    I'm so not articulate so I have a hard time putting my heart into words BUT it was a delight to serve alongside you, to be blessed by your teaching, and receive your kindness/love through thoughtful gifts.
    I love you!

  3. sooooooooooooooo glad you came to camp and SOOOOOOOO glad you enjoyed it and SOOOOOOO glad you learned something as you taught others! Camp would've have been the same without you, thank you for all that you brought. I have a feeling you have become a camp staple and wont have a choice whether or not to come back

  4. I am so blessed by this! :) you really put into words what makes twin rocks friends camp so incredibly special. We were all very blessed to have you this last week.

  5. this made me laugh and giggle, and then i got increasingly uncomfortable reading it. you have put into words so many universal feelings and needs. sighh. thank you for the call to action for summer 2013!

  6. What a great post! I too learned many of these things the week I counseled! The camp I counseled at is always open for help too: www.eagleferncamp.com
    I think I'm hooked to go back next year as well!
    Thanks for sharing your experience!