I remember well the summer I was 9 years old, when my parents packed me off to sleep-away camp.
I had been to a shorter overnight camp the summer before, but it was much closer to home and we slept indoors in double rooms. This was the real deal: cabins in the woods, a short hike to the bathhouse, and two whole weeks away from home.
It took over four hours to drive to camp, and I was sick to my stomach with nervousness the entire way there. I was afraid of taking a swim test; I was afraid of going on overnight camping trips; I was afraid no one would want to be my friend. (That’s a picture of me when my mom dropped me off, clinging to my stuffed bunny “HaHa.”)
I ended up surviving those two weeks and returning to camp for several years after that, and over those summers I made some of the best friends of my life. From this vantage point, decades later, it’s easy to declare my camp experience a success. But if I look back with complete honesty, I have to admit that those early years of camp were actually lonely and difficult in a lot of ways.
Camp seemed to bring out normally-hidden insecurities and anxieties in me.
I greatly preferred arts and crafts to playing games, and I was shy around so many new people. I became fastidious about my belongings, concerned that my clothes would get too dirty and worried that my cabin-mates would break my old trunk, which had been my mom’s when she was a girl. I invented maladies so I wouldn’t have to jump into the freezing cold lake during morning swim lessons. I had trouble loosening up and making friends and often felt like the odd girl out. I waited every day for the mail to come to see whether I had a postcard or a care package from home, and I counted down the days until the session was over.
And then, when my parents arrived to finally take me home, I didn’t want to leave, and I wanted to tell them about all the new adventures I had. I slept in the woods! I ate a Pop Tart (not allowed at home)! I wove a friendship bracelet! I hiked up a mountain! I picked a blackberry! I passed my swim test! I learned a new song that I’m going to sing 57 times on the drive home!
All of the difficult moments seemed to melt away, and I just remembered the good stuff – until the next year, when we were in the car on the way to North Carolina, and the cycle began again.
I tell you all of this because on Sunday, Chris and I will be delivering four of our Braid youth to summer camp.
They have the marvelous opportunity to go to camp, free of charge, in the redwoods of Sonoma at St. Dorothy’s Rest. They will get to play and swim and hike and canoe and dress up in the costume room, and their camp session has a special creative arts focus, so there will also be lots of art and music and drama.
But overnight camp is also a new experience for all of them, so we know they are nervous. I have fielded several anxious questions from them and their caregivers as they prepare and pack this week: Will there be life jackets when we go canoeing? How many cookies will I be allowed to eat? Will I get splinters? Will I get to come home if I’m homesick?
All of this anxiety is pretty normal, but we also know that our youth have been through more adversity than most.
Homesickness takes on a new dimension for these sweet young people who have not always had a stable home, who have perhaps taken on great responsibility for younger siblings, who have not always had enough food or people who will miss them while they’re away.
Some of you will see your youth this weekend before they head off to camp, and you may have an important role to play in helping reassure them that they will be safe and loved during this next week. You can also think about them and pray for them while they’re gone, and write them letters while they’re there to let them know you’re thinking about them (c/o St. Dorothy’s Rest, PO Box B, Camp Meeker CA 95419). You’ll be able to welcome them home and listen to them tell you about all the new things they did, and maybe they’ll want to tell you about the difficult moments as well. Others of you will be working with youth who didn’t get to go to camp this year and may feel left out, and your support will be crucial too.
My hope is that in a couple decades all of these youth will look back with fondness on their summer camp experience, and on you – their mentors – who help give them the confidence to embark on new adventures.