by Bethany Young Hardy
Ah, summer. Time to enjoy popsicles and sunny days, picnics and pool time, fireflies and late nights. Making lifelong memories is what this time of year is all about. For many of us, summer camp is a hallmark of childhood. A time for growth and establishing independence, stepping out of the comfort zone of home and making new friends.
And current trends reflect that the summer camp tradition is alive and well. Active Network, a registration software program, processed 531,000 registrations for youth camps across the United States from January through May in 2010—a 6 percent increase from 2009.
Perhaps camp is growing in popularity as a resource for parenting children because parents know that the camp experience can help shape a young person in fundamental ways.
Yes indeed, says Peg L. Smith, chief executive officer of the American Camp Association, which works to preserve, promote, and enhance the camp experience for children and adults. "Camp is an exemplary classroom without walls,” Smith notes. “Camp offers children opportunities to experience key developmental steps that help them become successful adults—things such as independence, healthy risk taking, and important life skills."
Parent USA City set out to find stories of how a summer camp experience changed someone’s life forever. Here are just four of the ones we collected.
Meeting a life partner
Lauren Schiffman of Westborough, Massachusetts, recalls her favorite camp memory with no difficulty. “The best thing about camp was meeting my husband there,” she says.
Schiffman went to Eisner Camp in the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts for 10 years, seven as a camper and three as a counselor. She met her husband, Rick, when she was 12; he was a few years older. He “was a unit leader when I was a camper, but age never really seemed to matter at camp,” Schiffman recalls. “Bonds were formed between people of all ages.”
“I never liked going into the pool, so every morning during swim lessons, he and I sat underneath a little tree and just talked. We sat under that tree every day [one] summer,” she remembers. “Those conversations really allowed us to form a valuable foundation for a life-long friendship.”
Although they attended the camp in the late ‘80s, Lauren and Rick didn’t start dating until “many years later,” she says. They were married in the fall of 2009.
And, as the photo they gave Parent USA City shows [above], they sometimes visit Eisner Camp and sit once again under the tree where they spent so much time and developed the friendship that would change their lives.
Dodi Blumstein was a “normal” teenager whose life was forever changed in August 1997 when she fell while hiking.
For two years, orthopedists were perplexed, unable to diagnosis her injury while Dodi lived under excruciating pain. Finally, an orthopedic specialist identified bones and tendons that were fractured and torn, and Dodi had to undergo a complete tendon transplant. Two years later she was diagnosed with RSD (reflex sympathetic dystrophy), a chronic neurological condition that results in intense and increasing levels of pain. Dodi had a number of surgeries over the years, and the uncertainty with which her future was laden was unnerving. But thanks to her summer camp experience, she discovered a new passion: hand-cycling.
Today, the resident of Far Rockaway, New York, has three full marathons, two half marathons, and a Boston Marathon qualification under her belt—all of which she completed by controlling a specially designed hand-cycled wheelchair bike.
To prepare, Blumstein participated in Team Lifeline, a training program that helps novice runners get ready to run or walk a marathon or half-marathon. The program also raises money for Chai Lifeline, an organization dedicated to helping seriously ill children and their families, and its two medically supervised overnight camps for very sick children and teenagers—Camp Simcha and Camp Simcha Special. Blumstein attended Camp Simcha Special in 2004 and 2005. She says the program changed her life.
“Thanks to a tremendous support network, a great medical team, and a willingness to not be restricted by my disability, I was able to navigate through the pain and focus on life,” says Blumstein.
“As Team Lifeline’s first cycler, my hope is to inspire other Camp Simcha and Camp Simcha Special campers. This year marks the 25th anniversary of Team Lifeline, which makes this year’s marathons all the more rewarding. It’s the least I can do for an organization that literally changed my life.”
Developing a healthier lifestyle
Daniella Geisler of New York City knew she needed to make a serious change in her life. Unhappy about her weight, she had “tried almost every weight loss program that exists,” she recalls. She turned to the Wellspring Camps, weight loss camps across the country that adopt a scientific approach to diet and weight management. After attending one of Wellspring’s New York camps, she was hooked. Now, almost three years later, she’s shrunk five pants sizes and lost 70 pounds.
Camp “helped me turn into a completely new person while helping me gain my confidence back and be a stronger and healthier person,” Geisler says. “It also helped me to start believing and trusting in myself that if I put my mind to it, I can achieve anything that I desire.”
Geisler is now serving as a counselor at one of the Wellspring camps because “I want to continue to help obese children and help them see their inner beauty and show them the way to make a life long change,” she explains.
Another Wellspring camper, Cassie Bordner of Hewitt, Texas, says that “everything” in her life has changed for the better because of camp.
“I now am addicted to running in the morning, where as before camp I wouldn’t even dare to attempt jogging,” she says. “I also have learned how to treat my body right and give up those heavy, fatty foods that I once ate so frequently.
“My confidence is through the roof and I am doing things throughout the school year that I would’ve never been able to do, like make many more friends and join in more activities.”
Promoting plain, old-fashioned fun
Ira Gordon attended many camps in the ‘70s and ‘80s, including a touring camp for teenagers. On the tour, “we would go to amusement parks in the afternoon and then leave at 4 or 5 o'clock, which never gave us the opportunity to ride any of the big coasters because that time frame is when the parks are most crowded,” Gordon recalls. “It was actually during that time that I told my best friend that when I grew up I would create a company that would go to parks every day from open to close so that I could ride coasters all day.”
And that’s just what he did. In 2004, Gordon created ThrillCoaster Tours, a six-week teen tour that “provides a one-of-a-kind coaster touring experience,” according to its website. He is integrally involved in the company, accompanying campers on each tour.
Gordon says his idea for the company came from the experiences he had at camp, and afterward. “Being a counselor at camp for a couple of years enabled me to learn how to form groups [of campers with counselors],” he says. This is an important skill, he explains, because group dynamics and harmony largely shape the camp experience.
A roller coaster tour of the eastern United States with some college friends also helped seal the deal. “We visited eight parks in a two-week period, stopping only for sleep,” Gordon recalls.
Their car broke down and they were stuck in Pennsylvania on a Sunday. “Nothing is open on Sundays, but fortunately we found a local person who was a mechanic passing by. He fixed the car and we got to continue our trip,” he continues. “During the trip we had to put the heat on because the car kept overheating, so we had to drive with the windows open in 90 degree heat with the heat blasting, but it was worth it.”
The trip, Gordon says, helped inspire him to create a company that would let others enjoy making memories with their friends. “It was so much fun and it was an experience that I will absolutely never forget.”
A way to learn and grow
Whether it’s a weeklong or a months-long program, summer camp helps young people grow in many beneficial ways. It exposes them to a variety of new experiences, people, and opportunities.
Learning to try new things, getting to know people who may be different from you, or developing a deeper understanding about yourself are just some of the many ways a person can benefit from their camp experience, says Schiffman. And perhaps best of all, she adds, “Camp really enables deep, lifelong friendships.”
Bethany Young Hardy is a mom, writer, and public relations consultant. Her experience includes political, nonprofit, and healthcare communications.
Photos courtesy of Lauren Schiffman, Dodi Blumstein, Wellspring Camps, and Ira Gordon