Imagine being 7 years old and coming to camp for the first time. You’re one of the youngest and newest campers on campus, and you may feel a little lost, intimidated and overwhelmed. You may begin to think that coming to camp may have been a mistake, and start wondering if it is too late to call your parents back to come and get you. And then an older, taller, more experienced camper walks right up to you, knows your name, and makes you feel like you belong. They are your big brother/big sister, and for the entire duration of camp, they’ve got your back. You can breathe a big sigh of relief because you’re not alone anymore and someone is there for you. Young campers benefit immensely from the Big Brother/Big Sister program because they can transition quickly from “nervous and new” to “confident and included.” They bond quickly to their camp sibling and rest easy in the fact that if they have questions, need someone to sit with at lunch, or just need someone to talk to, they have their big brother/big sister.
Each year, an older, more experienced camper is paired with a younger newer camper. The new camper benefits for all of the reasons listed above, but the big brother/big sister benefits too. It is a big responsibility to be a big brother/sister, and they take it very seriously. By proving that they are trustworthy, reliable, friendly, patient and kind, they are given the opportunity to make a difference for a new camper. This boosts their confidence, improves their leadership skills, and gives them something to look forward to. They get the chance to be a mentor to someone, to be a teacher and a friend, which helps them immensely when they are back at school and in the “real world.”
Entering a new place can be nerve-wracking, especially when you’re surrounded by tons of new people who seem to know what they’re doing, where they are going, and already have their pack of friends to do things with. When a new camper is matched with a Big Brother/Sister, they can get through that awkward newness quickly and move on to getting settled in. With someone to answer their questions, introduce them to new friends and give them a tour of the campus, they begin to feel comfortable with their new surroundings and can begin to experience camp as it is meant to be experienced. Young campers can also look forward to the day when they too will be a big brother/sister for someone else, and pass what they’ve learned down to someone new.
There are so many benefits of having a big brother/big sister during your first time at camp. It makes camp seem a little smaller when at first it feels so big, and it can make it feel a little less daunting and whole lot more fun.
We look forward to celebrating our 62nd summer at Camp Weequahic starting this June. Founded in 1953 by an incredible family of educators, CW was built to be an amazing community in which children can learn, laugh, and grow. And, while CW has changed a little over time, we continue to focus on one thing: caring for our campers. We would like to tell you about a great tradition that helps us accomplish that goal.
Following dinner and our 45-minute ‘Free Play’ time, all of our campers and counselors gather at the Flagpole in the middle of Main Campus. Lined up from youngest to oldest, our campers and staff learn about the upcoming evening activities and get a quick preview of the following day’s fun. Before we move to EA, however, we open the floor to Nominations.
Nominations are made by staff members to recognize campers who have done something that was gracious, helped someone else, and/or was courageous. Maybe someone got a cheer going for a friend trying to successfully climb the 50’ climbing tower for the first time. Maybe a camper was found cleaning up a program area at the end of an activity without being asked. Perhaps a bunk created a colorful thank you note and left it for the cleaning staff.
Whoever is nominated gets to come forward to help lower the flag that evening. We normally have 8 to 12 kids, and the older campers help the youngest to lower the flag while the camp stands quietly.
We are excited to end the day as a whole camp celebrating campers who have done something remarkable. We love ‘catching’ our kids doing something great and pointing this out to everyone at camp!
One of the great leaders of our time once said, “The main ingredient in good leadership is good character. This is because leadership involves conduct and conduct is determined by values.” I’m sure Gen. Schwartzkopf did not have camp in mind when he said this. However, camp plays an active role in establishing enduring values children use as they grow, learn, and lead.
Camp Weequahic promotes three main values to each community member: Gratitude, Attitude, and Courage. We believe a gracious heart is a happy one. We believe that attitude is the only thing a person has complete control of in their life. And, we believe that confronting the fear one feels and doing the right thing anyway builds courage.
While we talk about these values at our weekly campfire, there is not a lot of overt GAC ‘speak’ each day. Rather, we take Oscar Wilde’s comment to heart: “Every little action of the common day makes or unmakes character.”
Those ‘every little’ actions involve the campers who play, laugh, and learn at Camp Weequahic and, just as importantly, the staff who care for, teach, and guide them.
At Weequahic, we are mindful about the families who join our community. Surrounding our campers with other children interested in being at camp for the right reasons (grateful for the experience, excited to meet new friends, and open to building a great community) is enormously important.
Even more, it is critical for us to identify and hire staff members who already leading their lives in a GAC way. Why? While our nine day orientation is very effective in preparing our staff for campers, it cannot change their nature.
Our staff members’ character is nearly formed by the time they reach us. Therefore, we spend a great deal of time determining their values and learning about their daily conduct with and away from young people through the interview process. Once we have identified staff members who fit our culture, we then train and support them in the daily adventure of building children of strong character through playful mentorship.
Researchers have identified that a large portion of our young people do not place any value on ‘Values.’ Rather, they simply do what they have to in order to get what they want. At Camp Weequahic, we are proud to take an active role in combating this problem in our youth by teaching, in very fun little and daily ways, the GAC values.
Do you know the history of camping? Most people don’t and it is too bad. It’s an interesting story and I’m happy to give you my take on it.
Back in the early 1900’s, several individuals and families, seeing the swelling slums in the northeastern cities, began to think of ways to get kids back to nature. Striking out from New York and Boston, these camp pioneers found pieces of land with lakes, trees, clean air, and a lot of space on which to build the first ‘residential camps’ in the US.
Mostly school teachers and coaches, these early camp leaders built relationships with families who chose to send their children to camp. The founding purpose of camp was to provide an environment of wholesome activity in which the values of independence, teamwork, gratitude, and community were transmitted, both overtly and subtly, to children.
Looking back at over 100 years of organized camping, I think these early professionals were on to something. Camping is nolonger just for children from the northeastern major metro areas, though they still make up a large proportion of campers. Camp has spread across the country and world and now is a big part of lots of peoples’ lives.
There are a lot of reasons why camping has thrived over the years. The main reasons, at least in my opinion, are the relationships built between campers and the staff at camp, being a part of something special, and the skills (physical, psychological, and emotional) that are developed. When you combine value-driven adults who are eager to lead with campers excited to learn, grow, and build new friendships, you’ve got an incredible start for creating a remarkable camp experience.
Three or six weeks is really not a lot of time to impress life lessons into children (or staff for that matter). Therefore, we do our best to keep it simple at Weequahic. I’ve already written about gratitude as a core value. Today I’d like to touch on another of our core values: Choice.
While campers have a lot of choice in daily program at Weequahic, that is not the aspect of choice on which I mean. Rather, I’d like to focus on the more global meaning of the word.
Campers who attend a Friday night non-denominational service or just sit around for a chat with me will notice I often bring up the idea of choice. How do they choose to react to a situation? What are they choosing to say to themselves and to others?
Many young people don’t think about their choices, much less that they have control over them. I know didn’t really think about it until college. That is when I heard about William James and his very simple but profoundly important conclusion: We are the only ones who have control over our thoughts.
Simple, right? For anyone who has ever thought about it, it makes absolute sense. However, we rarely think about this most fundamental choice. Rather, we simply glide along reacting from habit or the way ‘crowd’ might expect.
A mentor of mine recently told a story of doctor who works with people with difficult injuries and afflictions. Rather than ask his patients “How are you feeling today?”, the doctor always asked “What are your plans for the day?” Do you see the difference?
The first question makes you react to your situation, whatever that may be. The patient would focus on their ailment or pain. The second question prompts the patient to think about the choices that lay ahead of them. It also reminds them that they are in control of those choices.
Seth Godin, one of my favorite thinkers and this year’s keynote speaker at the ACA Tri-State Conference, recently wrote about choices a person chooses to make. Choices, and their consequences, are even a mantra in the recent thriller The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
Choices abound in our incredible society. We are fortunate to have protected choices of religion, action, and thoughts. It’s vitally important that we think about these choices and there consequences and teach young people the power they have over their own choices.
I don’t know about you, but a good number of my current communities are one step away from reality — they only exist online. I have a Facebook community, which includes a good number of friends-of-friends that I’ve never met in person. I visit a set list of blogs every day and have a great time interacting with the authors and the other readers. While our definition of community might be expanding, I don’t think any of us have lost sight of the importance of a good, old-fashioned in-person community though.
According to the American Camp Association, parents have identified the development of social skills/living in community (such as making new friends, getting along with others, becoming more responsible, and learning group-living skills) as one of the main reasons they send their children to camp. The owners, directors and staff at summer camp all understand the power of community and structure these skills into their programs in several areas.
1. Communal Living
I am an only child, and as such, I always had my own room when I was a child, so living in a camp bunk for the first time was a huge learning experience. For the first time, I had to be part of a community of people who were sharing space, delegating work and working, communally, to make things work. It didn’t take long for me to get into the routine of doing my part and see how even the most menial job — mine was taking out the trash – contributed to the health of the community.
Bunkmates must also learn how to navigate the waters of communal decisionmaking. They must work through the inevitable issues and conflicts that come up in bunk living — and they must learn to adapt and get along when things don’t go their way. They learn to live by the will of the majority, while at the same time respecting the needs of others who represent the minority. Again, according to the ACA, “small group living also provides the necessary intimacy for individuals to achieve a sense of belonging, explore a variety of group roles, cooperate and form relationships with others, and have input into the group’s activities”.
2. Eating and Singing Together
In the past few years there has been a large ad campaign promoting family dinners. Sitting around the dinner table sharing stories, concerns and the high and low points of your day with family members — or fellow campers — creates intimate bonds between all of the participants. Most camps have family-style meals and singing traditional camp songs together is often a ritual. Songs are always a founding piece of any culture and at camp, at the end of session when everyone knows the camp songs, they too become community bonds that live through the years.
3. Connections that Last
Although sometimes I am annoyed with how much of my life occurs online, there’s no arguing that modern social networking has helped nurture the lifelong friendships developed at camp. Now, instead of waiting days or week from a letter from a camp pen pal, you can send a text message, IM, or just nudge them on Facebook. Many camps have Facebook groups, some devoted exclusively to alumni from certain years, so the 50-somethings reminiscing about camp in the 70s can be a subgroup of a larger online camp community.
Camp Weequahic bike races. I’m guessing early 1980s here. Any alumni want to chime in?
No matter how much time passes, the camp community lives on. Alumni have frequent get-togethers and are always welcome to spend a day visiting their old camp haunts. Many camps host reunions every year and invite alumni from different generations to come and visit together, creating yet another community, another branch of the family tree.
Want to get connected with Camp Weequahic again? Check out the Facebook page!
How did you experience community at camp? How have you sustained it since? We’d love to hear your stories in the comments below!