Last week you read all about Dawn’s time at summer camp and how it has affected her life. This week it’s Jen’s turn – a mother and author whose life and career has all stemmed from camp.
1. Where did you go to camp? How many years?
Most of my camp memories come from a small Christian camp in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula called Camp Michigamme. I was a camper from 1989 – 1992 there, and I had a great time, but camp didn’t become an essential part of my life until 1995 when I counseled for the first time. I haven’t missed a summer yet, despite moving out of state, getting married, having two kids, publishing 8 novels (about . . . you guessed it, summer camp) and starting a photography business. This will be summer #20 for me counselling at least a week (usually more). My husband and I started deaning a fall weekend retreat for junior and senior high campers in 2000, and I had a brief, six year stint as an elementary camp dean for the summers 2004 – 2009 (with my dad and my pastor as my co-deans).
I also attended Camp Molinaire, also in the UP, as an 8th grader for school camp and then again as a junior in high school as a junior counselor.
I spent two weekends at Girl Scout camp with my mom for Mom and Me camps.
Though those times at school and Girl Scout camp encompassed just a few days compared to the years I’ve spent at Michigamme, I have great memories of them as well.
2. Why did you decide to work at summer camp?
I did work at camp one summer as a kitchen helper (summer of 1998). My husband (boyfriend at the time) had spent the past decade on staff as a lifeguard/cook while I’d been a camper and counselor, and we wanted to spend the summer working there together. Even though I got to spend a lot of time with him and made some awesome friendships that summer, I learned that being part of a paid camp staff isn’t for me. I much prefer counseling/volunteering on a weekly basis. I realized that most of my favourite things about camp revolved around campers, cabin life, and forming relationships. Having such limited interaction with the campers and other counsellors took away a lot of the magic of camp for me.
As far as why I decided to become a counselor in the first place, I honestly don’t know. When I was in high school I was quite shy and not the most outdoorsy person. I preferred reading or creating something inside to leading nature hikes and sleeping in the woods. I just remember one winter, looking out my window at the several feet of snow and thinking back on my years as a camper. I ended up looking up the information for the deans of elementary camp on the brochure at church and calling them. I really can’t remember why. I think it was God pushing me, knowing I’d love it.
3. What is/was your role at camp?
Camper, counselor, dean, kitchen staff, volunteer, photographer. I’m currently one of the heads of our new Alumni Association, which is a fun way to serve camp during the other three seasons.
4. Did camp meet your expectations? In what ways?
I would say that as a camper, camp met my expectations. My dad was a camp dean, so I pretty much knew what I would do there before I even got to camp. He’d told me how things were run, and I’d read books and seen TV shows about camp, and camp was pretty much what I expected it would be.
As a counselor, that’s another story entirely! Camp way, way, way exceeded my expectations. I knew it would be fun. I knew I’d meet new people (campers I’d lead as well as counsellors and deans I’d work with) and I knew I’d feel good about volunteering. I expected to give a lot to camp—to my campers, to my co-counselors, to the deans. But I did not expect to gain so much in return. I was blessed to be in charge of 3 fantastic girls, two of whom I still communicate with 20 years later (oh my word, how are we all that old?????) I am still friends with many of the counselors and staff members I met that week. Camp changed my life that week. I went from a shy, unpopular teen with self-esteem issues to someone who saw myself for who I actually was, not who the other kids at school had told me I was. I now felt worthy and had more confidence, mainly because of the friends I made so easily at camp. The love I was shown by my camp friends (at camp and after camp) proved to me that my high school struggles with peers were more a by-product of the high school atmosphere rather than any terrible personal character flaw.
5. What 3 essential items would you never go to camp without?
A notebook – I jot down great camp quotes (“How does the hot chocolate machine know when to stop filling your cup?” and “If you’re drowning just stand up” are two of my personal faves) as well as ideas for plots/characters in my camp books. Once I forgot to bring a notebook to camp, and I returned home with piles of random pieces of paper (napkins, scrap paper from the art cabin, stationary I bummed off campers) with notes scribbled all over.
A fan – Our cabins aren’t air conditioned and on those super hot days, sometimes the boys won’t share their fans (even if they have 3 per cabin!)
Big box of Kleenex – There’s nothing worse than waking up at 1 am and having to majorly blow your nose and knowing that the nearest suitable tool for the job is either TP from the bathroom (which isn’t attached to the cabin) or cheap, non-name brand, scratchy tissues in the chapel.
Those are the three biggies. Everything else you can beg, borrow, or steal from someone else or the lost and found bin.
6. What is your best/favourite camp memory?
Goodness, there are far too many to pick just one, but I’ll go with my wedding. Since my husband and I met at camp (and got engaged there a year after we started dating) we decided to get married in the camp chapel. Our minister for the ceremony was one of our pastor dean friends and the majority of our wedding party was made up of camp friends. Some bridal parties spend their morning prepping at a spa or fancy hotel or salon. We got ready in a cabin. We had some lovely catered lasagne and rolls at our reception, but the highlights were the UDC (tater tot casserole—a camp favourite) and the peanut butter and jelly line (for those picky younger campers—I mean guests). It was just a phenomenal day and I have lots of great memories of it. We even took a camp-style group photo of all of our camp friend guests in front of the chapel like all the other weeks of camp.
7. What is/was your favourite camp food?
Tater tot casserole and chocolate banquet cake. YUM. I’d eat that every day. Definitely not food-on-a-stick (long camp story).
8. What is/was your favourite camp cheer/chant?
Our camp doesn’t really do the whole color war thing or make much use of cheers/chants, but we do have a great camp theme song that ends in “rah rah rah!” and much banging on of tables.
9. What is your favourite camp saying/word/expression?
10 for 2. Or Living 10 for 2. Or any other variation of the 10 for 2 theme. Now, as a parent with two self-employed businesses, the 10 is very busy and fulfilling, but in high school and college, I really felt like I lived much of the year waiting for those sweet months of camp. I’m sure that probably sounds pathetic to non-camp people but perfectly reasonable to campies.
10. How has camp influenced you/who you are/what you do?
Well, my relationship with God and my family are the two most important things in my life, and camp brought me closer to God and helped me find my best friends and husband. So you could say camp influenced the very core of who I am. My kids are literally alive because of camp. I have a relationship with my awesome in-laws because of camp. Most of the friends I can truly count on are friends I met at camp or because of camp.
I also write books set at church camp. They’re fiction, so not about any of the camps I attend/attended in real life, but many of my ideas come from my camp experiences. Camp resonated with me so strongly that I knew I wanted to spend every day thinking about and writing about camp. I want everybody to experience the wonder that is summer camp, and I know not everyone will be so lucky, so I hope that reading a book series about camp will give non-camp people a small taste of the awesomeness that is camp. I also hope my books will help “Camp Addicts” like myself get through those long winter and spring months while they are waiting for camp. 10 for 2, right?
My book series is called Abby’s Camp Days, and it follows a girl, her camp friends, and their counselors from her first summer as a new camper all the way through her becoming a counselor and graduating from high school. I’m currently taking a break from writing the series (there are 6 books so far) to work on a fantasy set in a medieval-type setting. There are, believe it or not, elements of summer camp in that story as well.
11. What is the BEST thing about being a summer camp counsellor?
Soooooooooooo many things, but they all boil down to relationships. Camp relationships are different from “real world” relationships, whether it’s your role mentoring some of the best kids you’ll ever meet, a cooperative working relationship and/or friendship with a co-counselor or staff member, or learning from a dean or director.
I love camp people, and I’ve found recently as I’ve delved into social media to promote my books and seek out my audience that all camp people are awesome, not just one’s own camp people. I’ve met so many camp people from all parts of the US (and the world), whether they are fellow writers/artists, my fantastic readers (I know every author says they have the best readers, but I know I really do), or people tagging their Twitter posts #summercamp.
Now, my kids are older and attending camp themselves, and some of their best buddies are camp friends (mostly the kids of my own camp friends – camp addicts the next generation, I guess!). It warms my heart when I see my kids practically leaping out of our car and running to greet their camp friends. I know exactly how they feel.
12. What’s the WORST thing?
I can think of two, and they have to do with campers and actually take place after camp, since a true camp addict doesn’t stop being a counselor when they get home and take off their lanyards and friendship bracelets. The absolute worst thing about being a camp counselor is that crappy things will happen to your campers, and there’s not a thing you can do about it. At camp, you can usually do a pretty decent job of fixing it (at least temporarily), but in life, often all you can do is pray for them and be a stable fixture in their lives. I’ve gone to funerals for campers’ parents, participated in middle of the night online chats when a camper has just gotten dumped, and worried when they were sent off overseas in the military. Some of the saddest experiences of my life have had to do with seeing the way those precious campers’ lives turn out.
Related, but not quite the same, is what I consider the second worst part of being a counsellor: dreaming big things for vibrant, sweet, funny, smart kids who have a great handle on life and know where they’re going and are strong in their faith—and then slide in high school/college. In this day and age of Facebook, you can follow your campers’ lives as they grow, and when the kid who showed so much potential in junior high and had ambitions of living clean life and doing great things grows up to become an adult who posts mainly drunken pictures of him/herself with lots of F-words in the captions, it’s crushing. Because we still care and we still want what’s best for them and wonder where the 12-year-old version of them went.
13. What the most important thing that camp has taught you?
That every single person on this earth is worthy. Worthy of love, worthy of friendship, worthy of respect. It doesn’t matter what our differences are; every pair of human beings can find something in common if they give it a chance. I’ve seen some of the most unlikely friendship form at camp. We’re all just people whether we’re short or tall, male or female, young or old, a jock or a drum major, shy or outgoing. Camp facilitates this way better than the “real world.” If society, in general, could be more like camp, the world would solve many of its problems.
14. Anything else you want to say to people thinking about working at summer camp?
Do it! You won’t regret it! I might be a little biased, since my marriage and my family and books are the wonderful life I’ve been blessed with are direct results of the time I spent at church camp, but I truly think it can be the best thing that happens to a person. You will forge friendships (or maybe even “more than friendships”) that will last forever. You will meet some amazing kids (some of whom will teach you extreme patience, but most of whom you’ll adore). And you will meet yourself. The real you. The you you have permission to be only in a camp atmosphere.