Before I turned 14, I never felt ready to attend camp away from home. But once I returned from three weeks at a sleepaway camp just one hour away from where I lived in Los Angeles, Calif., I never went back to day camp again.
I remember walking into my cabin for the first time, meeting my counselors (who seemed so much older than I was, despite only being four years apart), meeting my bunkmates and finding out I was assigned to a top bunk, which was a disappointment at first. My mom helped me make my top-bunk bed, kissed me goodbye and said she would send me letters and look for photos of me on the camp’s website. I felt homesick within 24 hours.
But after those 24 hours, I began to see what led 300 other campers to return every summer and started to wish my parents sent me to sleepaway camp sooner.
At camp, there is no concept of real time. Being unplugged from the rest of the world and feeling truly connected to the moment is not something kids get to experience every day, especially now. But at camp, it feels natural. At my camp, we said, “at camp, a day feels like a week and a week feels like a day.” It’s cliche, but it’s true. My fellow campers and I were able to lose track of time and make valuable memories that wouldn’t have been made with technology.
Because I started sleepaway camp at an older age, I had not yet learned real independence and responsibility. At my camp, each girl in my cabin was assigned a different daily task, whether it was setting the table for meals or cleaning the showers. We had “bunk cleanup” time daily, where every girl in the cabin would do her assigned chore and clean her area of the bunk. If your bed was not made, that was on you. No one else would do it for you. This teaches young kids and teenagers the value of a clean space and the responsibility to do things on their own.
We also followed a daily, structured schedule of waking up, eating breakfast in the dining hall, cleaning the cabin and doing all of our other activities and eating our meals for the rest of the day. While there is structure at schools and in classrooms, the camp environment made me appreciate allocated times and a routine schedule for activities and meals even more. It made me want to incorporate it into my daily life outside of camp.
Though my parents and teachers were great role models at home, sleepaway camp provided me with amazing counselors, advisors and mentors who guided me through so many formative years of my life. As a teenager, it can be really hard to find an adult to connect with, but at camp, it felt so easy. The staff at camp were positive role models who were looking out for my well-being. Because so many of them were also campers at one point, they wanted to give their campers an even better experience than the one they had.
On that same note, I was able to work at my sleepaway camp as a counselor and in a bigger leadership role as a head counselor, in which I supervised counselors. As a staff member, I watched my campers make their best friends, appreciate the connectedness of camp, learn responsibility and become more independent. Many of them told me they wanted to be staff members one day and carry on the traditions with their campers. Additionally, being a staff member at camp gave me so many skills I now use in my “real job” and in everyday life, including teamwork, outside-the-box thinking, mediation and leadership.
Going to sleepaway camp was something I looked forward to every summer. I became a better person and a better leader by the time I came home. And even though I’m now in another state across the country, I have still kept in touch with many of the friends I made throughout the years at sleepaway camp.
As families look at their options for where to send their children to camp this summer, I strongly encourage them to consider sending them sleepaway camp and having them come back with new skills, new friends and fun, long-lasting memories.