Camp has been a part of my DNA for as long as I can remember, and it undoubtedly shaped the person I am today. After finishing out my camp years at Camp Agawak for Girls in Minocqua. WI, I knew I had to get back to it someday. I just loved it too much. Enter: Experience Camps. This past August, I had the honor and privilege to join my best friend, Ilana Lerman, as she embarked on her new journey with ExCamps as the Director of the MidwEx girl’s side, and I was able to volunteer for the first time. I knew camp was going to be amazing, but what I didn’t know was that it was going to be the #bestweekever. And I mean EVER.
I remember the first day of MidwEx so clearly. Just like the first day of anything, there were many emotions circulating through the air. Energetic counselors and clinicians waited to greet buses full of nervous campers. It felt just like the first day of camp that I had experienced for so many years up in Wisconsin, but this moment was different. These kids on the bus had been faced with the trauma of losing a parent, sibling or guardian. I couldn’t have predicted how the days to follow would be even in my wildest dreams. They were full of big smiles – the squinty eyes kind, laughing until we cried, never-ending dance parties before, during and after meals, facing our fears, trying new things, saying yes more than no, and lots and lots of sharing. We shared friendship bracelet string, a sweatshirt off our backs when it was cold, a bite of each other’s s’more, and profound stories of grief.
Each of my co-counselors and campers at camp had lost a parent. Although I have not, I was still able to relate to the deep meaning of grief, loss and bereavement through my own unique life experiences. When we sat in our first sharing circle as a bunk, my campers shared stories about their loved one who died, and then my co-counselors followed with their stories. One of my campers came up to me after that circle and said, “I knew all campers here had lost someone, but I didn’t realize the counselors had too.” She smiled. She connected. She felt safe. It’s a moment I’ll never forget.
Every single day at Experience Camps is a gift. We participated in regular camp activities – I taught archery and arts and crafts, and as a cabin group, we devoted one hour per day to exploring our experience with grief and loss with each other. To hear my girls talk about their loved one who died and articulate their story was eye-opening. Days at camp moved pretty fast. We went from climbing the high ropes course, to waterskiing, to performing in the talent show, to sharing tough stories and tears every single day together for five days straight. We really became a family.
We volunteer at Experience Camps for the kids. What is so amazing about this place is that the campers have the opportunity to meet and connect with kids and adults who are coping with similar challenges, while getting all of the benefits of the traditional summer camp experience – a new experience for all of my campers and even some of the counselors. My time at Experience Camps has changed me for good – for the better. It was more life changing than I could have ever imagined. At the camp talent show, I sang one of my favorite songs, “You’ve Got a Friend” by Carole King. The song says, “You just call out my name, and you know wherever I am, I’ll come running to see you again. Winter, Spring, Summer or Fall, all you have to do is call, and I’ll be there. You’ve got a Friend.” Until next time, my friend.