[The following is part one of a five-part series of live-from-camp updates written in August 2023 by Experience Camps founder and CEO Sara Deren. We’re excited to share the camp experience with you.] In January 2020, we decided to expand to a new camp location in order to reach grieving kids in the D.C. metro area and serve more kids overall. We landed on Camp Airy in Thurmont, MD and locked in the dates for 2021. Two months later, COVID showed up, the camp industry largely shut down, and our plans to open a new program were put on hold. Today, more than three years later, we started a new chapter in the 15-year history of Experience Camps as that long-awaited camper arrival day finally happened. Camper arrival is my favorite moment of camp each summer, but there’s something extra special when it’s the first one at a new location. None of these campers have been here before. They don’t know us. We don’t know them. They have no idea that their lives are about to be transformed over the next five days. But I know. I’ve seen it happen. Two buses pulled in to camp around 2:00 pm, the doors opened, and the first camper off the bus was a nine-year-old girl named Kenya. She walked through the cheering crowd of volunteers and came straight over to me and my dog, Gus. Okay, she mostly came over to see Gus, but she introduced herself and then just kept talking. Her eyes twinkled and she bubbled with excitement. Other kids were much more hesitant as they walked off the bus, which is understandable. Many of them have experienced unimaginable trauma. Their trust in the safety of the world has been shattered. It’s our job to show them that they are safe here. That they will be cared for. That they can have their childhood back — even if it’s just for this one week a year. Personalities start to emerge With bags in hand, counselors gathered up their campers and off they went to get settled into their bunks and get to know each other. By dinner, you could start to see their personalities emerge. The high-energy kids were the first to join in the chants in the Dining Hall. My girl, Kenya, was doing a little dance in line while she waited for food. Some kids sat quietly off to the side with a counselor close by as they adjusted more gradually to the volume and rhythms of camp life. From dinner, everyone headed down the hill to the gym, where the “College League Break” was about to begin. College League is an activity that runs throughout the week of camp, where teams compete in sports, trivia, and other ridiculous endeavors to earn points for their team, which is named after a college. It all starts with the calling out of each camper and volunteer onto their team, aka “The Break”. Every kid gets to hear their name called, is welcomed onto a team, and is swept into the spirit of competition and camaraderie in an instant. You can actually watch any remaining uncertainty melt away as they begin to realize that this week is going to be something special. Tug of war and relay races put the first points on the board. Friendships kick in In seven short hours, we’ve already seen new friendships beginning to form and connections being made amongst bunkmates. Tomorrow, these campers will have the opportunity to share the hardest parts of their life stories with each other. They’ll try activities they’ve never done before, and they’ll cheer so loud their voices will get raspy. It’s the combination of all of these things that helps them grow. Thank you for allowing me the space to share my stories from camp with you this week. As we know from our campers, our stories take on new meaning and purpose when we share them with others, and I look forward to bringing you a little closer to the incredible magic of this place. For now, there is a marshmallow with my name on it waiting to be toasted. I’ll be back tomorrow with a recap from our first full day of camp. Day is done, gone the sun… Sara
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