By Aaron Selkow, Owner/Director
These are indeed remarkable times for camps. Most camps – including our beloved Chestnut Lake – have pivoted from the lost summer of 2020 towards 2021 amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic trying to make sense of how we got here, what we’re meant to be doing right now to get ready, and what the fast-approaching summer is going to look like. The variable factors, the disparate protocols being shared by camps, and the constant onslaught of information intersecting with concerns could cause even the most reasonable parents, children, or prospective camp employees to feel confused or conflicted. But maybe it’s not so complicated. The worldwide outbreak of a life-threatening virus is certainly causing an unfathomable impact on too many people and businesses, but there’s something about camp – something that has been part of the very essence of what camp has been for more than 100 years – that is strong and vital enough to sustain through this rough patch and provide lessons and opportunities that can be as valuable, or even more valuable, than ever before.
Angela Duckworth, in Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, speaks to an aspect of summer camp that I can personally relate to as a leader at Chestnut Lake. Let’s call this, “attitude over aptitude.” In her book, Duckworth states, “When you keep searching for ways to change your situation for the better, you stand a chance of finding them. When you stop searching, assuming they can’t be found, you guarantee they won’t.” At camp, we expect challenges. And we know that our ability to overcome them can be informed by our skills and past experiences. But those who have spent considerable time at camp know that the real key to success at maintaining our stride over hurdles is how we approach them. If we accept that some difficult experiences will be unavoidable and commit ourselves to making the best of them and applying a solution focus, we stand a chance of success.
My memories of camp are filled with difficult times. There were occasions as a camper when I cried over losses, ranging from hard-fought basketball games that I took just a bit too seriously, to the unrealized fantastical relationships mostly conjured up in my mind with adolescent crushes. I recall a particularly hard time when I struggled at school and fell subject to my parents’ ultimatum that I would have to miss the first few days of camp. I was embarrassed and terrified that the identity I had finally crafted for myself at camp would be gone forever. I cried a lot on the day I arrived, but what an amazing chance that was for me to grow up. I had a summer when my parents came to see me unexpectedly at camp to share the news that my mother was experiencing a health crisis. That was not a great day at all. All of these times were difficult for me, but because they happened at camp, each challenge was a valuable opportunity to gain understanding – about myself, about the world around me, about others – and to build some grit and coping skills. Of course, I relish the good times I had at camp that far outnumbered the rough ones, but the moments that felt scary or overwhelming at the time shaped my experience more than anything else. And this informs how I approach my work today as a camp leader.
I look at what has happened over the last year for our campers and I feel almost silly for thinking that any of my camp hardships were significant. Everything I can remember was still, in and of itself, a positive element of my time at camp because it happened at camp. I was in the Pocono Mountains, away from my parents, away from school, in what felt like utopia, being taken care of by the coolest people I ever met and wanted to become, running around playing endless sports or painting set backdrops for Banquet, eating as many hot dogs as I cared to, barely showering, and though I felt hurt or excluded or even downright scared every once in a while, I always felt safe and I always felt cared for. Being at camp – inside a self-contained, controlled environment – made everything okay. The sympathy I have for every child who looked forward to the 2020 camp season only to watch it slip away too fast and too harshly is not only for them missing out on the friendship building, the firewood gathering, the s’mores eating, the waterskiing, and the belly laughing but also for the chance to tackle challenges and fall in a place that has been built for just that.
On the last night before camp would start when I was a child, I would lie in bed with butterflies in my stomach, unable to fall asleep. I was incapable of controlling the sense of anticipation that overcame me in the remaining hours before I would help load my stuff into our van and drive north on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Those emotions were from when I had to wait ten months for camp to begin again. Not 22 or 23. For Chestnut Lake campers and staff, the dashing of their hopes to board buses to Beach Lake, PA combined with the impact of COVID-19 on their lives has turned butterflies into something much bigger. On the cusp of finding our lost summer, we are too excited even to contain ourselves.
The aptitude that we will apply to this situation will help us make certain the summer of 2021 will be everything we could hope for and more. We will use our skills in planning, risk management and mitigation, participant care and programming, and the endless tricks we have up our sleeves to create the sense of unending joy and spontaneity that we crave. We will even benefit from the aptitude of many others – including pediatric epidemiologists and infectious disease experts – to chart our course through the maze of complexities of COVID-19. But as Duckworth shares later in Grit, “Without effort, your skill is nothing more than what you could have done but didn’t.” We are excited by the efforts we have already been making to achieve success this summer using all of our talents, and we will not let up until we wave goodbye to the last camper as they wipe a tear from their cheek while a broad smile still predominates their face.
Recovering from hard times – as a camping industry, as a camp, and as a people – is a chance for us to grow. Although I can only imagine what losing camp would have been like when I was the 10-year-old version of myself, I do know what it’s like to find camp again now. I feel accomplished already, I feel like I’ve learned so many new things that will help me be better and stronger, and I am consumed by a passion to make this summer awesome for every child and staff member who will be rejoining our community in earnest. The resilience we have built will be an asset, and our approach to the summer with positivity, creativity, and productivity will be just what we need to make us all feel just a little bit better all over again.
See you back in the 18405 this summer, Chestnut Lakers, and don’t forget to pack your love of camp. It’s one thing that you can bring this summer that will never be lost.