Tag Archives: chestnut lake

Campfire Tales | 8/13/22

By Aaron Selkow, Owner/Director

Fifty days ago, over 500 kids began to arrive in this special place in Beach Lake, PA. About 20 days before that, the first of over 200 staff members began their orientation and training for their roles as leaders and role models for those campers. Approximately 290 days before that, our year-round directors wrapped up the 2021 season and began preparing for a program meant to instill meaningful values, started building an inimitable community and culture to reflect our camp’s past and future, and kicked-off developing the fun that children truly deserve while they spend time with their friends in this awesome place. Here, in this uniquely familial and intentional environment; here, among the trees that surround Chestnut Lake and nestled in the Poconos Mountains; here, with the endless flow of smiles and the sounds of voices filled with spirit and laughter echoing through each and every day of vibrant activity. The evidence of what works about camp is right here, and it’s as clear today as it ever was before.

This summer has been inspiring. With only one day left together (and tonight’s extra-special Campfire), this group of campers and staff will finish packing and will depart from our home here at Chestnut Lake Camp. Of course, there will be joy in returning to our home lives; we’ll have our favorite meals, will reconnect with family and friends, and will share stories and special moments with others to try to describe what went on over these weeks. But the events of this summer – for me and for so many other Chestnut Lakers – will make the transition back into the “Real World” tough. There are some things that we have seen and been a part of while here at camp that simply cannot be duplicated or even understood at home.

At home, we seldom get to witness the sensitivity and thoughtfulness of a young adult caring for someone else’s child in the way that it happens here. Many of our counselors – those that may have grown up here and those that have made Chestnut their new home this summer – have extended and challenged themselves to make sure their campers are safe and able to develop their own identities and independence here. There are the regular embraces, pats on the back, high-fives, fist-bumps, and kids and staff arm-in-arm that show the essence of what happens here every day that may never be possible at home. The relationship between the young adults and children at camp is one of the things that we leverage to teach and affect in a totally immersive environment, and that cannot be imitated in someone’s home or school, or most other settings. Camp is a place where we can make fun of ourselves, where we can compete with compassion, and where we can let ourselves make an incredible mess and then clean up afterward because we care about how we take care of this place and each other.

When I return home, I will miss the opportunity to work with so many amazing leaders. It’s been so gratifying to see our staff accept challenges to further their skills and develop themselves into people that are sure to make a difference in the world. Counselors at camp work hard and are pushed to maintain such high standards that might be unheard of at home. Ask a counselor after the summer is over if they learned anything working at camp and be prepared for a long list of insights that will make them more capable and confident students, employees, and even parents (someday) in the lives that they live away from Chestnut Lake. Those that have led them – the “Blue Team” and “Upper Leadership Team” members that have dedicated themselves to round-the-clock oversight and commitment to camp and the campers’ needs – have done mostly thankless work, and without them, our directors would never be able to successfully steer this ship nor would our camp parents at home be able to hear about all the successes their children will have had while at camp. And of course, there have been all the staff members that care for health and wellness, feed us, keep camp clean and working, and so many others that are part of this community and contributed each day to everything coming together.

At the end of the summer, I’m always reminded of the core principles of camp that go beyond what type of camp this might be: we are an immersive experience that is without a child’s parents for an extended period of time. We create a virtual city for a couple of months that attends to every need of its residents, including every aspect of their experience. We have parents choosing to send their sons and daughters to us to be taken care of by – essentially – strangers, and the only contact that they have directly with their children tends to be through slow-paced and often too-brief letters, the viewing of a handful of photos, and maybe one or two phone calls. And we do all of this for weeks at a time. It’s kind of nutty when you really think about it. But that’s also what makes it awesome and so different from anything else.

Like all of us here, I will leave in the coming weeks to restart my life at home with Ann. Our family will reconnect briefly before saying goodbye again to our daughter as she returns to college. I’ll lose track of the amazing routine created here at Chestnut Lake, and I’ll miss the people here more and more each day. I will go from a world where everyone says, “Hi” to one where people tend to look at the ground or at their ubiquitous screens as they pass you. I won’t putter around in a golf cart from place to place to engage with young people when I leave here. And I won’t get to see children growing up right before my eyes. I’ll have to wait – just like them – for the countdown to camp to slowly reach zero when we come back for the summer of 2023.

It’s been a summer of new experiences and development at Chestnut Lake. After the summer of 2021– a difficult restart after almost two years apart from each other, coinciding with the start of our tenure as directors – we have helped to celebrate what camp is really about. We’ve protected the foundation that was started here before us, and have started to build around and on top of it to be sure that our camp will be strong forever.

I will continue to relish the opportunity to share my passion for camp, whether sitting at the Campfire each week with campers and staff or dreaming of the next time I’m together with them in this extraordinary spot in Beach Lake, PA. I have cherished the moments that we have enjoyed together in 2022, and I hope that every child and adult that has been here does, too.

Thank you for this incredible summer.

Campfire Tales | 8/5/22

By Aaron Selkow, Owner/Director

This week’s Friday night gathering for the entire Chestnut Lake community brought back the Varsity Campfire. Our 9th and 10th-grade teens, with support from their exceptional staff, planned a special campfire ceremony that featured some of our standard rituals (like “Community Service Awards”) and a wonderful tradition of division lip sync songs presented for the whole camp family. Emceed by young Varsity leaders, the program welcomed each gender/grade group to stand before the audience with the backdrop of a bonfire and show off their choreographed renditions of their chosen songs. We had some Billy Eilish, One Direction, and other popular hits, but the music was not the best part. It was clear with each group that came up that our campers (and their dedicated “Dance Mom” and “Dance Dad” staff!) had put in the time to learn some great moves and were out to win. It brought a great spirit to the Campfire, and though we could only have one first-place finisher (way to go, Sani!), everyone in attendance got into the fun.

But my deeper thoughts this week are more aligned with the sharing and conversations around the Community Service Award portion of the program than anything else. It was a week of watching and listening to campers about their time here and about each other, and what you hear from the people living here each and every day is what matters. The awards are always sweet and heartfelt, and this week was no exception. Campers who have never spoken in public somehow have the presence to share their kind words about another person and how they have made a difference in their camp experience. Staff members recognize kids who they say have taught and inspired them simultaneously while the staff person is trying to do the same. Friends recognize each other’s respect and love and can speak to that in front of hundreds of people. The themes this week included advocacy, patience, support, fellowship, joy, and other things that we try to teach and reinforce. But no matter how hard we might try, it only works when someone actually does it, and it may only impact others in the community as fully as it should when we share it aloud. Being a part of that this week was touching.

I listened this past week to campers modeling teamwork, with one player passing the ball selflessly to another for a shot and then being thanked for that later. I heard a camper tell another quietly before trying something for the very first time that they were really scared, and then after they took a “Leap of Faith” at Outdoor Adventure, they jumped into the other’s arms to tell them how proud they were for doing it. In the Dining Hall, I sat with a group of campers to hear about their day and summer so far, and story after story was about people – how this person did this, how another person said that – without even a mention of a scheduled activity. After the Talent Show this week, I listened to a 13-year-old boy tell a 10-year-old girl (that he didn’t really know) how great they were on stage and how hard they laughed. A group of campers enjoying a visit to the Canteen told me that there were dozens of things to improve or add at Chestnut for next summer, but when I asked them to rate their session after I dutifully jotted down every suggestion (or demand!), there was a unanimous chorus of “10 out of 10!” And a camper told me this week that being at Chestnut Lake this year has made them feel more like a “whole person” because they have finally made a true friend that they know they’re going to keep forever.

Our camp has great facilities and programs, but it is a people place. The people have spoken this week. And I am listening.

 

 

 

 

Campfire Tales | 7/22/22

By Aaron Selkow, Owner/Director

The end of a session at camp is hard to describe to the uninitiated. Without spending a summer in a place like this for at least a few weeks, you will struggle to fully understand the mix of emotions, joy, exhaustion, and excitement that comes in these final days. Right up to the last second that a camper is here – as they hop onto the bus or into the arms of their parent here for an in-person pick-up – they are still in the bubble. The space and community that we create envelop the campers while they are here, and for weeks on end, nothing in the outside world can really penetrate the bubble. We are in this unique, intensive, and immersive environment that cannot really be replicated. You’ll have to take our word for it…or you might have to come up with a reason to apply for a job here next summer.

The campers are at the center of our universe. Everything else over the last four weeks kind of revolves around them. Their needs are more important, their schedules are what we work around, their feedback is golden to us, and we focus on them always. But it is our staff that makes it all happen. They give their time and attention, and each day you can see how much influence they have on the experience for all. There are some exceptional adults here to support the children, and at our Campfire on this final night of our First Session, all of this was on display.

Tonight’s Campfire included some usual things and also some special rituals, but even the typical pieces were different. Before even getting to the Campfire Site, we all gathered in the Basketball Stadium to watch this week’s highlight video. It was extra long and extra special, and the campers were entranced watching themselves and their friends at Tribal and other activities over the last days here. Once we moved to enjoy the Campfire, I had the honor of starting us off with a brief speech and then followed up with the leading of a song, “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” by John Denver. This was the song that was sung to me in 1976 on the last night of my first-ever summer at camp, and it was beautiful to hear the camp join in tonight. Sam Roberts, our Director of Staff & Camper Experience, went next by facilitating the Chestnut tradition of burning a list of Bunk Memories that each cabin had made as a symbolic way of commemorating all the great moments we enjoyed. After this, it was time for Community Service Awards, and they did not disappoint. There was great applause for each person honored, whether they were campers, staff, or camp leaders.

Ann was next, and her job was one of the most fun. We like to present “Legacy” (or longevity) gifts to campers and staff that are marking their 3rd, 5th, 8th, 10th, or even 25th summer at Chestnut Lake. We read hundreds of names and took pictures of the campers with their new camp apparel. For those campers that did not yet have the chance to rack up enough summers for a gift, theirs are just another summer or two (or a few) away. With each name read, we climbed the ladder toward the next level. Most amazing were the awards for 10 years. Thanks to Jacob Labkovski, Benjamin Schnure, John Derrick, Laurie Craig, and Mike Smith who reached that number this summer and represent so much of what makes Chestnut Lake the best.

We joined in song for, “Linger,” and then sang the camp’s alma mater with all our hearts (and whatever was left of our voices). And then just as quickly as it felt like the summer started, the Campfire came to an end, and right behind it will be our First Session.

Tomorrow won’t be easy. But it will be so important. Tonight’s Campfire represented so much of what is special here…I only wish it didn’t happen. I would like more time.

Campfire Tales | 7/16/22

By Aaron Selkow, Owner/Director

I started as a camp director in 1994. It was a camp that had been open for 75 years by that point and had a rich history. Later in my career, I ran a camp that was 60 years old, similarly established, and entrenched in traditions that had withstood the test of time. I’ve worked as a consultant with many camps that were even older. But I also have opened camps, supported newer camps, and now – with such honor – I relish the chance to work with Ann here, at Chestnut, where we are still at the earlier stages of our development into a camp that will be around forever.

What makes a “forever” camp? How do you know that a camp is even beginning to reach that stage when what you’re seeing throughout the summer is something that’s going to be truly sustainable? Lots of ways. Too many to share in a short post that is about our weekly Campfire. But there were two things that happened at (and before) the Campfire this week that represent a special element of Chestnut that has already been built and is anchored in our identity, and another that is evidence of new growth.

Our sister camp, Trail’s End, started Chestnut 15 years ago. In doing so, they allowed Chestnut to borrow from many decades of proven success to give our new camp a head start. Many of the elements of Chestnut that our campers have come to enjoy were derivative of something at Trail’s End. One such program was the “Community Service Award.” It continues to be representative of what Chestnut is all about, and last night was an example of why.

Throughout the week, Head Counselors make “nominations” available for campers and staff members to present a case for someone they know to be selected for a Community Service Award. A special 4″x4″ round patch that has the recognition stitched into it is handed to the recipients after the nomination is read by the person or persons that selected them. Last night, a stream of campers from many Divisions stood before our camp family and shared beautiful perspectives on how others had helped them, befriended them, listened to them, celebrated them, comforted them, and cared for them. The words were honest and powerful; the Head Counselors shared that they had many more nominations than they could choose for the Campfire, so we will have more recognition to tackle throughout the rest of our Session. When campers applaud and yell to support their friends that are being distinguished for doing great things, your camp is on its way towards forever status.

The next measurable example of growth started the night before the Campfire. As you all know, we are approaching the start of our Tribal War (Color War) between the Unami Turtles and Minsi Wolves. In the last few days – with only about one week left in the Session – the campers have started to ask when our Tribal Break will come. It is an eternal question. So, too, are, “Who will the Chiefs be?” and “When will you be announcing the Chiefs?” (Note: “Chiefs” are the male/female staff members that are chosen to lead each team – it is considered a coveted honor). Our camp leaders come up with countless ways to answer without divulging anything. But in the past, there does come an inevitable point at Chestnut Lake when the community (or at least some of its sharp members) realize that the Break of Tribal must be happening tonight. They notice that we might be at an all-camp program, they pick up signals that something off-beat or surprising will be happening, and although there is still a great deal of excitement when we announce the start of our favorite program and read the names of each Chief, once the Break begins, everyone knows what’s next. That is where a “Fake Break” comes in.

We do not like to lie to children. And we are all about kindness at Chestnut. But a bit of trickery and fanfare can go a long way to building suspense and excitement about an already-special event. That is what we did on Thursday night. And then we did it again on Friday (at the Campfire).

As we ended an awesome all-camp Lip Sync Battle, we turned off the lights in the Basketball Stadium and fireworks started to stream from behind in the woods. Music started blaring, and I walked with a bright orange bag in my hands to center court. Anyone at camp before knew that this was the Tribal Break and in my hands was the list of Chiefs, and any new camper jumped right in so that they, too, could claim to know what was going on. I calmed everyone down, removed the envelope from the bag, and with a bit of flair, announced a Fake Break. A moment of devastation was followed by minutes of joy. A surprise. More suspense. A bigger deal. It’s what we needed. And it is the mark of a forever camp.

At our Friday night Campfire, we did it again. A bit more subtly (which made it so much more believable as a real Break) but no less effective. The only thing better than one Fake Break is two Fake Breaks. That’s what forever camps do.  And that is what we can do at Chestnut Lake.

Campfire Tales | 7/8/22

By Aaron Selkow, Owner/Director

Preparing for this week’s special Campfire (called the “Varsity Campfire” because it allows our Varsity teens the chance to facilitate the weekly camp-wide gathering) came with great anticipation. I listened in a bit (kind of secretly!) to the plans and heard some of the cool things they were planning, and I looked forward to sitting in the Basketball Stadium to watch our weekly highlight video with the whole camp and then head to the Campfire Site to watch the Varsity teens take over. That part alone makes it awesome, as I was to have no role tonight other than to enjoy listening and joining their first chance to lead something as meaningful as our weekly Campfire gathering.

The community was treated to an amazing Varsity Campfire. They performed so well and brought the spirit out of our campers and staff to mark the end of our second week of camp. Since the program ended, so many people are talking about how well they did, and they should be feeling really proud.

But I missed it.

Being unable to sit and witness our young leaders and their staff do something great is one of the most important things that I could have been doing tonight, and really at just about any time. It is also one of the gifts of being in charge of a camp. Unlike parents or others that can only hear about or see still images of some of those great moments, I get to watch in real-time and be fully a part of it. But I’m also running a summer camp. And today was a day with lots of moving parts and one particular project (the decision, communication, and ongoing planning of some changes to 8th, 9th, 10th, and 12th-grade trips this session) needed my attention until now (you can read an update about this in a separate email sent to all families). This kept me away from a great moment, but I accept that sometimes I will have to do something that I would rather not do, and sometimes I am dealt a hand that feels a bit unfair and I know that I have to just press on.

Ironically, that is also what our Varsity teens had to deal with today. Just hours before needing to get up in front of the whole camp and show everyone how much they love this place and model leadership for others, they learned that some of the trips that many of them had been looking forward to all year (some Varsity participants have waited for many years to experience these trips, really) would be changed. Another summer dealing with unique protocols and the concerns of our community’s health and the “greater good” informed my decision to pivot from these long-anticipated trips with multiple days spent many miles away to day trips that would not extend beyond the types of experiences that we have already executed for campers this summer. They would still have so much opportunity for fun, but it is a change. Change can be hard. And then a short time later they needed to stand before the campers that look up to them and lead a Campfire that people really care a lot about. And they nailed it.

Next week will bring another Campfire, and I am hopeful that I will have the ability to be there. But today I can only give my apologies and offer my deep respect and congratulations to the Varsity teens and their staff that set aside any feelings of uneasiness for being great examples of what Chestnut Lake is all about. And I guess I can join all the parents that will be hitting “refresh” tomorrow on the Campanion app to see the pictures.

Campfire Tales | 7/1/22

By Aaron Selkow, Owner/Director

We often say that a day at camp is like a week, a week at camp is like a month, and a month at camp is like a year. If that’s true – and it does feel that way thus far in our 2022 camp season at Chestnut Lake – we’ve had one amazing month in the last week here in Beach Lake.

There has been so much activity, so much that our campers have had a chance to already try for the first time, and so many things that our returning campers may be returning to from previous years. There are relationships that are growing deeper, and countless new ones are taking shape. Counselors and leaders of programs are working so hard and the impact of that is being seen visibly on the faces of kids, and it’s being felt by the vibe around camp. The vibe is…pretty amazing.

That was evident last night.

The Tribal Campfire is one of the truly special moments of the summer, as it represents the intersection of camp tradition, ritual, community, history, and the welcoming of new members into our family. Coming together last night at the Campfire site was the pinnacle of a week’s worth of activities. But the anticipation of kicking off our Tribal War (color war) experience brought even more energy. Campers were seated wearing their Green Unami Turtles or White Minso Wolves spirit gear unless they were a new camper or staff member wearing red. The campers at Chestnut for their first summer had the chance to don their red Tribal t-shirt that was sent to them during the year after they enrolled in camp. The cheers from the Unami and Minsi teams – I continue to be amazed that campers away from Chestnut for 10 or 11 months can remember the many ridiculous and intense cheers that they learned in the previous summer! – were loud and passionate. I quieted the crowd, stepped to the podium in front of our entire community, and began…

“Long ago on this very land…”

You can read the rest of the tale (click here to access the Tribal Campfire Story) to get a sense of the context of Tribal’s beginnings and the essence of the program for our campers and staff that begins soon.

Ann and I are really proud of the staff here at Chestnut that has contributed to each and every aspect of our first week’s strong beginning. The team of people that leads Chestnut, supports Chestnut in every area, and is on the ground with campers being Chestnut is outstanding. As we move from the first week – or the first month! – to the next, we know that the new fun that campers will have can be layered onto a strong foundation.

We can’t wait to share more insight into what your children are up to here at Chestnut Lake, and we hope that our camp parents at home are starting to settle in as well. Thank you for letting your kids be here with us, and stay tuned for much more to come…

 

Campfire Tales | 6/26/22

By Aaron Selkow, Owner/Director

I look forward to sharing some thoughts each week before the Chestnut Lake Camp community gathers for our Campfire. For those of you that may be newer to Chestnut, our Community Campfires are usually held each Friday after dinner, and they are a very special part of the program here. There are other times that our campers might gather for Campfires, like our extra-special Tribal Campfire that launches Chestnut’s inimitable Tribal (Color) War experience, but the Friday night gathering is a tradition in Beach Lake.

Tonight we will soon gather for our Opening Campfire after a colossal day. The campers arrived (some actually got here yesterday from very far away places), our staff began to finally get the chance to do the work they came here to do, and as I write this I’m watching kids playing in the pool just yards away. Camp has started. And tonight we will officially usher in the start of our First Session and the 2022 season at Chestnut Lake.

This is not in a typical year. Since March 2020, the normal that we might remember is gone. Some kids have thrived during this period and may have shown incredible adaptability and resilience. But the interruption of routine, an emphasis on technology for connection, more time spent at home and with adults, less in-person interaction and socialization, and other aspects of the pandemic have forged a new normal for countless children. And in an immersive and intensive environment like ours, sometimes these small wrinkles that kids experience can either be easily ironed out or can be more pronounced.

Even the greatest experience ever dreamed up – a summer at camp – has been impacted. Looking back to the summer of 2021 when Ann and I had our first chance to join and lead this camp family, there were challenges that we had never seen before. Our staff worked so hard, but we were paddling upstream on many days. In the end, the time at camp was an antidote for children that just needed a break and craved the chance to be with each other and free from some of the real world’s worries. But as we walked away from Beach Lake at the end of that summer, we were immediately focused on this summer. This is the summer to show what Chestnut Lake is all about and how much joy, inspiration, growth, and ridiculous fun there is here. And now we’re here, and the magic has begun.

At tonight’s Campfire, I will welcome your children to this special place. They will be seated together, shoulder-to-shoulder, beneath a darkened sky with glistening stars. We will sing, we will cheer, and we will introduce our campers to all the staff members that will be devoted to them throughout the summer. Individuals (like our Junior Counselors) that grew up here at Chestnut Lake, young adults that have traveled across the globe and have brought incredible life experience to this work, and so many immensely talented people that have already shown a capacity for caring and spirit at a very high level. Towards the end of the program, we will teach and then join in for Chestnut’s alma mater in an effort to ritualize the first night of an extraordinary summer:

Summer
Days spent creating
Friendships
Lifetimes awaiting
Here with you, dear Chestnut Lake

Memories
Scenes on a postcard
Moments
Cabins and ballyards
Always true, dear Chestnut Lake

Kinships old and new
Spirit shining through

Sundown
Nights ‘round the campfire
Dreamlike
Flames dancing higher
Always true, dear Chestnut Lake 
Here with you, dear Chestnut Lake

These words are important at Chestnut Lake, but it’s less so what we say and more so that we are together and all saying the same thing. This sense of togetherness and unity represents the best at Chestnut, and this is the moment I am looking forward to more than any other. This is what we came to do, this is what your kids richly deserve.

Enjoy your first night of camp at home, and know that we will be enjoying ours. Always true, dear Chestnut Lake.

A Lesson (Re)Learned About Camp Counselors

The summer of 2021 at Chestnut Lake Camp was an intense experience for me. Even after 45 years spent at camp — including 27 years as a director of camps or leading camp programs across North America — the combination of being in a new camp with the influence of COVID-19 presented complex challenges. I expect to be reflecting on the lessons learned from the summer for the rest of my career, and though many elements of this pandemic-impacted season were unique, I continue to feel that the biggest takeaway from the summer is one that I had appreciated already for a very long time: nothing matters more at camp than a great staff team, especially a camp’s counselors.

While we are working on many dimensions of camp preparation with a greater sense of preparedness in a world that has changed in real ways forever, nothing is a higher priority for us than identifying and developing the very best young adults and professionals for 2022. There are real obstacles making this hard due to the upside-down nature of our current climate, but it is critically important to overcome these at all costs. Staff members make camp work, and that begins with the counselors that care for children at a vulnerable time (for the kids as individuals, and for the universe that surrounds all young people today). In thinking about how important this is, I am reminded of a story from my childhood that speaks to this in a very personal way.

It was 1982. I was spending another summer at my summer camp, and I never coveted anything as much I did the pair of high-top Converse Weapon basketball sneakers that my counselor, Todd, wore. Todd was more of a tennis player than a basketball star and I already had more than a few pairs of sneakers of my own. But what I wanted more than anything else was to actually be Todd, and the Converse sneakers that he wore seemed to be the easiest way to make that transformation happen.

Todd was from Maryland, many miles from where I grew up in Philadelphia. He was gregarious and intelligent – qualities that I couldn’t claim as great strengths of mine at the time. Todd was seven years older than me and knew so much stuff that I didn’t. We were not very similar, but I wanted to be just like him. And why did I feel this way?  Because Todd was my camp counselor. For the previous six summers at camp, I had enjoyed many of the counselors that landed in my cabin. And while a number of them had done a good job overall to take care of me and my friends, no other counselor was like Todd.

The real connection I had to Todd was born out of the way that he spoke to me and the way that he treated me. He shared his passion for various things in a way that was enthralling, and he was an incredible storyteller who had the ability to draw me in. He would share tales from history, from the wide variety of musical interests that he had, from his travels around the world, and he taught me about morals and ethics that were important to him and that he felt should be important to me. Todd kept much of his personal and family life totally private – I don’t remember if he was an only child or had siblings – but he seemed to care about everything I was willing to share with him. He advised me when I struggled with things, he gave me a shoulder to cry on when Heather told me that she wouldn’t go to the dance with me, he protected me from Charlie when he assailed me after a basketball game, and Todd let me know of his displeasure when a few of us stepped outside the lines and got caught sneaking out to another cabin in camp.

The sneakers were not so remarkable, but I thought they represented Todd’s essence. Todd knew that I liked them, and for the big game against Camp Akiba he let me wear them (I had to put on a couple of extra pairs of socks to make that work.) And then camp ended in that abrupt way that it always seemed to, and as usual, I was not ready yet to say goodbye. We streamed out of the cabin to high-five each other, without so much as a hug because we were 12-year-old boys and we didn’t do that. I was the last one there when it came time to leave with my parents. Todd came over to me and I gave him a hug. He comforted me after letting go as he saw the tears welling up in my eyes. He told me that he’d see me next summer and he reminded me of some of the things I had learned, how I had done a great job, and that he was proud of the leadership I showed over the previous weeks. I left sad for the sake of losing this time with him, but full of strength for the guidance he had provided.

Todd was not so different than some of the counselors and role models that spend their summers at camps near and far. In fact, there were staff members that were even more incredible and talented than Todd was at all sorts of camps, including Chestnut Lake, this past summer. I looked around as our campers were preparing to leave on buses at the end of our sessions and saw many of our campers holding onto their staff members that cared for them, desperately wishing that the camp season would not end. In that embrace, they were quite literally holding onto the role model that they found who could understand them. If given the choice, many campers would have forgone getting onto the bus to instead tag along with their counselor for just a little bit longer. Some campers would rather stay at camp, hugging their counselor, somehow putting off the inevitable end to a relationship that mattered to them in a deeply meaningful way.

In 1982, saying goodbye to Todd was a separation that could not be avoided – at best, I could hope to see Todd again in ten months or beg him to respond to a letter that I would send to Emory that he would almost certainly ignore. Today, campers may try to stay connected to counselors through social media (even when we advise their counselors to maintain a relationship only at camp). But when the summer is over, the summer is over. The impression that a great counselor has made may only sustain through the memories of a child who is soon going to be in the position of giving back to an even younger child in much the same way. But that impression, in and of itself, can be so profound.

The most valuable asset that our camps have are those young adults and older adults who have committed themselves to lead through their direct work with children while they’re miles away from home. The staff at camp will never be perfect, and they won’t always say what a camp director wants them to say. But they can be such great teachers and coaches for kids, and they are still able to be eager learners themselves. They should have boundless energy, and they can be deeply spiritual and inspiring. They will soon understand the responsibilities they have in the demanding position of caring for campers, and if we do a good job in guiding them, they can feel unaffected by the pressure from parents while still delivering exactly the experience for that child that every parent desires. Like Todd, they could become the person who by the end of the camp season makes all the difference to ensure that a child’s summer is the very best it can be and in some way helps to support real growth. This is what makes the job of a camp counselor so important, and it is our responsibility to find and honor these individuals at our camp. This has our full attention now, just as it should.

And maybe, if we can find more people like Todd, a Chestnut Lake counselor will find a discreet moment to slip their pair of white and red Converse sneakers into a camper’s duffel bag before they leave so that they can find an extra-special gift when they get home. I remember opening my bag back in 1982 to find those shoes, and that’s why I’ve kept them for 40 years.

From the CLC Porch | FINALLY!

Before I share my excitement and joy for the arrival of our campers 2021 camp season at Chestnut Lake Camp yesterday, I want to take us back in time a little bit…

The final day of a camp summer is bittersweet. The hard work of an entire year combined with the joy that is felt when you send the campers and staff back to their families and their real-world lives bring so many feelings. Even though there’s sadness mixed in with all the joy at the close of the season, I’ve always taken for granted that we would be back soon. The close of camp would give way to the first stages of preparation for the following year; processing and evaluating would start right away, and then off we would go to start getting ready once again. Only 10 months stood between the celebration of one great summer and the opening of yet another.

In August 2019, Chestnut Lake’s campers and staff gathered for their final Campfire, and then hours later started to board buses to head back home. Everyone assumed they would be back in less than one year to pick up where they were leaving off. Goodbye hugs and tears were tempered by the subconscious understanding that the camp cycle would recharge us before we lost track of the friendships, lessons, and memories found in Beach Lake, PA. But then a lot of things happened.

Months of planning moved along, but we were about to find ourselves at a crossroads. As our camp family looked ahead to 2020 for another amazing summer at CLC, our founding directors contemplated a big change for their own family. And then we learned of COVID-19. And then camp was closed for 2020. And then…well, the world went a bit haywire. Now let’s fast-forward back to June 27, 2021.

I started my first post From the CLC Porch (a metaphor for the vantage we have as leaders at camp, and the literal front porch that Ann and I have at our house here, where we will host campers most days of the summer for treats and fun) with reflection because it’s impossible to appreciate the power and meaning of yesterday’s arrival day without looking even further back. Last night, as we gathered for our Opening Campfire, seated on the log benches, we invited some of our youngest campers to help us with a traditional ritual at CLC. Passing a shovel from Ciqala camper to Ciqala camper, the boys dug up the metal can that held the ashes from the Closing Campfire of 2019. Never have the ashes been buried underground for 22 months – as we sprinkled them over the top of the fire, you could appreciate that this was a poignant moment symbolizing our own process of rejuvenation.

The time away from camp has certainly had an impact. The trees on our site are a bit taller, and so are many of the campers. Nearly two years of development has returned campers and staff to us looking a bit different, but I think they are also wiser. Many have developed more grit, and the events of the last 15 months have stretched your children’s capacity to adapt. But they’re still kids. We can see some of the familiar signs of adolescence and our counselors are supporting the typical feelings of separation from home, as we know that it takes a little while to get into the groove at camp. But being able to see campers here – to see them walking, running, hanging out, eating, playing – is such a gift. Their spirit and laughter are contagious, and we’re ready to leverage and celebrate it every day this summer.

Ann and I are thankful for all the support, and we are grateful for having so many talented and dedicated staff members here to work closely with your kids. This crew of Chestnut Lake staff are very special, and we are having a great time watching them maintain the greatness of Chestnut while simultaneously growing it.

We’re back. Finally.

 

Aaron Selkow and his wife, Ann, are the owners/directors of Chestnut Lake Camp in Beach Lake, PA.

Memories from a Summer Lost

By Aaron Selkow, CLC Owner/Director

In her book, A Manufactured Wilderness, Abigail A. Van Slyck refers to summer camps as, “ …a central feature of North American life – for the children who attend them, for the adults who work at them, and even for the former campers of all ages who cherish vivid (if not exclusively pleasant) memories of their camp experiences.” Van Slyck’s examination provides many other insights into how camps became such a valued and dynamic asset to the American experience, but at a time when we watch the summer come to a close after most camps (including Chestnut Lake) were unable to operate for the 2020 season due to the COVID-19 crisis, I underlined this sentence while searching for some inspiration.

My memories of camp – as a child tugging at the leg of my parents to let me stay, as a camper for ten summers, as a young adult staff member for four seasons, and as a camp professional for more than 25 years and counting – are vivid, and as Van Slyck suggests parenthetically, they are not exclusively pleasant. As a young child, I made a friend that is still the person I turn to when I need to laugh. In subsequent summers, I would arrive as an only child to find my brothers waiting for me at camp; ten months apart without so much as a call could do nothing to dim the powerful glow of positive energy, shared exploration, and reinforcement that we offered each other. I found my first crush at camp, stumbled through my first kiss on the bridge after a dance, and learned to make a fire. Of course, I also had other experiences in my youth at camp that counter-balanced those idyllic ones. I upset other campers by excluding them from our inner circle. I told untruths to counselors to get out of trouble, and I flexed my ego in ways that have led to a lifetime search for more self-awareness and humility. And while I may have learned to build a fire – once even starting it with a homemade bow drill – I also threw caterpillars in a few. And once, after an overnight trip with my own campers as their beloved role model and counselor, I was the one that encouraged us all to throw eggs from the van while I stood atop the moving vehicle. When we returned to camp, a phone call from a civilian with great vision and a pencil landed our group in a conversation with the camp’s director. He threatened to send the kids home if they didn’t confess, and he meant it. As my co-counselor and I watched our boys stand up to the pressure being asserted by a man who once served as a translator in a Japanese POW camp, we felt pride to see them protecting us. Later that day, however, we cracked. As we walked to the director’s house – certain we would be sent from our summer home – we felt the weight of our poor decisions and anticipated the course of our lives veering towards a much darker and lonelier place. I have wondered for years what might have been different had we actually been fired that day. He must have somehow known that the second chance afforded us as 18 year-olds would contribute to our rehabilitation into upstanding adults, professionals, spouses, and parents.

That was not a high point in my counselor career, though it taught me a valuable lesson. Better memories were formed and more lessons learned when I bonded with children that continue to reach out to me today to share good news and tough times because we trust and respect each other. In my first summer as a counselor in 1987, I was shifted to live with a group of 14-year-olds at my ripe-old-age of 17 and – for the first time – allowed myself to be truly vulnerable. When I said goodbye to them, I let tears flow freely. For all of the years since then, I’ve become more aware and protective of the need for being real, allow my emotions to show, and provide a counterpoint to the toxic masculinity that can be absorbed by kids when they’re so impressionable. When my role shifted to leadership in the summer, I suddenly understood that camp was not only just for me any longer – I was there to serve others and my job was to be a protective factor that could help the next generation of campers make their own memories in an environment that was safe: safe for them to try new things, to be open to new people, to fail forward, and to be given second chances to discover the best versions of themselves that were somewhere amidst the woods, lakes, cabins, dining halls, and other architecture of these intentionally-constructed, but still simple, environments.

Now fast-forward to the summer of 2020 and a virus has ruined these kinds of experiences for too many of our children.

There are camps that ran this summer despite the restrictions and hurdles of COVID-19, but not enough to serve the needs and desires of all children, young adults, and parents across North America who want the memories due to them this year. Those camps did so at great risks and costs, while others – like Chestnut Lake Camp – made their own decisions to shutter for the season to protect our campers and staff from those very same risks. Each camp needed to assess the massive complexities of this moment and be true to their mission and character, as our leaders did at Chestnut Lake. Never before was the very existence of summer camps threatened in this way; no time before forced the passionate and dynamic leaders of camps to make the choice of camp or no camp for families.

The advent of technology and a digital age that has altered how our children learn and connect to others, the greater risks of liability and security that plague society, the high costs of operating immersive programs, and even the destruction of nature and resources could not keep camps from opening before 2020. Camps and camp leaders adapted, innovated, and worked their way through contemporary challenges to ensure that another generation of children could discover themselves and each other at camp. While the pandemic outbreak we continue to navigate may have stolen the opportunities for countless campers, staff, parents, alumni, and other stakeholders to create new, vivid memories at camp in 2020, the very existence of this extraordinary catastrophe has become an opportunity for a true camp memory to form.

In years from now, our children will remember the summer that was lost to COVID-19. Some children and adults will actually look back at this summer as one where they felt like a Trailblazer if they happen to be at one of the camps that has found a pathway through the logistics, limitations, bureaucracy, and understandable concerns to operate in chaos. There will be memories therein for a relatively small group of children that will be able to look back on being among the first to wear a mask at Color War, to have temperature checks become as common as water breaks, and to submit COVID test results as a means of admission to their Happy Place. But it’s as much a memory for the exponentially greater number of people who have had to adjust to a summer without – what greater story of resiliency have we ever had than the need to cope with a summer of camp denied?

Simon Sinek – in Together is Better – suggests that, “Our struggles are short-term steps we must take on our way to long-term success.” The story of summer camp – whether one written by a researcher like Van Slyck or as part of a personal narrative – has always been replete with memories of joy as well as struggle. Friendships and broken hearts, successes and failures, and dreams realized and shattered all dot the scatter plots of experiences for camp people. The summer of 2020 should be that short-term, kick-in-the-teeth moment that can lead to even more special long-term success. This is our perfect chance to become stronger, smarter, and more creative. We tend to like the tales of comebacks and rebounds from adverse conditions because they inspire us to believe that things can get better, and that problems can be fixed. This should be a Comeback Story for the ages.

Right now, there are many broken aspects of our lives that are impacting the way that young people will someday grow into older people. Van Slyck describes summer camps as, “fertile sites for examining a constellation of concerns that have informed – that continue to inform – conceptions of modern childhood.” Let this season of missed memories inform conceptions for our children – and for all of us that continue to have a childish spirit that was shaped at summer camp – to help them to be more resistant and strong as they count down the days to their next summer at camp. Until then, let us appreciate the camp memories that are present now. And let’s continue our countdown towards the summer of 2021, when we reopen to families and staff never before more ready to celebrate the very existence of our society’s greatest antidote to a widespread viral threat: summer camp.