Tag Archives: counselor

Campfire Tales | Week 7 (8/11/23)

[Did you see the Second Session/Week 3 video yet? Click here to watch it!]

By Aaron Selkow, Owner/Director

One summer about 30 years ago, a close friend of mine from camp told me about his summer job. We had moved on from the summers we spent together as counselors and before he started medical school, he had taken a gig working with a trucking company. He described the job as lugging trunks and duffel bags all over the East Coast in the summer heat. The company was called, “Camp Trucking.” My friend went on to become a prominent physician and the Associate Dean of Admissions at a terrific Medical School. Camp Trucking went on to have a 34-year run until they went out of business on August 3rd. In the middle of a camp session. Without giving any notice. While keeping lots of money from parents.

If you have not already heard about the sudden closure of Camp Trucking just over one week ago (click here to read the NYT piece or click here to read a funny piece from “Daily Camp News” on the subject), it’s likely to be the story of the summer for the camping industry. And that’s a very good thing, to be honest. Camps are places where challenges are very much part of the experience and mishaps that get told and retold (often these are sensationalized) can be far more serious. In this case, it’s a story about a company that got in over its head after many years as the leader in this niche service to camp families helping to ensure that their bags would get to and from their child’s camp. Chestnut Lake Camp had stopped pushing Camp Trucking last year as the only recommended option after we started to sense that the company’s service to our families had become a bit inconsistent, but we also embraced their leaders to partner on better strategies and enhanced service to our shared clients. This was obviously to little avail, and when the company sent an email to us (five minutes before sending a similar one to camp families all over North America) we were not so much shocked by the announcement that they had gone belly-up as much as the timing of their admission of failure. Like most camps impacted by this, we were less than two weeks from the end of our summer and we had over 300 bags at camp that were meant to be delivered by Camp Trucking home.

This absurd turn of events was a gift to our leaders at Chestnut Lake. We relish the opportunity to find solutions and we thought this would be a good test of our mettle. As we immediately began to craft a strategy, our staff (big Shout Outs to John, Alex, and Sam, along with a seamless partnership as always with Marc and our friends at Trail’s End Camp) came up with great ideas and swiftly secured resources. Before 24 hours had elapsed, we had a good sense of how we would get those bags back to our families.

The most important thing about this process what not the development of a sound process nor the dedication to doing all of this at no cost to our families, it was actually the fact that while we handled this challenge we never stopped focusing on the most important concern: camp. Campers don’t care how bags get delivered, and the staff that care for the kids care even less about the bags. They only care about each other, and they care a lot about having fun. So that’s what we’ve kept doing while a few people rented trucks, bought luggage tags in every color imaginable, made all sorts of lists, and negotiated door-to-door bag delivery for New York City and Florida (where it’s impossible for us to have bags go to a centralized location reliably). This session that is soon winding down will be remembered as a spectacular one, not the one about Camp Trucking. Who really cares anymore about Camp Trucking (besides the parents that will hopefully someday get some money back from them)?

Tomorrow we will say goodbye to the kids that have experienced three or seven weeks of camp, and it will be hard to do so. The hugs and fist bumps will come with many tears, and then it will all be over for 2023. I always look forward to that last morning of emotion, as it gives us all a chance to release and share the love that we have harnessed for the summer one last time before heading home. But I will not be able to have that moment tomorrow, and I will miss watching each and every child get onto a bus or picked up by their parents. I will miss all of that because I will be driving a Penske box truck filled with bags to Philadelphia.

Thank you, Chestnut Lake Camp, for giving me the gift of a truly awesome summer.

 

 

Campfire Tales | Week 4 (7/21/23)

[Did you see the Week 4 video yet? Click here to watch it!]
By Aaron Selkow, Owner/Director

The final week of a camp session always makes me feel sad. I think about the time spent and how wonderful all of the great moments have been, but I also get stuck on some of the things I wish were different. I can dwell on some pretty ridiculous things. Let’s take the weather, for instance. Last summer we made it through seven weeks of camp without so much as one “Rainy Day.” This year? Over the last four weeks, we did not have more than 3 days in a row without rainfall. Our terrific program/experience team somehow kept everyone having fun despite the forecasted and unexpected conditions. The grounds on our gorgeous property resemble a construction site in some spots, and our parents will undoubtedly see some muddy shoes and socks when they unpack our campers arriving home tomorrow. Then there are the mistakes. I’m a big believer in the importance of messing up and have long felt that there’s no better place to fall down than at camp. But with only four weeks (or three) to deliver the spectacular outcomes that Chestnut should, a missed moment or a botched opportunity could feel like a catastrophic error. The end of the session makes me think about how much better we can do. And then – just in time – something always seems to happen in those last days that reminds me of how insignificant the weather and the mistakes (and the other challenges) are compared to the monumental power that is generated here in Beach Lake each summer.

As we gathered as an entire community to close out the competition between our Unami Turtles and Minsi Wolves Tribal teams last night, we were treated to just such a special moment. Minsi was off to a very good start, and it seemed clear within 30 minutes of the Rope Burn’s start that they would likely walk away with the win. Burning a very thick rope that’s suspended ten feet in the air is not an easy task, but their early efficiency at getting a fire built from scratch into one that was reaching the rope made them appear to be the favorites. Unami caught up with a great deal of hard work, but they seemed still to trail. The teams seated in front of the bonfires were in constant cheers, especially hyped because they were told before the start of the event that relatively few points separated the two teams after three days and the winner of this last activity would win Tribal. Minsi’s fire grew even bigger, and as time passed, Unami’s chances to come back waned.

Minsi’s rope fell, and their teammates erupted in celebration. As you would expect, Unami’s enthusiasm sank. But they had to keep pressing on – it is a Chestnut tradition that the competition is not over until both teams burn their rope. Ten minutes passed, Then ten more. And then there was a shift. We suddenly went from watching a team going through its paces to finish off a second-place effort to a display of how one camp can come together.

Without an audible request for help, the fire-building team from Minsi began assisting their Unami brothers and sisters. Wood from one pile went to the other fire. Unami fire-builders were able to take a brief break to be hosed down after the longest Rope Burn effort in memory. Then there were Minsi staff – people that had been seated or standing in the crowd – also assisting. At some point, there were not two teams helping each other to burn a rope; friends were doing something together in a way that modeled what we try to inspire and reinforce at Chestnut.

The Unami rope fell. It was 90 minutes from when we began. The Unami and Minsi leaders collapsed into each other’s arms. The crowd cheered for them all. And though the Minsi team was announced as the Tribal winner by virtue of this last competition, the true winner was camp. Camp won.

I love the end of the session. It’s the best part of the summer. You forget the hardship, you leave behind the hard feelings, and you remember that the things out of your control like the weather and making mistakes are not worth worrying about any longer. The session is about the moments that make you feel good about yourself and the people around you. That’s what camp is.

On behalf of our family and the dedicated leaders of Chestnut Lake Camp, we thank you for an extraordinary First Session. Here’s to another great session starting soon. We love you.

 

Campfire Tales | Week 3 (7/15/23)

[Did you see the Week 3 video yet? Click here to watch it!]

By Aaron Selkow, Owner/Director

We’re still a relatively young camp. In only our 15th year, this fact does not occur very much to our campers. The camp is older than almost all of them, so as far as they know, Chestnut feels like a place that’s been around forever. But there are a few things at Chestnut that are evidence of this relative youth, and one of them is the trajectory of our experiences for teens.

A camp of this quality, and one into at least its second generation, almost always has a teen leadership continuum that over many years evolves and establishes a culture of young leadership. Whether the summer programs are summer-long or single-session-length, and regardless of whether they’re called Varsity, LT, CIT, or other common names, successful teen experiences breed great spirit and support growth for all campers and staff. Former campers age into opportunities to shine, take on more responsibility, and gain independence, and these summers are the ones that all younger campers will aspire to reach. At Chestnut, we are still growing up in this aspect of our camp’s development.

There have been many great teens at Chestnut Lake Camp, and the Varsity, LT (leadership Training), and JC (Junior Counselor) programs have had participants for years. But the numbers have still been growing, and especially with the combination of being a young camp and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic a few years ago, we are finally on the cusp of establishing more concrete appeal and outcomes of our teen sessions and this summer is evidence of that.

Our Varsity 1 (rising 9th) and Varsity 2 (rising 10th) teens have had an incredible few weeks at Chestnut, and it is clear that what they are achieving and contributing to camp will have a lasting impact. There are two examples of this leadership that I want to share today.

Trips are a part of most camp’s curriculum. Whether they are afternoon excursions to an amusement park or more extensive travels, trips are a means of bringing camp into the Real World and giving our campers unforgettable experiences that they get to enjoy with their closest friends. At Chestnut, trips had become an important feature before the disruption from COVID, and that led to a few years of no major trips off-site. It was hard each year to make that decision, and though we look back and feel it was the right choice, it increased the build-up of anticipation and pressure for this year’s trips to finally get back off-site (including overnight versions). Just a few days ago, we completed all of our First Session trips and there is no doubt that these will turn out to be highlights for many campers. None more important than what our Varsity campers experienced.

For four days, our Varsity 1 campers traveled north to Massachusetts to enjoy Boston, Cape Cod, and other fun stops while they camped, stayed in hotels, visited cool sights, and had one fun moment after another. Traveling by charter bus, they came back from that trip with a greater sense of connection to each other, and that energy has been shared throughout the camp community in Beach Lake.

Yet it was the Varsity 2 campers that traveled to New Mexico that really stole the show. Heading our west on a flight and embarking on a full itinerary that included full-scale camping, climbing, rafting, and more adventures. The V-2s found themselves in a remote location and were challenged to step far outside their comfort zones, and they responded with incredible character, teamwork, and leadership. The trip continued from the wilderness to Sante Fe and Albuquerque, including time spent sledding sand dunes and exploring Southwestern culture. But it’s the strength in their resolve, their adventurous spirit, and the bonds that were made deeper between them that have truly stood out. They even dealt with a stomach bug that has taken down many of our kids and staff for a short time, though our Varsity 2s would not let that keep them from enjoying this trip to the fullest. Now that they are back at camp, we continue to honor them (and their V-1 peers) for being trailblazers, both literally and figuratively. Our hearts are filled with pride, and we know that the campers that follow them are already hearing the stories and are excited to follow in their footsteps. This is how young camps become more “mature.”

We are grateful to the Varsity leaders and their staff for being an inspiration to us all.

And as if their leadership through their trips was not enough, please enjoy the following letter written by these amazing teens and their staff about their effort to give back to the community and get more kids to camp. Your support is greatly appreciated by us all.

Dear Friends:

The Varsity campers (rising 9th and 10th graders) of Chestnut Lake are excited to be continuing an amazing camp tradition, the Color Run for SCOPE.  In Varsity, we look forward to being a part of events that help the greater good beyond the boundaries of Chestnut Lake. Camp has done so much for all of us, and we are thrilled to give back so that others can enjoy sleep-away camp like we do. 

As the oldest campers at CLC, we will be hosting the annual Chestnut Lake Summer Classic Color Run. It is going to be a very special event for the entire Chestnut Lake family. We have created a 5K course around camp, and we look forward to this event on Monday, July 17th.

CLC is extremely excited to again partner with SCOPE(Summer Camp Opportunities Promote Education), an organization that raises money to help provide access to the summer camp experience. We are asking members of our Chestnut community to participate by making a financial pledge by donating towards this great cause. Your child may participate in the Color Run whether you donate or not, but donations are greatly appreciated.  Donations can be made through SCOPE, who has created an online platform for our families to donate directly and here is the link.

Please make all donations by July 20th, so that we may reveal the grand total before our First Session campers depart on July 21st. 

Thank you in advance for your amazing support of this effort!

Think Camp!

Varsity Teens & Varsity Leadership Team

 

 

 

 

Campfire Tales | Week 2 (7/8/23)

[Did you see the Week 2 video yet? Click here to watch it!]
By Aaron Selkow, Owner/Director

The halfway point of a great session at camp always makes me feel two contradictory things at the same time: (1) “It feels like we just got here,” and (2) “It feels like we’ve been here forever.” The first feeling is due to the pace of camp and the amount of programming and experiences our campers and staff have enjoyed in just 14 days. There have been so many activities (new ones, traditional ones) and even with the spotty weather, the feeling of time flying by is a great sign of deep engagement. At the same time, the feeling at this point that we’re camp veterans with connections already running so deep is just as important. A great session comes when you’re immersed in camp life, including the emotional relationship that starts to form making camp feel like a second home.

The First Session continues to be jam-packed with good stuff, and the week that begins tomorrow will be just as exciting. There has been a great mix of daily activities across camp that have started to elevate the program for all ages, and that is only going to intensify. We’ve had intercamp games, the start of rehearsals for the musical, Varsity-led activities like Casino Night, Rak Dan dancing, and our own Talent Shows. The Lip Sync competition was inspiring, but so have been countless moments in and out of the cabins watching campers start to really build friendships and make memories that will last. As we move into Week 3, expect to see and hear about our first field trips off-site, the return of our 9th/10th-grade participants after spending multiple days in New England or New Mexico, more Specialty Camps and Academies, Late Nights for teens, pool parties, Lake time, big art projects, more campfires and Community Service Awards, and the list goes on and on.

The days have definitely felt full, and our staff members have started to really get into a groove. There have been many opportunities for me every day to be present to see counselors and specialty instructors make a difference for our campers. The patience, positivity, determination, openness, and spirit that so many staff present is what makes the, “Bring it Out!” philosophy come alive. Campers are challenged, but supported, They are given structure, but also the chance for independence. And we’re only halfway through the session. There’s so much more.

When we gather next Friday for our third Campfire, it will mean that we will be entering into our final week of the session. It will be here any second. And fortunately, it will also take forever to get here.

Campfire Tales | Week 1 (7/1/23)

[Did you see the Week 1 video yet? Click here to watch it!]
By Aaron Selkow, Owner/Director

When the summer of 2022 ended, Ann and I felt great relief. After two years of hard work during the unique transition into being new camp leaders guiding a young camp through a global pandemic, we were so relieved that the kids had the summer that they deserved. After a season lost in 2020 followed by another that still had us working out some kinks, we just wanted a more normal, fun, and meaningful summer for our community. It happened. Our staff leaders made sure of it. And after we all took some deep breaths and allowed ourselves a moment to appreciate how good it felt to be here at Chestnut Lake, we started working toward 2023.

Our first two years at Chestnut featured plenty of laughter and great programs, but as camp professionals for a few decades, we came here to make our camp the very best. Since the last campers boarded the buses last year, we have been committed to making 2023 a different summer, an even better summer, and maybe even the best one ever for each of our campers.

A great summer doesn’t just happen. It takes a lot of planning, time, coordination, talent, leadership, and even luck. Seven days of a camp summer are not enough to determine whether you’re having the best summer ever. But without question, we are experiencing some big moments in just one week. We have wonderful staff, the activities have been awesome, and we’re growing as a community and institution right before our eyes. The energy here is high, and even though campers and staff are still settling in and the typical bumps in the road are there for some, Ann and I are feeling more and more proud to be part of this special place.

Aaron and Ann with Directors of the Day (from left), Chase Bailey, Hope Welson, and Ben Shiffman.

Yesterday provided great examples of what has us so excited. Before breakfast had ended, we were told which campers had been named as Directors of the Day from each of the three campuses (Boys, Girls, and Varsity). This is an honor bestowed on kids weekly by their staff, and since we introduced this in 2021, the opportunity to empower campers to take part in leading Chestnut has yielded great insights. Based on the feedback gathered and provided by our Directors of the Day, changes have been made to the camp menu, we have added water bottle filling stations across the property, there have been various facility improvements both big and small, and other ideas that have become realities meant to enhance Chestnut Lake. The campers chosen this past week were two first-time Chestnut Lakers and a sixth-year teen from our Varsity program. Each was recognized as a peer leader, and as is the case whenever we spotlight community members that are living CLC values like these three great kids, they have already inspired others.

Friday evening brought our first Community Campfire, and it was a powerful sign of our continued growth. The ritual of the “Tribal Campfire” – when our first-time campers and staff learn whether they will forever be a member of the Unami Turtles (green) or the Minsi Wolves (white) – was awesome, and the moment was compounded by celebrating in our new outdoor space: the Great Lawn. As the new campers and staff (wearing red) came through the green and white procession, they arrived to find Chestnut’s new performance stage and amphitheater that will be used for campfires, camp musical shows, and so much more. We retold the story of Tribal as we lit our first giant campfire in the new steel fire ring featuring the Chestnut logo etched into the side. Campers and staff found out their Tribal assignments with deafening cheers from their teammates and the Unami and Minsi mascots dancing across the stage. The lore of Tribal mixed with coming together at the Great Lawn for the first time made for a spectacular activity and a fitting end to the first week.

As Ann and I have shared before, we are dedicated to the children, families, and staff at Chestnut and to the camp, itself. We are honored to help – along with so many other leaders and staff members – with Chestnut’s development into a “forever” camp. For the last ten months, we have worked hard to ensure that the 2023 season in Beach Lake would be our finest of all time. And after one week, we’re proud to be seeing that we are on our way.

 

Your Input Leads to Excellence!

The summer of 2023 at Chestnut Lake Camp was amazing on so many levels. We had a camp filled with kids enjoying great traditions, building new friendships, and feeling the unique spirit of our “Bring It Out” vibe in Beach Lake, PA.

And 2024 at camp will be even better! We know that we are on track for an exceptional season because of the experiences and feedback we enjoyed in 2023. As a camp run by leaders who are constantly setting high standards and believe that listening is key to meeting them, we can point to countless improvements made each year that have helped our camp to grow. As we come off of a wonderful summer, we can see that the efforts Aaron, Ann, and their entire team have made since arriving in 2020 are paying off. Chestnut Lake is experiencing its greatest enrollment ever with our highest rate of camper retention (from 2023 to 2024) in our 16-year history. Many other indicators like this remind us how important it is to ask our community what’s working and what’s not, and methodically and thoughtfully integrate their feedback into the camp’s operations.

The 2023 Camper & Parent Insight Survey report — as you will see when you click through at your own pace or download the file below to review later — reinforces the love that our community has for Chestnut Lake, the consensus that our camp is “all about the people,” the appreciation for the great care and robust experiences provided in our flexible program, and the excitement for our continued evolution as an institution as we come back for an even more terrific summer in 2024.

[Once you click the report, you can enlarge it to full screen to better read the contents]

Surveys are just one of the tools that we have been using to gather constructive feedback and support our planning in recent summers. This summer, campers will have even more input into their daily program so that we can ensure the best experiences for them while they are with us at camp. Explore and enjoy the report (above), and for all the families that contributed insight throughout this process, please accept our gratitude for the guidance.

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.

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.

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.