Originally posted May 2012
A camp story
I wanted to become a counselor for so many reasons. Since I'd grown up as a camp kid it was what I'd always known I'd become one day. All of the counselors seemed like this illustrious, magically cool group of people that I admired and idolized every summer, the celebrities of my childhood. I wanted to be a part of camp all summer long as more than just a kid running out to Main Field to play Capture the Flag or sitting in the back of chapel every morning. I always innately knew that Camp T was the greatest place in the world and I would be crazy to go anywhere else. When I put on my blue staff polo and wooden name tag for my first staff meeting I had no idea that I was actually suiting up for a nine year journey.
Being a counselor has taught me that there is potential in every kid, possibility in every conversation and every new week of campers holds is own magic. In the course of nine summers I have lived in four different cabins, worked in partnerships with eighteen other counselors and been a leader for over one thousand campers. What keeps me coming back summer after summer are the all of the girls that were the main characters of those seasons and the many that have become main characters of my life.
In her book Cold Tangerines, Shauna Niequist describes a small group of High School girls that she mentored at her church as the puppies. This group of young women were a picture of community and intimacy like puppies in a box. When she eventually had to move away from them all she wanted was to be back with her girls like puppies in a box feeling warm and safe. The first time I read that chapter I immediately started crying in the kitchen because I felt like I was reading my own story. I had never been able to so clearly articulate what my campers meant to me. Shauna's words stuck with me and made me feel like I was not alone.
I had been a counselor for four summers at the time I read Niequist’s words. In the long months between times at Tecumseh all I wanted was to be back in a cabin sitting in a circle with all of my girls. It had become the place where I most belonged and felt like I was fulfilling a purpose. I was in the middle of college and although I was excited about my classes, felt at home in my sorority and was involved all over campus, I still couldn't find the same sense of community that I had found at camp.
Week one the next summer was some sort of miracle like the planets aligned and the camp version of the sorting hat placed ten of the puppies from earlier summers in my cabin for one more summer together.
We heard a tentative "Hi" from the doorway and we all turned around to see who had just arrived. A chorus of high-pitched screams that can only be produced by teenage girls were unleashed and everyone lunged across the room to attack Mary in a group hug. She was holding bags on both of her lanky arms and could barely return the hug but a smile stretched across her face. We had been waiting for this day since camp had ended last summer: week one, CILTs session one, check-in Sunday.
Molly, Chrissy, Amber, Becca, Jackie, Grace, Mary, Kelly, Brittany and Haley didn't all know each other at the beginning of the week but as long time campers they shared a love for camp. For months they had been counting down to the start of their last, and best, year as a camper. When I think back on that week I picture these girls laughing till they fell to the ground, talking on the Longhouse porch under the stars, running early each morning, holding hands in a line on the bank of the Tippecanoe River, transforming into counselors as they played with their adopted campers, and the night we all squeezed together on a bunk and I read them the puppy chapter for the first time. They went from strangers to best friends and pseudo-sisters. They shared their secrets with one another, asked each other questions and learned how to care for each other well. They cried when they pulled away in their parents' cars on Sunday because this year at camp at had so profoundly impacted them.
I don't know what it would be like to spend my summer sleeping in, tanning by the pool or going boating every afternoon. My summers are about mud hikes and float trips, eating corn dogs in the dining hall and making sure ten girls get out the door in time for flagpole every morning. Nine weeks as a counselor are worth every bug bite, every short night of sleep and every repetitive time of singing M & Ms. It's all more than worth it because of the glimmering moments of hope and joy and love with my campers.
Katie was only in my cabin for one week but we quickly bonded. It was as though she was simultaneously my twin and little sister. She became my "assistant lifeguard" at the Roger Murphy swim, confided in me during devotions, and sang every word of Hannah Montana with me as we walked through camp that week. For the next three years I only got to see her for about thirty minutes when she came to drop off her younger sister for camp. She would sit on the porch with me during check in and we'd talk until she had to go. Those reunions were short but sweet. The months in between were filled with page after page of handwritten letters because we both wanted to stay connected. Katie is a beautiful example of someone who is a light for Christ; reaching people even when she is unaware.
Lydia was first in my cabin when she was only twelve years old, again at fifteen and then for two weeks when she turned sixteen. She fit the "boy crazy" stereotype of teenage girls but there was so much more depth to her than that. Lydia was the type of camper that would sit on my bunk at night so we could talk with just us. She made me laugh, helped me grow as a counselor and over time I watched her grow up from a hyper pre-teen to this incredibly outgoing, still very loud girl, that learned to lead and serve the people around her. She became a counselor at Tecumseh and helped dozens of kids have the same experience she had as a camper.
It was a love tank she'd written me that first made Mikaela stand out from the thirty girls in her CILT session. She told me she hoped to get to know me better while she was at camp but that note made me quickly want to get to know her. Tall and thin with long, straight hair Mikaela's most memorable feature is her smile. In our two weeks at camp together I saw her collapse into laughter with her friends and her smile get even bigger when she played with the girls in her adopted cabin. She was the embodiment of so many of the things Camp Tecumseh is about. Do you know how sometimes you find a person that you just click with right away? Mikaela was one of those campers for me. In so many ways I found that we shared a heart for the same things and it seemed like we never had enough time to get to know each other. After camp we stayed in touch because both of us made it a priority. Mikaela has taught me about trust and friendship and reminding people often that you love them. She can’t see her own greatness yet so I will continue to remind her until she can see it herself.
When I was a kid growing up with camp as my backyard, I never realized that counselors weren't just having fun. They had the opportunity to really get to know and make an impact on so many campers. Once I joined the staff I quickly learned that if you open yourself up to the possibility, you will be changed by these kids' stories. In late night talks on the porch, in cabin devotion circles, on benches at the Women's Journey, when they sneak into the bathroom to talk when they should have been asleep, and one on one talks as you walk back to the cabin, the life stories I have heard have filled my heart and changed the way I see the world.
I could fill a library with the conversations about struggling to remain true to yourself in High School, parents getting divorced and switching houses, eating disorders, depression and thoughts of suicide, bible studies, volunteering for youth groups, stories of playing every sport possible, the pressures of getting the perfect grades and the perfect SAT and ACT scores, moving across the state or across the country, falling in love, getting their heart broken, losing friends and finding new ones, weddings of siblings and becoming an aunt, joining the Day Camp staff or dealing with not getting hired. All of these talks, every single one, was a gift. It is an honor to be trusted enough that they would choose to confide in me. I honestly never thought my life would look like this. I never thought that so many of the people I admire, stay in touch with, trust, and have the most fun with would be younger than me. I never thought I would be a counselor for so many years. But now I can't imagine anything better I could be doing.
Each summer more girls move into my cabin and over the course of the week they become another set of puppies. Sometimes it just happens without my noticing and sometimes I can pinpoint the second that it happened. Livvie's monkey call during dinner, Lizzy's Halloween costume on a regular Tuesday, Erin asking me if I want to talk on a rock during pool time, talking to Bridget about living out your faith during chapel, watching Kelly go out of her comfort zone to make new friends when she knew no one in CILTs, making lists with Maddie over the weekend, sitting beside Ellyn when I didn't have any words to help, laughing with Mary about clinic announcements. There is a story for each camper.
My first generation of campers are in the midst of college; some of them have become co-counselors of mine. The most recent years of kids have become upper classmen and are embracing the end of High School. Some of them text me their highs and lows like we share in devotions back at camp. I get dinner at Chipotle or grab frozen yogurt after school with girls that live close by. I look forward to seeing many of them at weekend reunions in the winter-- a twenty-five hour burst of camp. I try to show up at their plays or soccer games. My Facebook is dominated by their posts and when a Crayola colored envelope drops through the mailbox I know it’s from one of them.
I'm thankful that the end of my time as a counselor will not mark the end of friendships with so many of these girls.
Someday I'll have to grow up and put away my blue staff polo and wooden name tag. I'll find another way to spend my summer instead of living out of plastic drawers, brainstorming new ideas for campfire every Sunday, and writing a stack of parent letters the end of every week. But when that time comes I'll miss this season of life when I got to make sure my girls were having the best week of their entire year. When I worked my hardest to make every one of them feel valued and heard. When I got to teach hip-hop in the morning and jump off the rope swing in the afternoon. When we cried together, laughed together, sang in the Green Cathedral together, stood on our chairs and screamed cheers together, and held hands to pray together. It was while being a counselor to the puppies that I realized who I wanted to be and what I wanted my life to be about.