By Amy VanHaren
There is a week at camp that is perhaps even more magical than all the rest.
A week when lights are hung around cabin doors and A-field games become reindeer games. When counselors fight over who gets to be one of five golden rings or the coveted partridge in a pear tree. When your cabin just might get a trip around the world or a serenade by the Boys Village Backstreet Boys.
It's a special time-warp week in the heat of summer when the animals attend chapel as part of the nativity scene, staff disappear to Tom's shed to become elves, and you get to carol cabin to cabin by candlelight (or, maybe, around the lake as part of a Flotilla).
This joyful week is Christmas week, and it has always been my favorite.
I would guess it's a favorite of many, because if you really think about it, summer camp and Christmas are not all that different.
You spend the month before each arrives in a state of heightened anticipation, counting down the days. You can't sleep the night before. You want to be the first one to the tree - or check in table - on the day it arrives.
You sing some songs. You dress up a lot. You decorate (the tree or yourself). You make things for other people. You gather around a table, sit before a fire, and tell stories of mythical beings (one happens to wear a santa hat and slip down the chimney, the other, seaweed while slipping into cabins).
It goes way, way too quickly.
And when it's over, you feel sad, but you wake up the next day with warm memories and a full heart, already excited for next year.
Both come with much merriment and a whole lot of gifts (some you've asked for, others not so much), so in honor of both seasons, I present my top 12 Camp Gifts:
1. The Gift of Spontaneity.
You never know when you'll get picked to be a British Bulldog or what will happen during the Steeple Chase or whether or not you might have to carry someone around the table. There is structure to the days at camp but only enough so that you can rely on the rhythms, not enough to prevent creativity or adventure or teachable moments. The ability to veer wildly off course, to start a chant or throw in a new a rule in four-square, allows us to be playful and adaptable in ways the rest of the world does not.
2. The Gift of Nature.
Camp exists almost entirely outside. You move from place to place on dirt paths. You spend nights under the stars. You zip line among the trees and swim across the lake and ride horses through DeVries woods. On rainy days you slip and slide in mud. During capture the counselor you cozy up to bushes. You might even clean seaweed out of the red area if it's early in the summer. At every turn, you are exposed to all that our natural world has to offer and it shapes not only our time at camp but also our time beyond in meaningful ways.
3. The Gift of Friendship.
Bunkmate, Ottawa cabin, buddy call, Olympic team, fire toss, teen challenge, staff training. These are just seven out of 700 ways we make friends at camp. We're thrown together in unique ways and from it, we form tighter bonds with those we came with and new bonds with others we've just met. We make fast friends because we must, and lasting friends because we choose to. Whether for a week or a lifetime, camp is filled with opportunities to connect and those connections are what make the ride all that much more amazing.
4. The Gift of Self-Esteem.
This might be the biggest gift I ever received from camp: the chance to try out being me, being brave enough to really be me, and finding acceptance. We give of ourselves in spades while at camp, everything from our energy to our voices to our hearts...we give it all. And in return, camp gives us a safe environment to grow and flourish.
5. The Gift of Music.
Can you still hear it? Music fills the days and the nights at camp. We sing rounds in the chapel and rock out at PJ sing and look to the water during Witchy Ti Ti. We sing before meals and after. We sing at the talent show, on the deck during down time, and at every campfire. Those of us who can't sing a lick are encouraged to join in. Those who can, do so loudly and move us to tears. Some even write their own beautiful music. We sing as a form of expression, in silliness and reverence and together, as a community. The songs burrow into our souls and we take them with us. We sing the songs of camp in the backseat of the car all the way home and at our camp weddings and in the middle of the night to our babies. Somehow the camp soundtrack finds it way into the playlist of our lives.
6. The Gift of Jake.
Where would we all be without a camp leader like Jeff Jacobs? (Or his wife JJ!?) Or Ron Goodyke, Steve Kadu, our favorite staff members, or any of the hundreds of people who have given their time, money, and hearts to Camp Henry year after year? Those who build and sustain camp are our treasured gifts.
7. The Gift of Emotions.
Camp is a place of feeling. A place where everything somehow feels more real, raw, joyous, and sometimes sad. We gather on the shores and wear our hearts on our sleeves in ways we don't elsewhere. We hug actively. We laugh easily. We get fiercely competitive on the field and overly dramatic on the Idema stage. We fall in love (see #9 below). We feel every star in the night sky in our core and every relationship deep in our bones. Sometimes we sob when it's over and we frequently sleep for days to recover. There is risk in allowing yourself such emotional openness but there is even greater reward. Such feeling - learning how to feel, feeling our way forward, putting our feelings out there - is crucial in life and camp gives us a place to hone our skills.
8. The Gift of Rest Period.
Period. We may fight it but what relief it is to pause and restore. How important to all the other gifts. (I'm talking to you future campers, embrace it!)
9. The Gift of Crushes.
The boy in your brother cabin. The waterfront director with the whistle. The girls counselor you hope you're paired with. (I'm sure your own are coming to mind at this very moment.) Camp is a place for crushes, and I mean more than just romantic. It's filled with friend crushes and crushes on athletic ability and crushes on someone else's amazing costume. We crush on counselors because they are role models who show us fearlessness and vibrancy, and other campers because they share our love of books or share nothing at all. It's a place where we learn to look up to people and to really look at people. Camp crushes give us hope.
10. Gift of shared experiences.
The real magic of camp might just lie in the fact that we've all been there. We've experienced it together. We have stood at the flagpole and collectively made someone eat from the gut bucket. We have checked in and bunked up. We've become women and warriors. We've gone through camp together, so we remain together. We're all Camp Henry people and better off for it.
11. The Regift.
Camp is not so different from the Giving Tree. It shakes with joy when we're around and gives just what we need, at every age we need it: a place to play, love, adventure, plant roots, and sit in peace. Camp gives back and it does so over and over again, when we're physically present and even still when we've grown up and moved away.
12. The Gift of Immortality.
Because we're all going to live forever on the shores of Lake Kimball.
As time goes on, I think back on the multitude of gifts Camp Henry has bestowed (these twelve and so many more) and I feel compelled to also give back.
I dole out gifts in many ways. I like more camp photos on Instagram. I reach out to camp friends more frequently. I can't wait to send my kids to camp. And I support camp scholarships and initiatives like the improved dining hall because everyone deserves the gift of camp. Everyone deserves to sit squashed together on a bench, elbow to elbow, eating Helen's food, having the time of their lives and awaiting the next laking.
Here's to Christmas at camp and to camp at Christmas. I hope you look fondly on your camp gifts and have a very merry season!
About the Author:
Amy is the owner of VanHaren Creative, a social media marketing company. Her first visit to Camp Henry was for mini-camp at age 7. She stayed in the Ottawa cabin and had so much fun she came back for an entire week that summer and kept coming back every year until she turned 17 when she went on work as Camp Henry staffer for 10 summers. Stay tuned for more posts from Amy and keep up with her on Facebook and Instagram.
Amy VanHaren is a regular alumni blog poster for Camp Henry. To see her previous posts, click here.