When I was 9, I was completely and forever changed by my experience at summer camp. I went to a hippie Unitarian camp in Western Massachusetts called Rowe Young People’s Camp and it was the first time I’d been a part of a community that just celebrated me, right away, for being me. I didn’t have to run fast or get a good grade or win at something, I was just simply invited to be a part of it because I was there. I remember, vaguely, feeling anxious on arrival with my parents and then, in sort of a blink of an eye, I was in the orchard playing frisbee with a guy with a wild haircut and a girl with a nose ring (the first I’d ever seen!) and I was a part of it all.
I remember sitting with the whole camp as the camp director shared a story with us at the beginning of the day, and sitting at a campfire singing a song in harmony with everyone at the end. I remember making so much silly noise in the dining hall during meals and getting a splinter during the dance while doing a handspring. I had saved the handspring up all week thinking I might need it to gain friends and I got to the last night and, weirdly, had managed to make friends without it… so I had walked over to an empty spot on the floor and just did it for my own enjoyment and, sure enough, got a nasty splinter under my finger. And then I had the rare joy of having my friends come check on me while the nurse was pulling it out. I’ll never forget the mixture of pain in my hand and joy in my heart that night.
At camp it didn’t matter what age you were (we were all 8–11) or what school you went to (we were mostly from the northeast). None of us had watches because we didn’t know what time anything was happening anyways, or phones because, well, the technology didn’t exist. And though some of us were interested in romance, a little, because our counselors obviously were, it wasn’t really a focus for anyone in particular. We were more interested in playing cards or finding salamanders or climbing trees or giggling and telling stories and making fart noises until we fell asleep.
I knew from the moment I became a camper that I wanted to be a counselor. And I knew the day I became a counselor that I wanted to run camp. And I knew the day I started co-directing camp for young people that I wanted to make it happen for everyone. It has meant so much to me to have this community where I feel welcome and I can trace my desire for community and connection to the root of almost every decision I make.
I talked and talked about making a camp for grown ups but actually making things can be harder than talking about making things. I helped start a grandparents/grandkids camp at Rowe, a family camp at Rancho La Puerta, and a mother’s day weekend at Esalen, but I still hadn’t taken real steps on straight up grown-ups camp. Then in February of 2014 I got a message from a woman on OkCupid telling me that, based on my profile, I should reach out to Camp Grounded and apply to be a counselor! So I checked it out and was impressed and intrigued by what they stood for and, instead of starting my own camp that summer, I applied.
I hadn’t applied to be a camp counselor since I was 15. And I was very lucky to find my way onto the team. On the first day I went to volunteer at a corporate event we were throwing for Yelp, I felt the same tingles I felt at Rowe. I felt that these folks might be my friends, that they might be my community! And I threw myself into Camp Grounded fully because it looked a lot like my dream though it was someone else’s.
I sprained my ankle on the last night of the third session of my first summer working at Grounded. And then I had the rare joy of having my friends come find me in the dark and carry me to the nurse. I’ll never forget the mixture of pain in my ankle and joy in my heart that night as I watched my friends dance from a chair on the side of the room, my foot up and wrapped in ice.
I worked at Camp Grounded for 14 sessions and made lifelong friends. I found a camp community that I missed dearly for years of my adulthood and got to do the coolest job in the world with some of the wonderfully weirdest, bestest people in the world. And I was deeply inspired and influenced by the leaders of that camp including the recently deceased Levi Felix and by the community that he brought together.
Now I’m starting something new, across the country, and I’m challenged to say simply what exactly it is. Camp Wonderful can’t be summed up in a clear title and byline. I get the sense that’s what people want, because we’ve been trained to listen for the simple sale. So do I grab onto “be a kid again!” or do I go more for “immerse yourself in nature…?” The “personal growth” or the “you’re already enough!” Will people want the mindfulness aspect or the play aspect? The fun or the reflectiveness? The unbounded joy or the unplugged quiet? I can’t seem to settle on a simple invitation because camp means so much to me, and so many things to so many people.
Camp Wonderful is Summer Camp — first and foremost (even though sometimes it may not happen in the summer). We add the “for grown-ups” part because grown-ups going to summer camp isn’t necessarily the first thing that comes to mind for most people when they hear “summer camp”. Though that’s changing more and more. I use the term grown-ups instead of adults because my friend Smalls says it’s what children tend to call us… and I like that idea.
Something that’s so wonderful about the way Camp Wonderful is coming together is that everyone is coming for their own reasons. We’re created a space where it’s possible to come and have the camp experience you want. There will be a lot of different ways to play: a creative, expressive activity like songwriting with a professional singer-songwriter, a quiet relaxing experience like a guided meditation and restorative yoga session, a competitive and athletic option like volleyball or ultimate frisbee, or a crafty project like gluing a bunch of popsicle sticks and macaroni together. We’re bringing a flying trapeze and building a trampoline in the woods, but most importantly, we’re co-creating a culture where we’ll practice self acceptance and invite opportunities for growth and celebration.
I remember this scene in The West Wing where President Bartlett is in a televised debate and he goes to town on his opponent after his opponent gives a perfect, canned, ten word answer about taxes. He says something like, “Ten word answers can kill you in political campaigns; they’re the tip of the sword… but let me ask you this: what are the next ten words, how are we gonna do it? Give me the ten words after that and I’ll drop out of the race right now…” I think about this a lot as I simplify the messaging about Camp Wonderful.
I know what I want Camp Wonderful to feel like for me, and I have hopes for how it will feel for campers. I believe camp will be successful if the community that comes together in August finds themselves yearning to come together again. It’s not about how many people show up, who tries a s’more for the first time or takes a swing on the trapeze, or learns to swim or build a fire — I’ve seen all these things happen, by the way, and they’re all amazing — and this is something more. It’s not easy to put into ten words, or twenty, or even one giant missive… it’ll probably take me many.
I think Camp Wonderful will be Summer Camp insofar as it’s going to be different for everyone and different every summer. It’s going to be different for everybody because everybody is different. We’re going to make messes together and clean up together. We’re going to invent new games and play favorite games and invent songs and sing favorite songs and bring all sorts of newness and ritual and tradition together. We’re going to figure out what Camp Wonderful is together.
I’m so curious to see what it is. I’m so curious to find my own balance between how much I want people to love it, and how much I’m able to let go and allow it to take shape. Being in service of the community of grown-ups that show up means listening to their needs, and allowing for the community to meet those needs in safe, loving, and supportive ways. For me, coming to camp has always been about meeting my need for belonging. My goal is to provide a sense of safety and belonging for everyone that comes to camp.
In future posts, I’ll keep thinking about how that works. Because I don’t want to pretend I have it all figured out or that I’m doing it alone. I don’t and I’m not. I am part of an amazing team of folks that all found Camp Wonderful in different ways and are all working on it for different reasons. And I can’t wait to play with everyone in the woods and wake up smelling like campfire.
I hope you’ll join me at Camp Wonderful this August 25–27th in the Berkshires of Tolland, MA.
Thanks for reading,
Camp Name: Benefitz