Opening Day Blues

by David Fleischner

The bus arrives. The campers race off to their cabins. Except Sam. The camp director had warned during orientation that his parents thought he might have a “few separation issues.” Standing just off to the side of the bus, he sobs — loudly — chest heaving convulsively. He refuses to budge. Gathering his breath between another body-wrenching gasp, he shouts, “I want to go home! I want to call my parents.”

You — the counselor — approach — fresh with the optimism and energy of staff orientation and opening day. You say all the right things — that you were once homesick, that there are a lot of first-year campers, that there are so many fun things you’ll do this afternoon. “Can I help with your stuff? What do you like to do?”

Then you are struck with an inspiration. You send a nearby counselor to get Brian, a second-year camper who was very homesick last summer. Brian was one of your success stories. He’ll be able to find just the right words to get Sam through this crisis and into the flow of camp life.

A few minutes later Brian approaches, dressed in the camp uniform and looking quite determined. He slowly and seriously appraises Sam, dressed in blue jeans and a Yankees’ T-shirt — clearly clothes of the outside world.

“Brian, I thought you might be able to help Sam out.”

“Whatever they tell you,” Brian turns to Sam and speaks slowly, “don’t let them get you to the bunk and into uniform. Then you’re here for the whole summer.”

Opening Day Blues

The first day of camp — an extreme emotional roller coaster ride at the very least — is a potential time of crisis for the homesick camper. If we can just get Sam through the first day, we know he can make the summer.

The veteran counselor at residential camp may understand that almost all homesick campers will have a successful summer, but just try telling that to the crying camper who refuses to meet his bunkmates — let alone go to the first activity. Worse, no amount of staff training ever seems to anticipate fully the range of challenges faced on opening day. What’s a counselor to do?

Getting Ready for the Moment of Truth

The director warned that Sam might have “a few separation issues,” so how did you prepare? The following tips may prove helpful:

  • Assign a staff member to sit next to the potentially homesick camper on the bus. And, maybe bring along a deck of cards or some other game to keep busy. (Maintaining a sustained conversation with an anxious camper can prove a challenge.)
  • Encourage precamp e-mails and phone calls to welcome first-year campers. Some camps assign big sisters/brothers prior to Opening Day.
  • Contact the child during staff orientation and talk about the exciting things to come: how friendly the bunkmates will be and how you’ll be there to help him through the first few days.
  • Acknowledge that it’s very normal for a first-year camper to be anxious. Empower the camper by asking what he thinks will be helpful at the very moment of arrival. Go shoot baskets? Swim? A tour?
  • Make a contract: This is what we are going to do the second you get to camp. By empowering the camper and getting a verbal confirmation, you will find it easier to get them moving and into the flow of camp life.

Good luck, if these “negotiations” are left to the actual time of arrival, when the camper is in distress.

The Eagle Has Landed

The bus arrives or the parent drops the camper off . . . .

David, now a twelve-year-old and a veteran camper, recalls (with some humor) that catastrophic first hour three summers ago, when he screamed and cursed at his parents for leaving him at camp. Even counselors’ nerves were tested that afternoon, and other parents, each experiencing a measure of their own Opening Day stress, found anxiety levels edging up a notch or two (or three).

“One thing that helped me was bringing me to visit older campers in their bunks,” said David. The older campers welcomed David and shared personal memories of their first days many years ago. In their unpacking, they also showed a glimpse of a teenage world to which most ten-year-old boys aspire. When companies market products to children, they often will show children and teens several years older than the actual target audience. These older campers then recognized and said hello to David (at the waterfront, walking to meals, etc.) during the first crucial days of camp — building his self-confidence and feelings of importance.

Randi, a counselor and former homesick eight-year-old, engages her campers in decorating the bunk. She also has returning campers give tours to first-year campers.

Don’t Overanalyze

David remembers one counselor saying, “You’ll see your parents in just a few weeks.” Rather than reassuring him, the future seemed to stretch out even longer than before. Brett, another of David’s counselors and a key support during those first few hours, concurs: “Your natural instinct is to tell him that he’s going to have a great time and that he won’t miss his parents. Don’t even go there. I try to totally change the subject. Ask him what he’s into.”

“A long discussion right away on why they’re homesick,” says Randi, “is a bad idea.”

Connections

As a thirteen-year-old, Jennifer was very anxious about her first sleepaway camp experience (a first extended separation from home). “People who kept saying it would get better didn’t really help.” Neither did her older sister, a longtime camper, when she told Jennifer, “you can’t do this [be homesick], you’re thirteen!”

But on the bus ride to camp, Maria, a first-year counselor from Australia, connected with Jennifer. “She told me how she was new and wondered whether the kids would like her. She talked about all her plans for the nature program.”

Randi remembers when she was an overwhelmed homesick camper and her counselor, Sabrina, showed her several crystals she had brought to camp. “She told me one was a ‘healing crystal’ and she let me sleep with it under my pillow.”

David tells how that first afternoon, “Jon [a counselor] took me out to have a catch with him and another camper, but not right in the middle of campus.” This got David busy and built a first connection with a bunkmate — but not in a spot (the middle of campus) that would make him feel overly self-conscious.

Free Time — Public Enemy #1

Public Enemy #1 for the homesick camper on opening day is free time. Make certain that the camper is engaged during all those in-between moments — no matter how brief — before and after meals — walking to and from activities — just before bed. This can be exhausting for a single counselor, so make certain that as many staff as possible are on task and communicating with each other. During that first dinner, tell the campers, “Evening activity doesn’t start for thirty minutes so we’re going fishing.” At the end of evening activity, say, “We have forty-five minutes until bedtime — let’s play cards on the porch of the bunk.” Make specific suggestions of things to do, and try to include a few other campers and a second counselor.

The First Night

As a counselor — when envisioning the first night of camp — think college finals. This is not the time to be thinking about a night out. Your campers need you — maybe desperately. Think how you would want a counselor to be there for your child in some future time to come.

So far, you have been doing all the right things, but now it’s time to put away the deck of cards and turn out the bunk lights. Obviously, a great moment for a story (that’s not scary or about parents). Randi likes to tell funny stories about camp and to talk about exciting activities to come.

But now that you’ve finished and the group has settled down, there’s still one camper you hear sobbing in his bed. If it’s clear that this camper is not going to fall asleep soon, what’s a counselor to do?
Jennifer fell asleep the first night with her counselor Rachel reading to her. “I had brought all these books to camp for summer reading. I fell asleep on page three of one, and she told me in the morning she kept reading to page twenty-five because she thought I was still awake,” said Jennifer.

On a first night, sometimes a counselor needs a little creativity. A younger camper unable to sleep might prove a good “assistant” head O.D., helping make the rounds of the older campers’ cabins. Choose an activity that might push the camper to the point of sleep. Surprisingly, this may take less time than anticipated once they are active and doing something special — and not just lying in bed and thinking about home. Talk with a supervisory staff member about the parameters of rule bending at bedtime the first few nights of camp.

Calling the Cavalry

The longest day is almost over. You’re already feeling burned out and ready to scream at your homesick camper, “Come on and pull yourself together!” If not administering a kick in the pants, you’re prepared to give in to any and all requests ranging from phone calls to skipping activities to going home on visiting day. Now is a good time to seek advice and support. Supervisory staff respect and appreciate counselors who know when to get help. And don’t make promises that you might not keep or are not yours to make, but rather the director’s in discussion with the parents. It is okay to tell the camper, “I can’t make that promise to you.”

The Big Picture

There may come a moment in the first day, as you vainly attempt to comfort a sobbing, hysterical camper, when you think, “Why am I doing this? Maybe the camper doesn’t belong at camp?” Though there are campers who never overcome homesickness at a residential camp, the vast majority of campers do — and their achievement becomes a powerful and memorable success in their lives. You need to keep the faraway finish line as a vision in your mind as you struggle through the first few turns on what may prove either a sprint or a marathon. By working as a counselor, you need to understand and accept that there is value to what you are doing that goes beyond just playing and having fun.

“Whatever they tell you, don’t let them get you to the bunk and into uniform. Then you’re here for the whole summer.”

Brian’s warning to Sam did actually prove true — as Sam did change into his uniform and successfully finish the summer. The quote has also provided an anecdote for staff training in the following years. What was learned? Sometimes even the best-intentioned strategies can go astray.

So as the campers arrive, keep a sense of humor, feel good about the importance of what you are doing, remain flexible, and tap into the camp support system. There are children out there who will remember your devotion their entire lives.

David Fleischner is the director of Camp Scatico in Elizaville, New York. He is the past president of the New York State Camp Directors Association and a former board member of the New York Section of the American Camping Association. He has written articles on homesickness and first-year camp counselors for The New York Times.

Originally published in the 2003 May/June issue of Camping Magazine.