I sent my cohort of Minnesota camp directors a photo of camp directors and families from the 1950s, taken during the annual gathering after the summer sessions to share what worked, what didn’t, and collective concerns as they looked forward to the next season and beyond. “What would they do?” I asked. We were discussing our concerns about how (or if) we could run our traditional summer camp program in light of COVID-19.

For a number of us, the individuals in the photo weren’t just camp directors; they were our parents or grandparents. For me, they were legends — several of whom I had the privilege to meet — though I knew most only by reputation and legacy. The photo was most likely taken by Theodore “Cap” Cavins, Camp Mishawaka director from 1941 to 1975. Collectively, even as this photo was taken, they probably had more than a century of experience in the camp field and included two future presidents of the American Camp Association. Many of them steered their camps through the uncertainty of World War II and polio.

I received a response to my question from Marie Schmid of Camp Foley and daughter of Bob Schmid, who was in the photo. She said, “I believe they would persevere, keeping in mind the well-being of the campers and staff and the mission that they dedicated their lives to.” 

As we individually concluded that we should not proceed, I believe we followed this ideal. That is not to say that those who elected to run this summer were guided by anything but the same ideals. As Shari Sigoloff, owner and director of Camp Thunderbird and granddaughter of founder Speedy Aultman, said in a recent call, “We are all in the same storm, just in different boats.”

I have, at times, recoiled when others have encouraged me to look for the silver lining in all this — the quarantine, the disappointments and disruptions, the upheaval of our way of life, not to mention the source of our livelihood. It is far easier said than done to find this silver lining, but one wonderful thing that has come from this is redeveloping this kinship, sharing (honestly) not just our concerns, but our feelings and the emotional rollercoaster we have been riding. Never have I felt more united in purpose. This mission — preserving and protecting our camps for future generations of campers — is worth fighting for. Yes, same storm, different boats — but collectively camping is also a “big tent,” and there is room for all of us to shelter these kids.

We’ve all heard the same refrain from our camp parents. They unanimously agree that, as we move forward, kids will need summer camp more than ever — an experience that gets them outside, builds connection, and allows them to develop their strengths and resiliencies. What the directors in the photo knew, and we all know, is that this has been true all along. Kids have always needed summer camp now more than ever. 

We look forward to the challenge, honoring not only the legacy of the past, but the promise of the future — even if we don’t do it in heals, clutch purses, and dress slacks!

Photo: (from left to right) Speedy Aultman (Camp Thunderbird), Fred Rogers (Camp Lincoln/Camp Lake Hubert), Bob Schmid (Camp Foley), Unknown couple, Marlys Roger (Camp Lincoln/Camp Lake Hubert), Nina Cavins (Camp Mishawaka), and Honey Aultman, with Suzy and Sally Aultman (Camp Thunderbird)

Steve Purdum is owner and director of Camp Mishawaka in Grand Rapids, Minnesota.

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