A decade ago, an awkward, uncertain bus ride took me somewhere I never expected to go. My physical destination was camp, where a throng of excited kids would gather for outdoor adventure and adolescent experiences. But what I hadn’t anticipated was the other ride I was about to take — the journey.

First, it was Camp Wing, a coed camp with lots of campers. I spent two summers there. Then, I was one of the first 12 campers at the West End House Girls Camp (WEHGC) in Parsonsfield, Maine. Many of the girls there had never been to camp. I didn’t know anyone besides Lola, a counselor who had been my gym teacher when I first started school.

The bus bumped along filled with a dense, uneasy silence. We pulled up to a large, plantation-style house. I was instantly intrigued. The tall windows beamed, and a lush band of trees stood tall and thick around the house. The place was enchanting, more like a storybook castle than a camp. And I wondered what it would be like in the all-girls atmosphere. Would I fit in, make friends, and find the curriculum fun and rewarding? Or would I feel clumsy, lonely, and out of my element?

It didn’t take long for my nerves to settle. Cozy campfires, evening programs, counselor hunts, and color wars kept me busy bonding with my campmates and mastering new skills. It’s impossible to be homesick when you feel as if you are home.

We hiked through the woods every day and then swam in cool water. I was in the beginner swimmers group — the green group. But with practice, I moved up to the red group — the highest level. We did arts and crafts and team-building activities designed to help us get to know each other and work as a group.

Every time I returned to camp over the last six years I discovered something new: expanded swimming space with bigger docks and more water sports to play, a new recreation center, an archery field, a soccer field, and basketball and volleyball courts. We grew out of the big house into four new cabins, each housing 12 girls. In 2013, a new director came along. Like other staff at WEHGC, Laurie has become more than a positive influence — she’s become a member of the family.

After many spectacular summers, it looked as if my camp days were over. I needed to earn money and would have to find a job. I told Laurie, and she offered a solution: “How about taking a paid position as junior counselor?”

I accepted the role with appreciation and enthusiasm, and spent another summer at camp — my seasonal home. This summer I am a senior counselor, and I hope to take lifeguard training.

More than shooting bows and arrows, or learning to breaststroke in the water, camp has taught me how to interact with people of all ages, ethnicities, and backgrounds. I have come to understand people’s strengths and boundaries. I talk with counselors when I need advice. Like me, some counselors grew up in the inner city; they’ve been in high school; they know what it means to prepare for college. My experiences have been important to my work as a peer leader at the West End House during the school year.

I want to share the West End House Girls Camp with others. When you love something, it’s easy to talk about it. Every summer I’ve spent at camp has helped me become more aware, more evolved, and more grateful for the positive experiences I’ve had. Yes, camp is a place for sunshine, crafts, crackling fires, and cookouts. But for me, camp has been a safe haven for learning and a journey of self-discovery and growth.

Photo courtesy of West End House Girls Camp, Parsonsfield, Maine.

Kelly Cryts started off as a shy camper at the West End House Girls Camp in 2011. Entering camp at a young age, Kelly had the opportunity to grow and step into various roles at camp such as camper, CIT, junior counselor and, this year, senior counselor. Kelly credits WEHGC as the impetus of her transformation from a shy young girl to a leader with deep experience and passion. During the school year she works as a peer leader for the West End House Boys and Girls Club and focuses on spreading her camp passion to new potential campers. In her free time she enjoys playing the flute and piano, as well as running for her high school track team. Learn more about WEHGC at wehgirlscamp.org.