We called the summer of 2022 “The War” at Camp Footprint. It was rough from start to finish.

The check-in process that usually lasted about two hours took eight. The Covid testing and the parent reassurance were beyond measure. The staff had gone through a great deal throughout the pandemic, and now, any time one of our campers or staff had the mildest of cold symptoms, we went through a time-consuming process of isolation and emotion management. This led to the inevitable call to the parents to come get their kiddo — and that led to an inescapable list of parental complaints because we wouldn’t keep their sick child in camp.

By the end of the first two days of camp, we were exhausted. The director of the camp that we rented from commiserated with me and assured me that it was just reentry blues and would pass next summer — which turned out to be true — but we still had the week to survive.

Still, Covid’s largest, lingering impact on camp seemed to be the heightened mental health challenges we were seeing among our campers. So many were struggling with anxiety and depression, and even heightened sensitivity to the normal challenges that came from the camp experience. This led us to upping our mental health game in 2023, but we were ill-prepared for 2022. 

Three different campers collapsed to the ground during anxiety attacks that had us waiting for ambulances at the camp entrance. 

Multiple times throughout the week I was on my way to deal with an emergency and got a radio call reporting a different emergency. My ability to remain a calm and collected leader was under direct attack.

The crown jewel of the week was the final night of camp, with its special dinner, slideshow from the week, awards ceremony, and all the good hugs and heartfelt goodbyes. I got up in front of the camp to give my closing speech and started by saying, “You kids have been through so much over the past two years, and I just want to say . . . ,” at which point a deafening alarm sounded and the blinking emergency lights shone brightly. (We found out later that it was an electrical short in the alarm system.) We hustled into evacuation mode and got all of the campers and staff outside and in cabin lines within six minutes. I was feeling pretty good about our reaction time when two kids collapsed at the same time from anxiety. Running back and forth between them and managing our emergency response plan, I realized The War was not going to let us go without a fight.

We got all the cabins back to their bunks and then went for our nightly team meeting. We all sat in a circle waiting for Hannah, who was the last to arrive. In she walked, towel over her shoulder, looking like she had just run two marathons, tears pouring down her cheeks. We all stood up with a collective, “What happened?” Without a word, Hannah took the towel off of her shoulder and held it up for us all to see the large hole that was burned in the middle of it. She had spread the towel out on the hood of her golf cart to dry, and the heat of the engine had incinerated much of the terry cloth material.

It was the straw that broke the camel’s back. The simple mistake brought Hannah to tears, and within seconds, it brought our entire group to robust laughter. We laughed for five minutes straight. Catharsis! And a beautiful reminder that even in the worst of scenarios, you have to laugh. Be it pandemic anxiety, faulty wiring, or something else, you must retain your sense of humor to make it through a session of camp. Otherwise, you are going to have some sad participants with some barely useful towels.

Jonah Berger, MS Ed, is the national youth programs manager for the Charcot-Marie-Tooth Association (CMTA) and director of CMTA Camp Footprint, serving youth with CMT. He is the author of He Walks Like a Cowboy and The Strangest of Places and a national motivational speaker, father, husband, drummer, and community creator. Jonah grew up in camp and also met his wife at camp.