Camp Legends: For Love of Camp and Country

September 2018

A Personal Perspective by Jay Jacobs

My world is like a collision of two parallel universes — my camp world and my political world. It’s like people see me as Superman and Clark Kent at the same time. Superman — not because I’m in any way “super,” but because in my camp life I run around daily doing ridiculous things always dressed in the exact same outfit. And Clark Kent, because in my political life I walk around like the stiff that most people think I am. But I thought now would be a good opportunity to debunk that image with a story about what I really do at camp.

“Mousy”

At my wife Mindy’s suggestion, I have kept a journal for the past 30 summers. It’s more than 2,000 pages long now. Quite a lot of juicy stuff in there. (In fact, one day I plan on publishing that journal, and it will make me rich — it will close my camp, but I’ll be rich.) I came across a story from 1985 that I think does the trick of explaining what I really do at camp.

At camp, my favorite thing is Raid Patrol and I use the latest military-grade night vision equipment. I take pride in and am known for stopping raids — when campers leave their bunk after curfew. I’m like the Sheriff of Nottingham at night.

We had a very good-looking, athletic, 16-year-old camper named Scott who came to us when he was eight. He was a very cute kid back then who looked a bit like a little mouse, so they gave him the nickname “Mousy,” which he loved and kept. One morning I woke up to find a note taped to the front door of my cabin. It read: “The mouse was out while the cat was asleep.” Because I didn’t catch him, there was nothing I could do about it. Everyone enjoyed that Mousy got the best of me. The next three nights I was up from 2:00 a.m. to 5:00 a.m. doing Raid Patrol. Nothing. On the fourth night I slept, and in the morning there was another note taped to my door: “The cat must be sleepy, but the mouse was out of his house.”

Well this “cat and mouse” game went on for more than two weeks. Until one evening — and I will admit that I used a paid informant — I got a tip that Mousy would be out visiting his girlfriend, Carrie, that very night.

So, after curfew, with the girls’ head counselor and the on-duty counselor (OD), we entered the teen girls’ bunk and went to Carrie, who was in bed talking with her friends. I said to her; “I hear you’re not feeling well.”

She said, “I’m perfectly fine.”

I felt her forehead with my hand. “No, you’re burning up,” I told her. “You have to go to the health center right away. I had the OD escort her out of the bunk. With the girls’ head counselor positioned behind the door, our trap was set. I promptly got into Rachel’s bed, pulled the covers up over my head, and went to sleep. At about 2:00 in the morning, I felt someone sit on the bed and begin shaking my shoulder. Slowly, I turned to face him and pulled the covers down. I simply said, “Meow.”

Now, that’s a funny story, and it always gets the same reaction in the camp community. But do a paradigm shift to my political life. Can’t you see the headline in the New York Post? “Democratic Chairman Crawls into 16-year-old Girl’s Bed!” Not quite the same reaction. Now you can see the complexity of my situation and the delicate balancing act I have to engage in.

This will be my 57th consecutive summer at sleep-away camp and my 52nd summer at Timber Lake Camp. I was the youngest director in camping when I bought the camp in 1980. It was well before there was an award called “The Legends of Camping;” but, believe me, not before there were legends — true legends — in this profession. And, through the years, I’ve had the privilege of getting to know some of those real legends — and I’ve learned a lot from them.

When I think of legends, Morry Stein and Ben Applebaum come to mind.

Morry had a heart of gold and uncompromising integrity. Ben was an innovator who transformed and shaped the camp business. He was as charitable as he was smart. Ben said the same thing my father first taught me: “Give as much as you can. Give until it hurts. And then give some more.” Both Morry and Ben died way too soon, and I owe them a tremendous debt for the wisdom they imparted in the time that we had.

While the opportunity to learn from these legends has been lost to time, if you want a good taste of what it is they had to offer, spend time with the likes of Doug Pierce or Scott Ralls, Dawn Ewing, Jeff Ackerman, Skip Vichness, Dave and Shelly Tager, and Morry’s son, Tony Stein. Bob Ditter, though not a camp director, has made invaluable contributions to this profession and is a true legend of camp.

Camp and Country

Aside from my family, I have two passions in life: camp and country. Camp has shaped my life and the two, together, have led me to the Summer Camp Opportunities Promote Education (SCOPE) organization, which provides summers at camp for inner city kids who stay in school and finish their education. In that context, I would like to tell you why I feel that SCOPE is so impactful and so important.

I was never the ideal camper. During my first few years, I was very homesick. I was the unathletic, fat kid in the bunk. Not the best position to be in back in the days when the term “bullying” actually had a good amount of physical pain associated with it.

When I was nine years old, on the last day of camp, I found out that my mother had left us to start a new life. Life has its bumps. After that, camp became as much my home as anywhere else. That’s when I began counting down the days until the start of camp — something I still do to this day.

Camp is more than just a recreational getaway. I believe that I am a better person because my father chose to, and could afford to, send me to camp. Camp teaches kids the skills of making and keeping friends; it builds their self-esteem, self-confidence, and resilience. Camp teaches good values and builds character. These social skills are the foundation for creating a truly happy and successful life.

I tell the kids at camp that “everyone is an important part of everyone else’s summer.” It’s like players on a team. I believe that is so true of camp. Think about it. The dynamic of camp is all about the shared experience. And that’s exactly the way I see life. It’s the way I have always seen it. Everyone is enriched or impacted, in one way or another, by this common journey we’re all on. It is why we care so much when we see bad things happen to people we’ve never even met — don’t even know. It doesn’t matter. We still feel it.

As someone who loves history and politics, for me, it is as much about the American experience as it is about the human experience. I see America not so much as a place on a map defined by lines and borders, but as an idea — a great idea whose reality is not yet perfected. It is the idea of freedom and justice that has given us that great American Dream of hope and opportunity that attracts millions to our shores. It commits us to the shared belief that the benefits of America belong not just to some of us, but truly to all of us — no matter where we are from, when we got here, what we look like, what we believe, who we love, or where in this great country we live. And each of us shares in that heritage and in the commonality of that journey — the American experience.

SCOPE

So, it wasn’t much of a leap when, in the late 1980s, with inner city kids falling victim to gang and drug violence, and getting shot and killed just standing on the street corner, that I came to the realization that camp should be their home too. Nearly half of the kids in these communities were dropping out of school. Less than 40 percent went off to college, and only 11 percent actually earned a bachelor’s degree. Their parents had no place to turn. Society was failing these kids who had no chance at the American Dream, and our country was short-changing its own potential.

In 1991, with nonprofit camping in decline because of too little money while beds were sitting empty, it just seemed like the perfect coming together of two problems to create a solution. So, through the American Camp Association, with a group of great camp directors like Doug Pierce, and some noncamp leaders like my close friend Sandy Lavitt, we decided to create SCOPE.

FINALE

When I think about what we’re doing at SCOPE, I think of a scene from a movie that I saw in the late 1970s. Some of you might remember it: Oh, God! It was about God (played by George Burns) reaching out to a simple man (John Denver) and enlisting him to give the world his message of hope. That movie represents the full extent of my religious education. At the end of the movie, when John Denver is questioning God about whether what they did had any benefit at all, God replies by asking him, “Are there enough apples in the world?” And then he says, “I gave one good man — Johnny Appleseed — a bag of seeds and told him to go plant. You never know which seeds will grow, but one day you turn around and look back and what do you see? A world full of magnificent, beautiful apples.” That’s what we’re doing with SCOPE — we’re planting seeds.

At a time when government has taken a step back in the fight for economic and social justice, it is up to us, the people, to step forward — as we always have — and to continue the work of lifting up those who have the least among us. We do that by following the words of Ben Applebaum: “Give as much as you can. Give until it hurts. And then give some more.”

These are dark times in our country’s history and dark times for many in our country. For too many, it’s been dark for too long. Martin Luther King, Jr. said that “only in moments of darkness can we see the stars.” Well, through SCOPE, and other caring camp organizations, we not only can get to see tomorrow’s stars, but we can create them. If we give a child self-confidence, a nurturing environment, the embrace of great friends, hope, and the capacity to dream — and dream big — we’ll be planting seeds. Then, together, we can and will change a life, change this great country of ours, and change the world.

Note: This article is adapted from Jay Jacob’s speech on April 22, 2018, after receiving the ACA Legends of Camping Award.

Photo courtesy of Green River Preserve in Cedar Mountain, North Carolina.

Jay Jacobs arrived at Timber Lake in 1967 as a camper, and worked his way up from counselor to head counselor before becoming owner/director in 1980. Highly regarded in the camp industry for his innovative ideas, he was appointed by the Governor to serve on the New York State Camp Health and Safety Council. Jay has served as president of ACA, New York, is past president of the New York State Camp Directors’ Association, and is the founder of SCOPE — Summer Camp Opportunities Promote Education, a program that provides camping experiences for inner city kids at a host of nonprofit camps. In 2001, Jay founded and currently serves as chair of Heal the Children, an ACA program that provides free camperships to the children of victims of the 9/11 tragedy.