Camp People

M. Deborah Bialeschki, PhD
July 2016
Camp Gray

I think on a Facebook post someone asked:

“How do YOU define ‘camp people’? We use that term all the time, and one of my parents asked me. I know what I mean, but how do the rest of you define a camp person?

So here is MY definition of camp people. It is not a short definition, but it is what I think of when someone says “camp people,” and it is why I think we need them so much.

We need camp people. We need someone willing to get up at zero dark thirty to crack 14 dozen eggs for breakfast when the head cook calls in sick, to work all day in and out of the office, then help in the kitchen that night because the cook is still sick, lead songs at the evening campfire, do a quick check-in with the head counselors at 10 pm, and then answer a few more e-mails to concerned parents before calling it quits at midnight.

We need camp people strong enough to load and unload luggage (even in the rain) yet gentle enough to wipe a tear off the cheek of the homesick child who is having a bad day — somebody to talk with the UPS delivery woman, plunge a toilet, resolve a conflict, or with a laugh and a “no big deal” grab a mop when the table hopper spills a whole pitcher of milk. We need someone who can listen patiently to an anxious parent on the phone for the third time this week who wants to know why he only saw two pictures of his child on the website — and it didn’t look like the child was smiling.

Yes, we need camp people. We need people who can fix almost anything with duct tape and zip ties, give a talk about the power of the camp experience to Rotary, juggle a budget that is never enough, and train a staff of other camp people who will carry out life-changing experiences daily. We need someone who during camp puts in a 40-hour week by Tuesday — and then puts in the remaining hours to complete the “camp week.”

We absolutely need camp people. We need them to share the magic of the night sky, a visit by a raccoon, a cool breeze on a hot day, and a rain hike. We need someone who sings loudly (even if not in tune), acts goofy, dresses up for a skit in the talent show, and plays like a kid — yet, can sit quietly next to a camper and listen to that child talk about something important to him, can focus on a child in a way that makes him feel important, special, safe, cared for. Camp people know it is important to read a story around a campfire, admire a craft project, wear friendship bracelets, and call every camper by name. They know when to encourage a child to try a little harder or find a new edge, how to accept successes and failures, how to be flexible when needed, and how to carry the tremendous responsibilities that come with caring for our most precious treasure — our kids.

The world needs camp people — people who believe with all their hearts in the power of the camp experience and in the power of nature to shape a camper’s life. We need people who are rewarded not so much by dollars but rather by a camper’s proud smile, a shy “thank you,” an “I’m coming back next year!” or “Someday I want to be like you!”

Yes, we need camp people. And at the end of the day, the week, the session, the summer, the year, we need people who see their campers leave with joyful smiles, who stand a little straighter with their chests puffed out a little more with pride, who have new friends they promise to never forget, new skills to show off, and new dreams that will shape them forever.

And as the laughter dies away and the dust settles, the camp people are already planning for how to make themselves as well as the experience even better next time, how to make a difference in even more kids’ lives — and how to make sure everyone knows camp is a solution — that camp matters.

And these same camp people return to the real world where they transfer their camp skills to their everyday lives in their communities, their jobs, their families. They bring a little more play and “camp” to their classrooms, scout troops, church groups, youth teams; they help out a neighbor, treat their customers with respect, smile (and maybe make a funny face) at the kid standing with her parent in line at the checkout, step up in emergencies, or volunteer for a park clean-up. They continue to believe they can make a difference. Camp people continue to be camp people.

Camp people may be hard to define but their contribution to camp and to life is evident. Well done, camp people. Well done.

M. Deborah Bialeschki, PhD, is ACA’s director of research and professor emeritus at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

Photo courtesy of Camp Gray, Reedsburg, Wisconsin.