Camp - a Window to the World

September 2015

They were the first accents I ever heard that were different than mine. Australian, Dutch, English, Scottish, and heaps of others flew through the wooded, cabin-filled area at my Riverhead, New York, summer camp. I was ten and they could have been movie stars for all I knew. Some had been to camp before, while others crossed the seas for the first time to share a summer experience and glimmers of their culture with me. It was there that I first heard of Vegemite (Australia's paste made from yeast extract that is spread on toast) and learned that a restroom could be called a "loo." My parents' friends were all from the New York area, and this was my first foray into an international world. Never would I have guessed then what an impact they would have on my life.

Summer camps, like burgers and drive-throughs, have been called "traditionally American." They offer a summer home to thousands of happy youngsters stretching their wings for the first time. But the campers are not alone in their coming of age. Each year countless young adults from all over the world apply to spend their summers at American summer camps. Perhaps their first time abroad and away from home (just like the youth they look after), these counselors get an experience to literally write home about.

This time of year summer camps have recently closed their gates and campers and counselors alike are diving back into their everyday lives — many already counting the minutes until 2016's opening day, when those relationships forged through the commonality of bug juice and s'mores by the fire will continue. I know firsthand the impact counselors, especially those from other lands, can have.

There was Allison (we called her Ali-baba) from Australia, Katie from Scotland, and Emma from England, among many others. To an 11-year-old who had never met anyone from the land down under before, Allison sounded like Olivia Newton-John from the movie Grease. By the end of the summer, I knew about joeys and boomerangs and Tim Tams (Australia's best biscuit), and came home wearing a tank top with two little koalas on it. Katie from Scotland taught me the meaning of haggis (a savory pudding of sorts) and, to this day, has one of my favorite accents the world over. She was part of the crew who taught me to swim and continues to be a friend. Emma from England taught me about rugby, scones, and crumpets — and talked about how "locals" felt about the royals.

These teenagers, who were no more than a few mere years my senior, made impressions that surpassed emotional, developmental, and geographic borders. So much of camp is about building relationships, and these were my first connections to a world greater than my own. These people, many of whom still pop up on my Facebook® feed to say hello all these years later, were cultural diffusion at its finest. At such a young age, meeting people different than yourself shapes your perception and breaks down stereotypes. You know the name and the face and the way in which you were treated. That's the takeaway. And years later, that is what you remember.

I remember at summer's end how the campers and counselors, who'd had no idea what they were getting into for eight weeks, hugged each other through tear-stained eyes and knew they now had friends for the ages. Memories were made and we were keepers of stories in abundance. Everyone headed home a little taller and a little stronger — filled with a love of all things camp and far more knowledgeable about the world at large.

The love I felt when I first heard those foreign accents never waned and, in fact, ignited a desire to travel. I've left pieces of my heart in many places around the world. I married an Aussie whom I met in New Zealand. Vegemite and Tim Tams (the latter which we gave out at our wedding) are now staples in our cupboard. Together we travel, have friends from various countries, and it's not uncommon for one conversation among friends to feature at least three different accents. Who knew then that 25 years later those relationships forged with Camp America counselors would play such a vital role in my adult life? It just goes to prove, summer camp makes a lifelong impression and all who attend are forever changed.

Photo courtesy of Camp ClapHans, Norman, Oklahoma.

Stacey Ebert is a camper at heart who has spent over 25 years in the camping industry. She has a love of writing, travel, the beach, and anything chocolate. She can be reached at staceyebert@gmail.com.