Monday, July 18, 2011
Memories of Summer Camp
I love summer. The heat, the blue skies, the refreshing lakes, and days that last well into the night make it a favourite time of year.
As a teenager I worked as a summer camp counselor, and I still think there is no better summer job in the world. Camp Pine Valley lay just outside of the little town of Sainte-Agathe-Des-Monts in the Laurentians in Quebec. It catered to Jewish children from Montreal, and I was grateful to the directors for hiring me and my brother even though we were Christian.
Like all camps, our goal was to entertain the children and make them feel at home in a rustic group setting. Days were spent moving from activity to activity, motivating and encouraging the children while keeping their homesickness at bay. Most came from wealthy families, and Pine Valley would be their home for the summer while their parents worked overtime through July and August.
The work could be exhausting and at times difficult, but the counseling staff developed strong friendships and support for each other. And Friday nights were always treated reverently as the Sabbath, emphasizing the presence of God for our campers.
Years later, after I met and married my husband Brian, we spent our summers at a camp where he had been a counselor and senior staff member as a young man. Columbus Boys Camp welcomed underprivileged Catholic boys from Toronto for an experience of wilderness and community. Although the campers’ backgrounds were different from those at Pine Valley, the same small group experience of meeting the natural world with a counselor in the lead brought the best out of children who had rarely left the big city.
Given the shortage of priests it wasn’t long before Brian and I were asked to assume the position of chaplains. We felt privileged to be given the task of helping the campers sense the deeper presence of the Spirit beyond camaraderie and play in forests, fields and water.
The value of our camp was brought home to us in so many ways. City children staring awestruck at star bright skies as we prayed around a campfire, or crying when it came time to leave their counselors made it clear that something had touched them in a profound and meaningful way.
Perhaps more than anything else, I was moved by the surprise return visits of former campers, now men, often well past their fifties. They were always welcome at the lunch table and I can remember one sitting beside me and crying as he told me how Columbus Boys Camp had changed his life. It had given him a whole new understanding of friendship, of faith and of who he was and what he could become.
I never returned to Pine Valley so I can’t say for sure that it had that same effect on its alumni, but I expect it did.
Both camps are now closed but there are many other camps doing that same good work today. To those young people who are out there doing the work of camp counselor, I say thank you. For some child you may provide the memory that gets them through the dark times, to some you may be the source of inspiration for a better future.
And you too will learn in the hard and sometimes endless work of providing support and encouragement, that you have great gifts to share and great worth to others.