Summer Without Camp… by Steve Safran

What all of us need this summer is a place for the kids to go where they can play, swim, and just be outdoors with their friends. A place with a lake, a baseball diamond, goofy songs and goofier crafts, paths through ancient pines… a place of their own.

They need summer camps. For parents trapped with school-aged kids, the need is bordering on desperation this year. And like so many of the things that could make any of this more bearable, they’re closed.

“Out of an abundance of love for everyone in our camp community, we cannot compromise the safety of our campers, teens, and staff … ” was written in a Camp Tel Noar email. Disappointed parents who had hoped their children would be able to trade Zoom screens for canoes in a few weeks opened similar messages. Tel Noar is a New Hampshire institution: a 75 year-old camp I attended as a kid from 1977-1981. It, along with Camp Tevya and Camp Pembroke are part of the Cohen Foundation camps, all three of which have announced they will be closed. This will leave them in serious financial trouble.

Summer camps don’t generally have endowments. Tel Noar (translation from Hebrew: “Youth Hill”) shared that they already “spent $3 million in facility maintenance, repairs, staff salaries, insurance (and) utilities.” At the same time they’re breaking the news that camp is canceled, they need to ask for donations to make up the shortfall. But, let’s face it, only a super-generous donor is going to mail the full tuition while their kids stay home. It won’t happen. Like some small colleges, a few of our beloved camps won’t survive.

However, summer camps are historically resilient, possibly because they are managed by people who provide a yearly respite from the worries of the world. Cape Cod Sea Camps in Brewster, MA is nearly 100 years old. It has seen its share of world-changing events: “Cape Cod Sea Camps has provided a camping experience every summer since 1922 and have held camp through the Great Depression, World War II, the polio epidemic and numerous other global events.”

But this year, even their cabins will be empty.

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Waterfronts are usually the hub of the summer camp experience 

In the overall scheme of world events that include a rising death toll of a global pandemic, canceling a season of camp isn’t at the top of the headlines. But it is heartbreaking for the thousands of children for whom camp life is an escape from their own world worries. It’s also a rite of passage, often the first time a kid tastes freedom and learns how to steer that privilege. Camp is where time does funny things, where the days go on forever, but it all ends too fast.

I had the joy of returning to Camp Frank A. Day in East Brookfield, MA last summer to teach podcasting, and it transported me right back to my counselor days in the mid-’80s. Everything was the same: the boathouse, the waterfront, the cabins, the dining hall– it was eternal and ruggedly beautiful. Teenage counselors haven’t changed, either, happily sharing the camp gossip once they realized I was one of “them.” I made new friends. Never before did grilled cheese and tomato soup evoke so many memories. Is there such a thing as “camp sandwich griddle grease” they order in bulk?

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Stevie teaching budding podcasters last summer

For the summer of 2020, Camp Day faced the same agonizing decision as their colleagues. The staff and its board debated, looked at the current environment, acted with the caution of the day, and emailed its community: ” …that there is too much uncertainty surrounding COVID-19 for us to confidently operate a safe and high-quality residential camp this summer.”

I still have friends from summer camp, friendships forged 40 years ago as we shared bunk beds and bug bites for only eight weeks of a handful of summers. Think about that. I’ve had co-workers whose names were forgotten after years in the same offices, if I ever knew them at all. But camp is different. It’s intense. Your bunkmates are your brothers. And the girls? So many firsts all crammed into the time it takes a ChiaPet to mature.

The first time I asked a girl to dance was at Camp Tel Noar. (It was followed shortly by the first time a girl rejected my offer to dance). The first “date” I had was at camp. I was nine. We had a field trip to Canobie Park and I asked Ellen G. if she would go with me. She was very nice. About halfway through our time there, I lost our ticket. It was a harbinger of dates to come.

Camp builds independence and the kind of self-confidence that emboldens a nine year old to ask a girl on a date. College shouldn’t be the first time a kid is really away, feels the pangs of homesickness, and learns to overcome that. Over the years, I became a happier kid at home from spending a summer in the woods.

All of these rites of passage and moments of joy and firsts are on hold. Camps that weathered wars and economic collapse have been felled by a virus. The waterfront will be still. The baseball diamond will remain pristine. The bunks, the dining hall, and the lake will be as still as they are in January.

Sound taps.

See you in 2021. I hope.

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Stevie (far left in the shorty-shorts and Hawaiian shirt) and his bunk on his first tour as a counselor.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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