Start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it. (Prov. 22:6 NIV)
Some moments are indelibly edged in my memory. Standing in the kitchen of my old Ohio farmhouse talking by phone with the Executive Director responsible for Lutherhill in Texas is one such moment. I remember telling him why I was interested in working at Lutherhill as a Program Director. I’d taken kids there when I started parish ministry in Texas. Both my daughters had summer jobs there. That phone call took place in March 1996. The following eight years I served at Lutherhill were among the happiest and hardest years of both my professional and personal life.
A few months ago one of the Lutherhill staff asked me to write an article about my twin grandsons connection to Lutherhill. They were born during the years I worked there. In a few weeks they will graduate from high school. For several summers now they have gone to extraordinary extremes to return to Lutherhill. Camp communities tend to create bonds that last long after the last marshmallow has been roasted and the last Frisbee thrown.
Thanks to social media, I follow some of the young adults who worked with me at Lutherhill between 1996 and 2004. Though they now live in different states, even different countries, they stay in touch with one another’s ups and downs through marriages, babies, jobs, broken hearts, and other challenges and sorrows that are part and parcel of life.
When I posted about this article on Facebook Chris Rapley, an international summer staffer from New Zealand, posted this response: “When I think back I can’t believe how lucky I was to spend that summer at Lutherhill and the wonderful staff and campers. Life long friendships and memories.”
Jon and Jacob’s annual determination to return to Lutherhill reminds me of migrating birds. They live in Ohio. Lutherhill is in Texas. I lived at Lutherhill when they were born. Their mother worked at the camp when she was about the age they are now. Jon and Jacob were about two months old the first time they came to camp. They charmed the office staff who fussed over them while their mother took their big sister around the camp.
Another image permanently sealed in my mind is that of the football linebacker sized summer support staff young man. He came into the office for a cool drink after a morning of grunt work outside. I offered to let him hold one of the twins. Soon tears were streaming down his face. “Babies have that affect on people,” I commented.
“I got my girlfriend pregnant,” he said as he stroked my grandson’s head. “I talked her into getting an abortion. I didn’t know this is what babies are like.”
OK, holding a new baby and making a confession about an unplanned pregnancy ending in abortion is not part of the planned summer curriculum at camp. Though summer camp does tend to be a place where young people feel safe to confess all sorts of things. Some feel safe enough to fess up to concerns about whether or not they are “normal,” – as if any of us can know what “normal” is.
Many late night talks are about young people exploring the world of connecting with the other gender and all the awkwardness and hopefulness that goes with those relationships. Camp provides a safe place to voice confusion and doubts about the faith of their family. Sometimes summer staffers hear about struggles with parents, even as they deal with similar issues themselves. Every camp director knows the challenge of deciding how best to respond to disclosures of abuse and neglect that are often revealed at camp.
What happens at camp is often life changing. I’ve experienced this for myself. I’ve seen the impact camp had on my children and grandchildren. For many years I had a front row view of this impact on hundreds of campers and staff. Still, I cannot explain what happens.
This impact takes place in all sorts of camps all over the country. The American Camp Association defines itself as “a community of camp professionals who, for over 100 years, have joined together to share our knowledge and experience and to ensure the quality of camp programs. Because of our diverse 11,000 plus membership and our exceptional programs, children and adults have the opportunity to learn powerful lessons in community, character building, skill development, and healthy living — lessons that can be learned nowhere else.”
I cannot explain the bonds that form at camp any more than I can explain why I am drawn to birds chirping, dogs romping, babies cooing, or a myriad of other life-enriching simple pleasures available all around me.
I do know this. A summer or two – or more – spent at camp is a powerful way to start a child off on the right path. More than a few of them will take off on their own paths of service to their community as pastors, youth directors, professional counselors, teachers, social workers, or other careers that add much the quality of public life.
Here’s hoping all you camp staff everywhere have another terrific summer season enriching the lives of campers and staff alike. Thank you for all you do.