• Camp Lessons

    A Director, A Counselor, And An 11-Year-Old Camper Offer Their Distinct Views Of The Camp Experience

    By New York Family

    By Jem Sollinger

    If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my 17 years as a camp director – and 10 years as a parent – it’s that no man is a prophet in his own home.

    I’ve had plenty of experience helping campers work through challenges, from minor issues like home missing and confronting their fear of getting up on water skis — to major ones like overcoming chronic enuresis or communicating the loss of a family member.

    With my own three children, life is not as seamless when working through issues. Welcome to parenthood.

    Yet my campers have taught me many important lessons, most of which (when I remember to apply them) make me a better parent.

    When left to their own resources – when parents are not around – children invariably rise to the occasion!

    For seven weeks every summer, I am privileged to spend time with boys and girls in an environment their parents never see: a mom- and dad-less world. There, youngsters are more open to taking safe risks. They push themselves – and each other – through situations they might shy away from if their parents were around.

    But that does not make parenting my own kids any easier. Take skiing, for instance. I grew up as a skier. I raced in college. I’ve even coached skiing. But my oldest daughter is far less receptive to me than to someone else – even if his skills are comparable (speaking charitably) to mine.

    Part of my job involves being a surrogate parent to 500 children. At the same time, I interpret those children – their activities, accomplishments, strengths, challenges – back to their parents. I am, in a sense, an intermediary. And isn’t that what most parents spend much of their time doing – acting as a go-between with their children, children’s friends, teachers and other family members?

    But while I am a surrogate parent, I am not my campers’ father. There are boundaries I must maintain. Although I sometimes (against my better impulses) raise my voice with my own daughters, I try never do that at camp. There are certain things a parent does that another adult simply should not.

    At the same time, it is sometimes easier as a camp director to act in an influential role that a real parent simply cannot. I can be an uncle, a cheerleader, a coach, all because I am not my campers’ father.

    All parents love to hear great things about their children. The most casual positive comment makes a mother or father glow. Parents don’t see their children every day during the summer. But it is a lesson that – as a parent – I now take to heart. I try to tell parents as many good things about their kids as I can. And I hope that the important adults in my daughters’ lives do the same with me.

    But what about the “bad” kids? Perhaps the greatest thing I have learned over the years as a camp professional is that there are no “bad” kids. There are certainly children who make bad choices – but finding the positive in every child is a lesson that every person in an educational setting and every parent should always remember.

    In addition to sometimes thinking I will never be a prophet in my own home, I can also feel like a “cobbler whose children have no shoes.” I very consciously make sure that my own kids have plenty of space at camp to explore, be independent and try new things, without worrying that dad watches every move. At times I think my two oldest daughters get less attention from the camp director (that being me) than any one camper. That’s probably the way it should be. Shouldn’t they have the same experience as all of the other campers – one that provides emotional distance from mom and dad?

    As a camp director, I’m supposed to have all the answers about other parents’ kids. As a parent, I’m supposed to know everything about my own. Thanks to both of these roles, I learn more every day about both.

    Jem Sollinger and his wife Debbie are the Directors of Camp Laurel in Readfield, Maine. For more info about the camp, visit CampLaurel.com.

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    She Became A Counselor To Give Back To Her Beloved Camp Community. But The Real Surprise Has Been How Much She Has Gained In The Process.

    By Ariel Milan-Polisar

    In my experience, eleven-year-old girls are mainly into belting Taylor Swift songs and painting nails, and older girls who’ll do all that with them. Eight years ago I was one of those eleven-year-old girls and now, as a counselor, I get to be the older girl. I’ve grown up spending summers at URJ Eisner Camp in Great Barrington, MA, since I was 10-years-old, looking up to my incredible counselors. There was nobody cooler than the counselors who towered over me and knew what to do in just about any situation. As I grew older, my viewpoint changed but the infinite amount of respect I feel toward all of the counselors in my years at camp has never changed.

    And now here I am, a third year counselor at the same camp that helped to instill in me a strong Jewish identity, sense of values, and love for singing my heart out. I decided to become a counselor at Eisner because I felt and I still feel that it is my responsibility and my great desire to give back to the community that has helped to shape so much of who I am as a person, friend, leader and Jew.

    When I started my summer as a CIT I was so excited to hang out with my campers, give them advice and learn from my fellow staff members. Being a counselor turned out to be exactly that but so much more. I didn’t anticipate the life skills that I would acquire: the tough conflicts I would mediate, negotiating collaboration between co-counselors, learning to think on the spot and striking a balance between being an authority figure and friend. All these experiences inform my decision to come back summer after summer.

    Each night at camp when it’s my turn to be with the girls and put them to bed, I do a bedtime ritual with them. This is one of my favorite parts of the day, both as a camper and a counselor. My first year as a counselor I sang them the same song every night, “Your Song”, by Elton John and read them a short story from one of the Chicken Soup books. A few months after the summer had ended, I got an email from one of my campers, telling me that “Your Song” had come up on her iTunes and she had started crying because she missed me. Knowing that at least one camper was impacted by this small bedtime ritual is one of those experiences that makes being a counselor worthwhile.

    It’s not always easy. My second summer as a counselor I had a first year camper who was homesick (or as we call it at Eisner, was having frequent moments of sadness). She would have fun during the day but would cry every night and declare that she needed to go home and see her family. My co-counselor and I would take turns every night talking to her about her day, about all the fun she’d had and about the friends she made, trying to show her that it was worthwhile for her to stay. Eventually, she started to get better, but by the end of the summer she was crying again. This time it was not because she wanted to see her family, but because she wanted to stay. This camper has continued to come back to camp and truly values her camp experience, the friendships she’s made and the Jewish identity that she’s cultivated. Just knowing that I played even a small part in helping her to continue coming back to camp makes me feel proud.

    Interacting with, taking care of, advising and playing with the campers who have been both in my bunk and out of my bunk has helped me to develop a better sense of how I want to be an adult and has given me important life skills. For me, there is no better or more rewarding way to spend my summer. For all its challenges, it’s more than worth it to be able to get to know the many unique kids who come to camp. I can only hope that the impact I have on them is half as great as the impact they have had on me.

    Ariel Milan-Polisar is going into her third year as a counselor at URJ Eisner Camp in Great Barrington, MA.  For more on the camp, visit eisner.urjcamps.org.

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    Camp Rocks!!!  

    By Elena Messinger

    Since the first day I started camp at URJ Crane Lake in the Berkshires in the summer of 2009, it has become my home away from home. Here are just five of the ways camp has had a positive effect on my life.

    1. The People. From the very start of camp until the last day when everyone is saying their goodbyes, the counselors, campers, senior staff, and specialists are like one, big, three hundred person family. At camp no one cares if you are a jock, a nerd, a hippie, or a tomboy. They accept you for you and by the end of the summer I know I will have made at least one new friend, and usually more.

    2. The Peace And Quiet. On my very first night of camp three summers ago, I could not fall asleep. Finally, after half an hour, I realized what was keeping me up, the quiet. Growing up in New York City, I am used to noise. So after nine years of falling asleep to noise, when I actually had some peace and quiet, I could not do it. I tiptoed down the ladder of the bunk bed, asked my friend (who was up reading) if I could borrow her iPod and climbed back up. After five minutes of listening to Lady Gaga, I was able to shut my eyes and drift off to dream land. Ever since that night, however, when I’m at camp I sleep like a dog and peace and quiet are my music.

    3. The Traditions. At camp, everyday is full of silly and wacky traditions that are unique to camp and would not happen during an average day at home. Imagine 350 kids singing a five-minute long birthday song, or a bunk where every kid is dressed up in the wackiest clothes they own for a day! And then of course there’s color war. At my camp, the entire Crane Lake family is split into two teams (blue and white) for several days of competition. When its over, the camp is re-united and kids start counting down the days until they get to do it again next summer.

    4. Being Away From Home. Often when I am asked about camp, the first question is, “What was it like being away from your family for so long?” I admit, the idea of being away from your parents, siblings, and friends can be a scary concept. However, once you get settled into your bunk and start to become close with your fellow bunk mates, all the worries about being homesick usually go away. Also, the experience of being away from my family for a long time helps me to appreciate them more.

    5. Everything. I know it may sound corny but, everything at camp has changed my life. From the people to the traditions, from the quiet to just being away. At camp, I have become more mature, made new friends, and had the experience of a lifetime. That’s why I’m as excited as I am about summer ahead.
    Elena Messinger, who will be 12 in May, is planning on returning for  her forth summer at URJ Crain Lake, in West Stockbridge, MA.  For more on the camp, visit cranelake.urjcamps.org.