Recently, I found a letter I wrote to my mother when I was away at camp at age 10. I barely recognized my own handwriting, but the words took me back to the way I felt in that cabin. I was a part of a new family of friends, I was proud of myself for going away from home, and I was filled with curiosity for all I was learning.
I didn’t grow up spending my summers away at camp. I lived in a small town in the Midwest. I spent summers outside making mud pies and riding my bike; playing dress-up with my cousins at my grandmother’s house; and, learning to sew with my 4-H club! I was not very independent as a young girl, and my mother realized I needed an opportunity to get away from my comfort zone and older sister. She sent me to a one-week 4-H camp, the first time I was away from home without my family. It was my only childhood camp experience - it was new and exciting and scary at the same time.
Years later, when I was in college, a friend invited me to work at a Texas girls camp for a month. Although I had no real skill or talent, I jumped at the chance and somehow was able to talk my way into a position on staff as a riding instructor! On the first day, the oldest campers taught me what I needed to know about the horses. The entire camp family taught me about living in community, about leading with heart and head, and about compassion, patience, sharing, selfless giving, and friendship. It didn’t take me years away at summer camp to appreciate the lifetime lessons you can learn from just a short time at camp.
I would never have imagined my professional career path would include camp, but now it is hard to imagine a summer without being at camp. That is what happened in 2020, when the pandemic hit. Now, once again, we are facing this void in our life – something that has bound many of us together for so long.
Occasionally I will receive a message of gratitude from a former camper who attended just one or two summers at Camp Sunshine. I am struck with how one week could have such a lasting and indelible mark on their life. I think, but they were only there once or twice – 15, 20, or 25 years ago! A note from one such former camper said, “Camp Sunshine was a game-changer for me. Just a few weeks after the amputation of my leg, when I was still on crutches and healing, Camp Sunshine showed me that my attitude was more determinative of success than the number of my limbs. And that lesson has guided the following 30 years.”
That is what camp can do – it does not take a lifetime of summers to have an impact or change a person’s life. Our volunteers, staff, and campers do that by opening themselves to our community – to our family. They create an environment where a child can truly flourish and thrive – even in the face of the challenges of childhood cancer. You might not realize it at the time – it could be that moment on the climbing wall or the ropes course where they push a little farther; a cabin chat when they realize someone else understands how they feel; a hug and a bracelet on their first day; a kind word of encouragement that says you believe in them; or even praise for a watercolor they share over a Zoom activity.
Until we are back at camp - waiting for the buses to arrive, singing in the dining hall, waking up for polar bear, and cheering at the Talent Show – we must continue to find new ways to create community, model kindness and patience, express gratitude, and genuinely connect with our camp friends. And we must remember what we have done before, what we are creating now, and what we will do going forward matters more than we know.
Sally Hale, Executive Director