5 Alumni Reflect on Lessons Learned at Summer Camp

Camp alumni reflect on lessons learned
Photo courtesy of Jenn Zussman

Anyone who attended camp as a kid will tell you that there’s more to the experience than simply staying busy when school’s not in session. Sure, it’s fun, but there are benefits of being a camper that linger long after the summer—and even childhood—ends.

“Camping experiences push a child’s boundaries in the best way possible,” said Barry A. Garst, Ph.D., an associate professor of youth development leadership at Clemson University. According to Garst’s research, camp improves social skills, builds self-confidence and gives kids a sense of independence. Additionally, the majority of camp alumni he surveyed credited their camp experiences with their success as adults.

Washington FAMILY spoke to five former campers to learn what they loved about camp and how their experiences shaped them into the adults they are today.

Jenn Zussman

Camp: Camp Louise
Location: Cascade, Maryland
Years attended: 10

I don’t know if I necessarily chose Camp Louise. I think it was just a given. My mom went there—she was a camper and a counselor—and always spoke so highly of it. When it was my turn to go to sleepaway camp, I didn’t even think about any other options. I just knew we would continue to legacy.

Louise is an all-girls camp, and that really helped me develop a lot of my self-confidence. As a young girl, I became much more self-conscious when I was around boys; I wasn’t able to really be my true self. At camp, especially an all-girls camp, you really take away all of the vanity. It’s simply focused on friendships and just having fun and discovering who you are at a very vulnerable age. Camp helped me become much more confident and comfortable in my skin.

You become a trainee when you’re 14, and then you become a counselor’s assistant. So even at a young age, they’re giving you roles and responsibilities and allowing you to make judgment calls. Whereas in the real world, you’re still looked upon as too young, in camp, even as a young teenager, you are looked upon as someone who has decision-making skills and is competent. That helps prepare you and gives you the confidence you need to say, “Yeah, I might be young, but I can still be very successful. And my opinion matters.”

Ben Klinger

Camp: Capital Camps
Location: Waynesboro, Pennsylvania
Years attended: 10

My parents were looking for a Jewish sleep away camp that kept kosher for me and my brothers. A local agency referred them to a man named Steve Makoff who was starting a brand new camp that year called Capital Camps. Steve came to our house to pitch my parents on the idea, and my brother and I became the first and second campers ever enrolled in Capital Camps history.

While I have fond memories of activities such as sports, art, Israeli dancing and boating, it is the people who I have kept a place in my heart forever. In fact, four of the seven groomsmen at my wedding were friends of mine from Capital Camps.

I don’t know if camp gave me any specific “skills” as that is not really what it was intended to do. However, what camp did do was help me as a young man become more independent and develop more self-confidence. To have to be responsible for yourself because your parents are there to do everything for you at a young age is really beneficial in the development of a child.

Camp also taught me the importance of supporting the Jewish community, which my wife and I enthusiastically do today. Camp helped me become a better leader and a better public speaker, which has benefitted me tremendously in my professional career. And, most importantly, I believe camp taught me to slow down and appreciate the moments in life that are truly worth appreciating. That is a lesson that a lot of us as adults struggle with because of the fast pace of our daily lives.

Sarah Shah

Camp: Camp Tel Noar
Location: Hampstead, New Hampshire
Years attended: 12

Being at a sleepaway camp forces you to become more independent and trust that you can take care of yourself without your parents present. I learned a lot about living with others and not always getting what I wanted; for example, we had a “shower order” and a few times each summer you’d have the last shower, which would inevitably be a cold one!

We also had to clean our own area and our bunks daily, which certainly didn’t make me great at cleaning (as my mom can attest), but it did teach me the importance of working as a team and trying to have fun while doing it. We’d blast fun music and dance around while cleaning each morning.

Another great thing about camp is that it allowed me to try activities I might not have tried otherwise. Whether it was sailing, ceramics or archery (which I surprised myself by loving), camp gave me those opportunities to explore.

Probably the most useful skill I learned at camp was how to care for and deal with younger children. Once I became a CIT and then counselor, I was suddenly in charge of helping little girls as young as 8 adjust to being away from their parents for the first time. I learned how to comfort a camper experiencing homesickness, how to help solve fights between friends and how to have the “warm-strict” balance that I still use today as a middle school teacher.

Dan Hayden

Camp: Lake Owego Camp
Location: Greeley, Pennsylvania
Years attended: 4

There are a number of great memories from Lake Owego: the river canoeing trip where I rescued a bunkmate’s capsized canoe, winning both a basketball and softball tournament against other camps in the area and the friendships that were made with people from all over the East Coast.

The biggest skill that I learned is to be able to be an advocate for myself. You are, in a good way, on your own at a residential camp. You quickly learn to speak up for yourself in most situations.

My camp experience helped me grow as a person overall, from learning to appreciate the cultures and experiences of those from another part of the country to gaining confidence in myself as an individual. It likely, although unknown at the time, turned me into a person who is now a camp professional as the director of Barrie Camp.

Stephanie Phillips

Camp: Congressional Camp
Location: Falls Church, Virginia
Years attended: 10

My favorite memories of camp are the special events. We have big campus-wide relays and something called Congo Conquest at Congressional that is like a color war. The biggest takeaway for me from camp was the friendships that I built, these long-lasting friendships. You see the same people year after year, and you spend a significant amount of time with them over the summer, so you really get to develop those close bonds.

My camp experience is one of the things that guided me toward the path of teaching. I fell in love with the programming and the people, and then I continued to work there when I became a teenager and an adult. That encouraged me to work with children.

I love the educational learning environment, but camp is such a special place because kids just get to be kids. They don’t have the academic pressures, and those kids who might not shine in the classroom or might not shine in a school environment really thrive in a camp setting. They get to have these different experiences where they can push themselves and maybe do something out of their comfort zone. Camp programs give such a variety of choices so that kids can do what they want to do, but within that they’re also trying new things. It gives them flexibility in their thinking, and when they go back to school or get a job in the future, they can rely on those experiences and just be a little bit more confident in themselves.

A version of this story originally appeared in our February 2021 issue

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