I never attended a summer camp program as a camper, but after more than 10 years as a camp counselor, lifeguard, and assistant camp director for Wisconsin Farmers Union Kamp Kenwood, I’ve begun to understand why camp matters so much. And make no mistake about that: To those who have been part of it, camp matters more than almost anything else.
What makes summer camp so powerful? For one thing, camp is a deeply shared experience, and shared experiences are the foundation of lasting friendships. From quirky traditions and group singing to outdoor games and activities, there is no “us” and “them” at camp. Instead, the camp experience is built on “we,” creating a strong sense of empathy and acceptance.
At Farmers Union Camp, the heart of the “we” is the Co-op Store, which sells treats and T-shirts. An actual working co-op, the Co-op Store is run by a camper-elected board of directors. Membership is voluntary, but members get a 5 percent dividend on their spending, so every camper usually ends up being a member. At the end of camp, members vote on whether to use the profits for camp improvements or to make a charitable donation.
But it’s not just the “we” – summer camp is a powerful experience partly because it is temporary. In fact, camp may be the one thing in a young person’s life that has a perceptible end point. From the perspective of a child or teenager, life can seem like an endless non-progression of routine: school, family, friends, chores, homework, repeat. From today to tomorrow to next week, nothing changes.
Camp is different. We arrive on the first day and the end is already in sight. Knowing that camp won’t last forever, we treasure it all the more. We value our time together. We engage more deeply with each other, and cheer each other on. We are present in a way that can be difficult to achieve in our day-to-day lives. (Leaving the phones and screens at home doesn’t hurt!) The end, when it comes, is bittersweet – but the sadness is tempered by the knowledge that there’s always next year.
But I think the real magic of summer camp – the magic that keeps me coming back year after year – is that camp offers an opportunity to reinvent yourself. Freed from the expectations of friends and family members who have known us our whole lives, we suddenly discover that the choice of who we want to be is ours. History becomes irrelevant; who we have been in the past doesn’t mean anything. What matters is who you are at camp. Summer camp is a clean slate, a fresh start. It is the freedom to be ourselves.
At Farmers Union Camp, we have our share of goofy traditions. There’s Bruce the Penguin standing proudly on the main lodge’s fireplace mantel dressed in his Kamp Kenwood T-shirt and headband. There’s Lake Wissota’s mythical duck-eating musky. There is the full-body fake-fur bear costume (with built-in paws inexplicably sewn with four fingers and no thumbs) that makes an appearance in almost every skit.
But my favorite camp tradition is Good Night Circle. Standing hand in hand with campers and colleagues at the end of the day, it’s hard not to get a bit teary-eyed as we sing the chorus of “Viva la Compagnie” together one more time:
Viva la, viva la one and all,
Viva la, viva la large and small;
Viva la you, viva la me,
Viva la compagnie!
Viva la compagnie. Viva la summer camp!
Tom Pamperin has served off and on as a camp counselor, lifeguard, and assistant camp director for Wisconsin Farmers Union Kamp Kenwood since 1996. His reputation for developing fiendishly elaborate games and activities for campers is all too well-deserved. Find out more about WFU Kamp Kenwood at wisconsinfarmersunion.com.