The first camp I ever attended as a child was in Florida. I’ll never forget that week at the “not-to-be-
named camp.” Twelve of us were placed in a cabin while two staff had a private room—with a two-way mirror attached to our cabin. I am not kidding, and they had a two-way mirror in the wall so they could keep an eye on us! They had a private bathroom, while we were required to use a bathroom that allowed for no modesty for a twelve-year-old boy. The food was horrible, and the worship services at night were loud, long, and uninspiring. The camp director called me “bub” (I’ll never forget that) when I asked him a question, and for the life of me, I can’t recall anything the counselors ever did for us or said that was kind.
This was the last time I attended a summer camp as a child—I never wanted to go to an overnight camp again. But right before I began college, my best friend invited me to work at a summer camp in the mountains of North Carolina, and I reluctantly joined him—-and loved it. I found out that camp can be a very good thing.
So when I started my own camp 40 years ago, my focus was on two things: What I hated as a first-time camper… and what I loved at the second camp. You can’t make a second “first impression,” and if a child is turned off to camp the first week, there’s not going to be a second week at camp. Our camp has become a “magical place” for thousands, where campers not only stay for a second week but attend for years and years thereafter. I have heard stories of how some new campers have gone to bed in their homes clutching a new copy of our brochure-they are excited and can’t wait to get here! Some might be apprehensive, but it’s now the parents that are normally more anxious than the child.
What makes the difference for the first-time camp is giving them lots of ATTENTION and not letting them be alone. And, quite frankly, it’s harder now than it was 40 years ago. We face such competition from kids that are entertained 24/7 and want to be alone with the iPhone or iPad. Fewer kids are familiar with forests, even fewer go camping out, and many have no idea of the plants, insects, or animals that inhabit our mountain. But once they get away from electronic devices, the magic can commence!
It’s helpful for parents to prepare the first-time camper for camp by telling them: Everything will probably taste different; they won't know how things work for a few days; they will have to listen to the rules or precautions to take the first few days; there are new people all around — but each one is potentially a new best friend. (You’d be amazed at the people that find their best friend for life at camp—-many others have found their spouse!)
I can attest to this: Once the first time camper enters through our gates and falls in love with the mountains, the staff, the dachshunds, and the wolf (our mascot), they hold this camp as one of the most special and sacred places… for the rest of their lives.