A Camp Chatuga Story

Dear Camp Chatuga Counselors & Staff,

I never got to attend summer camp as a child. So when we had our family meeting last January about what we’d do this summer, I just couldn’t get why my kids would choose attending Camp Chatuga again over any kind of vacation package I dangled in front of them. With finances tight, we could either take a family vacation or they could attend camp. Without hesitation they chose camp. And until now I just couldn’t get it.

But “guys,” I said, “all those rules, the hot cabins, the bugs, sleeping on the ground, and all the classes and activities you’ve done so many times before. Aren’t you getting too old for camp?” But they held firm, using only their gut and heart to decide, and not any kind of logic.

I attended session 2 as a camp mom with my 14-year-old daughter. Each time I caught a glimpse of her with her table family, I saw something I rarely see at home as she passes through the early teens, a smile. And not just any smile, one of those ear to ear kind, that last a long time and almost splits your lip. Brought on by something Simon would say or do. And that’s when I started to get it. The relationship my daughter develops with the counselors remains in her heart forever, and is one of the things that makes her want to return to camp. So counselors, when you think you can’t go another day without privacy or a warm shower, when you think you can’t take another bug bite, and when that kid does “you won’t believe,” please never forget how important you are in the lives of the children you work with. They’ll never forget how you made them feel.

Well, my daughter stayed for session 3 and my son joined her as a service camper, but I went home after session 2. Home to all the luxuries: a stocked fridge, my soft bed, a warm shower. And that’s when I realized something else. Deprivation brings appreciation. And the more we appreciate something, the more we enjoy it. At home we are rarely deprived so we rarely appreciate what we have. At camp we are deprived, we wait in line, we wait our turn. But when we do get that warm water with pressure, that can of RC cola, that last piece of cornbread on the bar, oh how we appreciate it and oh how we enjoy it!

But why isn’t camp getting “old”? Why wouldn’t my kids opt for something they haven’t done before, perhaps try a different camp? As the scenery blurred by in my 12-hour drive home, I realized that so many things in kids’ lives are uncertain. Will there be another 9-11? Will a loved one beat cancer? Will dad lose his job? Will dad and mom get divorced? What teachers will I get next year? Will I pass algebra? Will I make the soccer team? Will that special someone notice me?

There is a great comfort in predictability. Knowing exactly what to expect makes you feel safe. And safe is good. That predictability and associated comfort must be why we treasure traditions, no matter how lame some are. Carving pumpkins, decorating trees, eating turkey. At camp you will wake up to a bugle, “good morning Camp Chatuga,” and “Nothing Could Be Finer.” Rick will risk his life on top of the bus for the sake of the camp photo. You will sing about a yodeling Austrian and see a skit about the world’s ugliest man. You will sleep on the ground, square dance, and throw an egg at someone. Cottage cheese will be applauded and you will eat as a “family” 3 times a day in a society where families rarely eat together. Camp is very predictable and loaded with traditions that instead of making my children tire of camp, become one of the factors that makes them long to return.

OK, so what about tolerating all those rules at camp? Well, maybe as my rebellious teenagers are screaming for freedom and independence, perhaps what they’re actually longing for are structure and guidelines. And that’s exactly what they get at camp.

So now I think I finally get it, even though I never got to attend camp as a child. Why my kids chose to return to Camp Chatuga this summer over all other options. Reasons that can’t be explained with words, that can only be felt. And felt all over as you fondly recall the sights, sounds and smells of Camp Chatuga months and years after returning home.

Much thanks to all the counselors and staff of Camp Chatuga for all that you do
Donna Donovan, summer 2003, camp mom for six summers at Camp Chatuga, Mountain Rest, SC www.campchatuga.com