I’ve often hear from parents: “camp changed my son,” and that “he came back home a better man,” or “he’s the best version of himself at the end of the summer.” It’s heartwarming and validating to hear these statements because they highlight the importance of the summer camp experience.
I recently spoke to the director of the camp I grew up attending, and he told me that it was a joy having me at camp for 10 consecutive summers and that he was proud of the man I had become. He then brought out a letter that my parents had written many years ago that read, “We are so proud of the man Justin is becoming. Each summer he returns home with a renewed sense of confidence and independence. His personality flourishes in ways we have never seen and he expresses a desire to be his “camp self” throughout the year.”
I had always known camp to be a place of abundant joy, but it wasn’t until high school that I started to recognize the positive changes my parents had seen for years. I began to notice a difference between who I was at the beginning of the summer and who I became by the end of my 9-week session. Of these two versions of myself, I was most proud of the post-camp version. I realized that camp wasn’t just a place to have fun, it was a place to grow into a man, and specifically, into a man I could be proud of. Over the years, I began to ask myself what it was I was proud of and why it was so blatantly present at camp. I landed on authenticity.
Camp is unique because it’s an environment where authenticity is praised. Being my “authentic self” wasn’t looked down upon, and I wasn’t living to impress somebody else. All the false persona nonsense and “glamorous” Instagram shots were left for the rest of the year. What mattered was being present in the moment and with the people around me.
Camp taught me to have a positive outlook on life and myself because at camp, I wasn’t defined by my failures. Instead, I was given opportunities to overcome them.
When I couldn’t climb the difficult route on the rock wall, it was never, “you’re not good enough,” it was always, “next time you’ll make it 2 feet further,” or, “I believe in you.” The support was consistently authentic and positive. Upon finally conquering the difficult route, I looked down to see what I had accomplished. Each failure followed by a small success, became a building block for my self-esteem, confidence, and independence.
Camp showed me the essence of true friendship – one that emphasizes the importance of authentic support.
To truly nurture a friendship, you have to let go of jealousy. I had to support my friends as they accomplished goals I struggled to achieve. I learned to be happy for other people’s success and to strive for my own goals in the process.
One of the most impactful lessons I learned from camp is that life isn’t always serious. It’s important to recognize the value of responsibilities, but at the same time, it’s okay to let loose and have fun! Camp culture is generally silly– people sing at the top of their lungs in the dining hall, they tell funny stories around the campfire, and they play games like real-life Mario or zombies. Everyone lets loose and lowers their guard. It’s freeing not having to worry about being viewed as silly or goofy; everyone at camp is!
When I reflect on what my parents said, I feel grateful for the opportunity to have grown up at camp. I’m thankful to know what authenticity looks like and to witness its effects on myself and those around me. I’m especially grateful for having a standard to hold myself to – my “camp-self” – and for recognizing my responsibility to carry that version of myself to my community back home.