Overnight summer camps create lifetime of memories, friendships for participants

Posted April 29, 2018


To those unfamiliar with them, overnight camps might seem like any other summer activity. Some kids hang out at the beach all day, some go to sports or day camps, others travel the globe, and so on.

For those individuals who go to overnight summer camps, the weeks spent living in cabins, sleeping in bunk beds, singing and playing all day often serve as high points in life, and the memories and friendships made there are cherished decades later.

Camp is a sizable business in the U.S., with more than 8,400 overnight camps and 5,600 day camps attended by more than 14 million people each year creating an $18 billion industry, according to the American Camp Association (ACA), a national non-profit group that accredits camps based on health and safety standards.

Jennifer DeSpagna is one of the directors of one such accredited camp, Timber Lake West (TLW) in New York.

DeSpagna has worked at TLW since its inception in 1988.

Located in Roscoe, N.Y., a town with a population of 541 that’s best known as a common pit stop for those traveling to the state colleges north of it, TLW hosts around 300 campers at a time, with more than 150 staff.

TLW is a bit unique, having two distinct four-week sessions of camp, as opposed to the more typical eight-week style, but the experiences of the people who attend TLW are just as meaningful.

“I think that it’s just a special place, it’s an awesome place, it’s a world unto itself. It’s a place where kids can come and be kids, they’re unplugged, they’re at times unstructured, they make their own fun, they create their own fun,” said DeSpagna.

Fishing, waterskiing, boating, and swimming in the lake are some of the activities available at TLW above and other camps like it (Photos by Justin Sobelman).

This “unplugged” living is a big part of camp, and TLW is no exception, as cell phones and many other electronics are either banned outright or allowed with limited use.

“I think the lack of technology is the huge piece of that that helps these folks develop these bonds and these relationships and make these friendships that last a lifetime because they have to talk to one another. It’s not ‘Oh, I’ll shoot them a quick text.’ It’s not, “Oh, I’ll see them on Facebook. It’s actually spending real, quality time with one another,” said DeSpagna.

Brett Donatelli, the boys side head counselor at TLW, had a similar take on the root of the camp experience.

“In today’s world, camp is so incredibly special because it affords kids an opportunity to leave their helicopter parents and computer screen addictions behind and enter the great outdoors,” said Donatelli.

Different camps vary in how often campers can contact home, but many limit it to a phone call every week.

It may seem cruel to deny homesick kids a chat with mom and dad, but camp professionals know that getting past the homesickness phase leads to a great experience.

Campers are welcomed into camp on their first day.

“The importance of speaking to each other while looking in each other’s eyes, physically playing games outside, and interacting with Mother Nature are mostly forgotten in our busy, overprotected lives,” said Donatelli.

“The true friendships forged by living together in a single cabin, eating together, and solving problems together remain with these kids for years and years to come. So today, in these times, almost nothing seems as special as the camp experience.”

The camp experience is special, and many families pay a premium for their children to obtain it. Tuition for overnight camps peaks at over $2,000 a week, with the cheapest alternatives coming in closer to $600 a week, according to the ACA. To assist families who may not be able to afford to send their child away, 93 percent of camps offer some form of scholarship, partial or full, and financial aid. Additionally, many camps offer early registration or sibling discounts.

A big reason for the closeness of camp relationships is the sheer amount of time spent together. From sunrise to sunset, the kids are together. This leads to deep relationships forming rapidly, and it is the thinking behind the motto, “Living 10 months for two,” that many people who go to camp live by.

The other kids that campers interact with are important to the experience, but the counselors who look after them might be even more essential to the camp environment.

“It’s really the in-bunk counselors that are going to make or break a camper’s summer,” said DeSpagna, who conducts interviews with potential staff. “It’s the characteristics that those people have, and their love of camp, whether they’re a first timer or this is their 17th summer with us, that they want the place to be special. I can’t tell you how many former campers that I talk to that say, ‘I want to give back to camp what my counselors gave to me.’”

Longtime friends Alex Lenneberg (bottom) and Ben Mathios (top) reunite after months apart.

“The staff also brings such a unique feel to each and every year,” said Donatelli. “Whether they reside in the UK or Russia or Australia or South Africa or even other regions of the U.S., these 17- to 24-year-olds always bring a fresh perspective which provides a platform for camp to be interesting and new each and every summer.”

Donatelli, a teacher in his late 30s, has been attending TLW for the past 25 years, rising through the ranks to his current position after beginning as a pre-teen camper. He and DeSpagna are camp “lifers”, or people, usually educators, who continue giving their summers to camp every year as they grow older. Doesn’t it get stale? Why continue for 10, 20, even 30 summers?

“What keeps me coming back year after year is a question my mother has finally stopped asking. She used to also ask if I got bored going to the same place and doing the same things. My answer was always a resounding ‘No’,” explained Donatelli. “If people make a community and those people change every year, doesn’t that make each and every year a fresh and unique experience?

“The people are truly what bring me back year after year,” Donatelli continued. “Always so many kids from so many different walks of life, from the biggest of houses out on the [Long] Island [NY] to our scholarship kids from the dark streets of Bridgeport [Conn.]. But at camp, they can just be kids.”

These kids, whether their experience at camp came as a camper, a counselor, or both, all hold camp near and dear to their hearts.

“I think the best part about camp is that everyone is really a family and is so close,” said Izzy Stern, a 16-year-old who spent over five summers as a camper at TLW.  “It feels like a true second home.”

Hearing the various ways that it impacts young people is enlightening, but the story of Karl Sydney, grandfather of the reporter, especially showcases the lasting impact of camp.

Sydney is 83 years old, but memories of his camp experience, which came at Camp Mooween in Gilman, Connecticut from 1944-50, are still as fresh as ever. What helped those memories remain clear is that once a year for 34 years, he got to relive them.

“I didn’t know that they were going on. For me, that began in 1978, so many years later, I found out about these reunions, which I was not aware of whatsoever,” said Sydney.

Working in New York City as a 44-year-old, Sydney ran into another former Camp Mooween veteran on the street by chance. When his old friend told him about the annual gatherings while the pair were catching up, it was a no-brainer for him to attend.

Camp Mooween shut down in the early 1960s, becoming a state park, so these reunions became a way that Sydney and other “Mooweenites” got their camp fix.

“We chatted, kept up with our lives. We would start a conversation like camp never ended. You took it for granted, and you would start the conversation wherever you left off a year ago or two years before, and that’s the way it always went,” said Sydney.

There’s no stronger testament to the power of camp than that after over half a century after it ended, Sydney and others like him still got excited to see their buddies and reminisce, even if it was just for one night. They cracked jokes, told stories of their camp days, and sung the old camp songs together.

Now, all this might sound overly emotional and mystical, but to the people who go, it’s real. Camp is like a sanctuary to them, a haven of friendship and never-ending good times. The sensation one gets at camp lasts a lifetime, summed up no better than by a man who last experienced it more than 60 years ago:

“It was a very strong feeling that this was where you belonged,” remembered Sydney. “That was the feeling, and it just drove you right back to it each time. Some of us saw each other after camp over the years, others did not, but there was always that bond that this is where I came from, this is what I am.”