How Emotional Vulnerability Can Foster Deeper, Lifelong Friendships

I recently saw a documentary that had some pretty profound thoughts about how people form and maintain deep friendships. In it, country singer Trey Hirsch was interviewed, and he bemoaned how much harder it is to make new and close friendships later in life. His analysis was that this was due to two important factors: how little quality time most adults get to spend with new people, and how few opportunities there are to truly let yourself be vulnerable with one another once you reach a certain age. 

This was playing through my head during both of the Kenwood and Evergreen Opening Ceremonial Campfires. As I watched our two camps come together to sing, perform our sacred rituals, and discuss what it means to be a part of a sisterhood or brotherhood, it made me realize how right Trey was. It’s really part of the secret to what makes people so passionate about this experience. 

Over the course of our 49 day experience we have the good fortune to spend incredible amounts of time with each other, and during those 7 weeks, we have daily opportunities to connect on an emotional level that just doesn’t happen very often in life. We don’t just form friendships at Kenwood and Evergreen: we create intense relationships with people who become more like brothers or sisters. 

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One of the ways we ensure that this happens is through rituals like our Opening Ceremonial Campfires. Last night in Evergreen our eldest campers (a group called Juniper) led our young women in a beautiful cermony just as the sun was setting over our lake. They read poems and talked about important concepts like truth, spirit, and knowledge. Scott and I were invited to play our guitars and lead the girls in singing. Some of our leaders stood up and talked about the crucial life lessons that they had learned growing up here. And one of our leaders told those assembled around the fire about how much she loved one of our friends who will be retiring after this summer. As she did her eyes welled up with tears, and by the end of her speech she was in a full cry. Soon it spread to most of the Camp. 

RELATED: Our Summer Camp Leadership Team

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Because this is a place where we strive to be real with one another, this display of emotion felt entirely natural to all who were there. Over the years our camp community members develop deep, life-changing feelings for one another, and even the thought of not spending more summers together can make the strongest person weep with emotion. That’s real love, and the sort of sisterhood that blossoms during your years spent here. I am convinced that such intense feelings develop, in part, because this level of caring and emotional honesty is such a normal part of life here. 

Evergreen’s campfire has a particular tradition that I have always loved, and each year that I watch it I get a little choked up. As our Juniper leaders celebrate the virtues all Evergreen women strive to embody, they invite brand new campers up to read poems in front of the entire camp. After completing the readings the new campers are invited to light a candle on the Ceremonial Evergreen Tree. 

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Traditions, Rituals and Special Events

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Each time I see this tradition I think about how nervous our new campers must be at the start of the summer (I know I was 30+ years ago), and how incredible it must feel to be recognized and included in such a special ceremony. How powerful a message it must be for each new Evergreen camper to see that no matter how sacred the tradition it always includes a balance of new and veteran community members. It is such a clear signal to all that “You are now our sister. You belong and always will from this day on.”

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The traditions of the Kenwood Ceremonial Campfire feel just as rich and impactful. Each year it begins with a torch lit procession from one end of campus to the other, followed by a series of activities designed to remove all anxiety or self-consciousness, and to put the boys in a state of emotional readiness. One of the annual favorites is Head Counselor Walshy’s Human Rain Storm. By the time he concludes you can just sense that every young man present is ready for a powerful experience.  

And tonight that’s exactly what happened. Scott got up and talked about how Kenwood is a place to learn, to grow, to make friendships for life…and to make mistakes. He talked about what it means to be a part of this Kenwood Brotherhood, including how we learn to take care of one another and strive to always do the right thing. Then he played a beautiful song on guitar and led the whole boys camp in a sing-a-long.

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Then I got up and talked about how it takes time to feel like you are a part of a brotherhood, and that it’s ok to not be sure on day #2 if this is your new summer home. I asked every returning camper and counselor to raise their hand if they had ever felt lonely here. Every hand went up, and our new campers seemed just a bit confused. I then asked our veterans if they had ever had a bad moment here and thought about going home. Again, all hands went up, as did the eyebrows of some new campers. I asked about homesickness and arguments and the other short term issues that can make being here challenging. Everyone acknowledged that these things happen here….occasionally. Then I asked if our returners were glad they had toughed it out and every single hand shot up as fast as possible. You could see the eyes of our newest campers grow really wide. 

That’s when we talked about how being a strong young man means being comfortable with your feelings. How you can have great and challenging moments in a place that you love, and if you have friends and role models to support you that you can persevere through just about anything. That you have to work hard at making strong friendships because they don’t happen on their own. And that when you realize how loved and supported you are at Kenwood that’s when you realize how important this brotherhood is in your life. By the end I saw a lot of big and little faces nodding in agreement tonight. 

Throughout the evening our Ceremonial Campfire traditions brought out real emotions in everyone. One of our unit leaders discussed how he had recently lost someone important to him, and how being supported by this community helped him through it. Another talked about how terribly homesick he was when he started as a camper, and how a friend he made on the first day convinced him that he had the resilience to thrive here. That friend was still here and also a unit leader. Another shared that he has been on staff as long as some of our campers have been alive because he draws such inspiration and peace from being a part of this community.

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The night ended with another tradition that always gets me a bit choked up. Scott invited our youngest campers to stand with him by the fire and dig up our most important artifact. It is a little metal shield that was created back in 1946. It’s a memorial to a former Kenwood camper and counselor who was considered the nicest guy and best citizen of his era, and who sadly did not make it back from fighting in in Germany during World War II. Since his passing each year our community has honored both his bravery and the sacrifice he made. 

By the end of the night, just like at the Evergreen campfire, every boy had his arms around a friend or two. You could see the bonds forming as they sat on the benches. They totally understood what tonight was about, and it already had meaning for them.  

Evening activities like our Opening Ceremonial Campfires are really important for every member of our community, but especially our new campers. The time we spend together at events like these gives our campers a sense of belonging that is so fundamental to what our camp is all about. Seeing how normal and accepted it is here for our leaders of all ages to be vulnerable and real with their emotions helps every camper and counselor know that they can be that way too, and that it will ultimately lead to deeper, more meaningful friendships that truly last a lifetime. 

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incredible experience for children

Camps Kenwood and Evergreen is a summer camp for boys and girls ages 8-15.