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How intentional summer camp rituals help combat homesickness

When you feel connected to the people around you life somehow feels easier. When you feel attached and supported by the institutions in your life, adapting to changes somehow becomes easier, more manageable. It’s even been reported in the Journal of Science that feeling disconnected from peers and social groups can be as detrimental to your health as smoking, high blood pressure or obesity. During 7 weeks of overnight camp, feeling a bond with your fellow campers and counselors can be the difference between occasional bouts of homesickness (something that even happens to the most seasoned camper…or director) and separation anxiety that lasts throughout the summer.

So at our overnight camp in New Hampshire we know that connectivity is key. As I outlined yesterday, we have a very intentional 21-point plan that we use to help new campers feel as connected, nurtured and supported as possible during their first 24 hours on campus. But what about the rest of the summer? How do we maintain that sense of belonging as our new and veteran campers start to settle into their routines? How do we get beyond the superficial good feelings of a first day, and lay the foundation for feeling like you’ve joined an overnight camp sisterhood or brotherhood? A good example would be our ceremonial campfires.

Each of our camps – Camp Kenwood for Boys and Camp Evergreen for Girls – has its own campfire to mark the start of the summer season. Evergreen’s was last night, and Kenwood’s was this evening. Both are designed to help every member of our community feel as welcome and connected as possible, though each camp produces this outcome in different ways.

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The Evergreen ceremonial campfire is organized and run by our oldest campers, known as Juniper. They decide which tunes in the official song book will be sung, when members of the Camp Leadership team will speak, and which members of the overall community will participate in each of the evening’s rituals. Imagine being 15 years old and having both that honor and that responsibility. Our young women have spent summer after summer preparing for this night, preparing to be the camper leaders of our girls’ camp. Last night they showed that every single one of them was up to the challenge.

Each Juniper girl stood in front of the camp and read a poem, gave a speech, or led the singing of a song. At breakfast this morning, our girls’ head counselor summed up how proud she was of our young women leaders when she said:

We talk so much about 21st century skills here and last night was such a great example of how much our kids learn those skills. Juniper was so organized, so in charge, and even those who don’t love public speaking stood up there and found their inner voice. Everyone has figured out how to be the leader they want to be in their summer here. They’ve learned how to work together on a big group project, and even how to adapt when things don’t work out as planned.

So how did the work of our young women translate into the rest of our girls’ camp feeling connected to one another? It really happened in so many subtle ways. You could see it in how our 13 and 14-year old campers elected to sit closely with younger campers (whether they knew them or not), instead of hanging in the back with their contemporaries. Or how our girls camp didn’t just sing songs in unison, but took the time to teach each song to our newest community members. Or that each age group received a letter in a time capsule written by girls who were their age the previous summer, offering them words of wisdom, guidance and friendship. Or how every single tradition was thoroughly explained by a Juniper girl, who then invited a new camper to participate as part of her entry into this incredible lifelong sisterhood.

Each ritual, each action transmitted the same important message: YOU BELONG. You are one of us. You are now our sister, and we will support and love you for as long as you want to be a part of this community. You can be yourself and that will always be good enough for us. Think about how rare it is for young women to hear this message, especially from other young women. This is what Evergreen is all about.

Download our Camp Evergreen for Girls brochure

And while many of the traditions in our boys’ campfire are different, the net effect is the same. The night ends with our boys and young men knowing that they are a part of something special, and that the community wants them. Kenwood’s ceremonial campfire begins with a torch light procession. David, our boys’ head counselor, leads our senior campers silently throughout camp, picking up each younger age group along the way. Each age group leader has his own torch, and after bringing every member of our boys’ camp to our campfire area David and the 5 unit leaders ignite an enormous bonfire.

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This is a special year for Camp Kenwood in that we have a new ceremonial campfire area. Completed just days before the start of the summer, it elegantly wraps around our new wrought iron fire ring while looking out on the shore of our lake. As soon as our maintenance team began building it our counselor staff affectionately began to refer to it as The Colosseum, and the name appears to have stuck. It is beautiful and awe inspiring, and feels like a part of our camp that we never knew we were missing.

As the flames rose on our new sacred ground, each member of Kenwood’s leadership team rose to speak to our boys about what exactly is the Kenwood way. Here are the headlines from each speech:

Scott: No one here walks alone. We take care of each other. If someone falls we lift him up, we succeed we celebrate together. That is what Kenwood is all about.

Walshy: This community is about the power of teamwork.

Josh: This camp has become my family.

Marc: This is the place where I’ve learned the most about myself.

Connor: I got here and learned that life is not just about winning. It’s also about empathy and understanding. 

Sean: Don’t let the small stuff get in the way of the amazing experiences in life. Camp has taught me that. 

Clarky: This is where I learned to become a leader. You will, too.

Caleb: I wish I could tell my younger self what I would become here. This place will change you forever. You can count on making amazing friendships and becoming a better person. 

Bob: Kenwood boys never quit. They always give their all. But they also find a way to have fun no matter what, and learning to do that makes life incredible.

It was powerful and also quite emotional. I love that a big part of our campfire includes our collection of male role models being emotionally vulnerable with our boys, telling them that they get nervous, that they get scared, and that there are times in life where they aren’t sure that they belong. Or that they make mistakes and have had to figure out what to do afterwards. Or that they don’t know all of life’s answers and are still figuring them out. You could see on the faces of so many new and returning campers recognition that in this place being a man leaves room for being anxious or unsure, that no one is perfect, and that imperfections are never a reason to give up.

Download our Camp Kenwood for Boys brochure

Throughout the campfire we sang. Scott played guitar and lead the boys in a beautiful rendition of “House at Pooh Corner”. I grabbed the guitar and together we sang “The Star Wars Song”. Clarky, our longtime Senior Unit Leader, brought a tradition from his native New Zealand called the Haka. For millennia it has been used to bond young Maori men together through choreographed movements and chants, and it has been a part of the Kenwood campfire since Clarky joined us about a decade ago.

Another tradition at Kenwood’s campfire is the meeting of the Big and Little Brothers. Both camps have a mentoring program that matches our oldest and youngest campers together. These relationships really help our newest campers feel extra connected and supported in our community, and these relationships often remain intact years and years later. During the first few days of the summer Deena and I shadow our youngest campers, both to make sure that they are thriving, but to also get a sense of who might be best served with which older camper(s) as their camp big brother or sister. Based on how many times I heard a 15-year old remark “he’s like a little me!” this evening I think the pairings were quite successful.

After introductions, the Big and Little Siblings sat together for the rest of the campfire, and at the conclusion the little boys were escorted back to their cabins by their new mentors. In the bunks they read them stories and made them laugh with rounds of Mad-Libs. It’s hard to imagine them feeling more connected to this community after a night like that.

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And yet there was one more tradition that really helps set the tone for the entire evening and summer. In the final act of the Kenwood Campfire, Scott invited all of the campers from our youngest unit to help dig up the original Shield of Honor, which we bury at the end of each summer and leave in the ground all winter long. Scott explained to everyone the meaning behind the Shield. Originally created as a memorial to one of Kenwood’s beloved former campers who perished in WWII, the Shield of Honor is awarded each summer to the campers in each age group who most consistently exhibit our brother-sister summer camp’s collective values: kindness, commitment to making this a welcoming community, honesty, and being an all-around good friend. This original tin shield, created in 1946, will hang in our dining hall throughout the summer and serve as a reminder of what our brother-sister overnight camp is all about. In just a short 47 days we will return it to the ground for yet another long winter. As Scott pulled this relic from the ground and held it up you could see 165 sets of eyes light up with excitement. It really does symbolize all that is important here. 

Rituals are important. They help you find your place in a new community, and they help define its norms and values. When done correctly they also make sure their newest and long-time members feel the same deep sense of meaning and connection to one another. I believe we laid the foundation for all of that in our two opening ceremonial campfires, and that this intense level of connectivity will to help our campers thrive should they occasionally experience moments of anxiety or adversity this summer. This is how intentional summer camp rituals help combat homesickness.

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