There are some characteristics that are ubiquitous to all quality summer camps. Every summer camp should help its campers make new friends. Any good overnight camp should give its children the chance to gain independence and improve at the activities that they are passionate about. That these qualities are considered crucial outcomes at our brother-sister summer camp in NH does not exactly make us different. And yet we hear time and time again from our campers, parents, staff, alumni, and even referral agents that there is something very different about the Kenwood and Evergreen experience. So what exactly does make our overnight camp so different? Not surprisingly, as one of the directors, I spend a lot of time thinking about this.
Deep down, I think that what makes our community so different is the mindset that we create here. Quite simply, our campers discover on day #1 that this is the most positive, nurturing, physically and emotionally safe place they have ever been, and it convinces them to try harder and take important risks. This leads to our campers discovering that they are their best, most confident selves while they are here…which further reinforces their desire to work on developing the skills that are most important to them. It is this mindset that seems to permeates all life here, and make this an experience with such lasting impact. Our campers really grow in incredible ways each summer.
I saw this mindset wherever I went today. On our courts I saw our head of basketball, Chris Straker, working with groups of eager athletes who hung on his every word. Whether they were doing drills or putting their new skills into practice, they could not have been more focused. And yet when I saw kids occasionally missing layups and foul shots I only heard support and kindness from their peers. This is certainly not how typical teens and tweens behave in the outside world, but on day #2 of the summer it is already the norm here.
When you know that you can try anything, fail, and no one will put you down you suddenly become so much kinder to — and more supportive of — the people around you. That is the mindset of Kenwood and Evergreen.
I spent time at a fantastic softball period where our coaches were working with small groups of girls on pitching, catching, grounders, and batting. Because of the small counselor-to-camper ratios at our periods, our kids were able to spend serious amounts of time improving their skills while their coaches gave them insightful and encouraging feedback. Amongst the players today I saw girls who play on competitive softball teams at home, and girls for whom this was a completely new sport. Together they were learning and laughing and just having a blast. Everyone was working on improving their skills, as opposed to measuring themselves against what others were doing. That’s another characteristic of the Kenwood and Evergreen mindset.
I saw it in all of our art studios, too. Campers were taking extraordinary risks trying new dance steps, learning to set up a lighting rig, trying out for our musicals, and attempting to center on the potter’s wheel for the first time. Along with the fantastic teaching, our arts specialists have already begun to celebrate our campers who are finding their artistic voices. In the dining hall, adjacent to the food window, our photography counselor is posting Photos of the Day. In each age group she is finding artists to celebrate in front of the entire community. While getting my dinner tonight I watched as campers turned to their friends featured in photos and made comments like “I didn’t know you were into dance. You look really good at it” and “I love the way the light hits your face in that photo.” In two days this has yet again become a community with a supportive, nurturing mindset.
When you feel that nurtured by your peers and counselors you can do almost anything. Like live away from home for 7 weeks and grow more resilient than you ever thought possible. Josh Williams, the Kenwood Sophomore unit leader, was so excited to show me one of the ways he hopes to foster this mindset with his campers this summer. Josh comes from a family of professional rugby players, and he decided that this year his age group would act and support each other like the rugby teams in the UK. He designed a logo, and over the next few nights will be printing them onto t-shirts that he obtained for each of his campers. When they go on mountain hikes or face another camp in sports tournaments the “Oak Rogues” will have a chant and a dance to psyche them up, and remind them that they have a special bond amongst them. Can you imagine being 9 years old, in a new community, and having counselors go to that length just to make you feel like you belong, and that you can accomplish anything?
That really is the best of the Kenwood and Evergreen mindset.
Today was Camp picture day, and while we were waiting to take a photo with all of Evergreen these two girls ran up to me and said “Jason, take our picture. We’re best friends”. One of the campers was here for her second summer, and one was brand new. These two girls had never met each other before joining our community, and they are totally feeling the power of the Evergreen sisterhood. They are open to new experiences and new people, and they are learning to take charge of their own lives. It’s incredibly powerful to be in a place where you can truly be yourself. This is what starts to happen when you grasp the positive mindset of this community.
While we took more traditional all-camp portraits today, we also made sure to take two ridiculous pictures as well. This is the sort of fun we have here at our overnight camp.
Tonight was particularly special in both camps, as Kenwood and Evergreen had their opening ceremonial campfires. In Evergreen, the tradition is that our oldest campers (referred to as “Juniper”) run this event. From start to finish, every facet of the campfire is about helping our newest members feel like they have joined a sisterhood that will support and love them for life. The Juniper girls read poems, tell stories, and lead songs that help our campers feel a sense of deep connection to one another. Scott and I both played and sang, and had a chance to speak briefly about how much we love the Evergreen sisterhood.
Afterwards, in what is probably my all-time favorite Evergreen tradition, the Juniper girls invited new campers to take part in a candle-lighting ceremony in front of the entire community. They called them up by name, asked them to read a poem, and then helped them light a candle on a beautiful ceremonial candelabra shaped like an Evergreen tree. Think about the impact such a gesture can have on an 8, 9 or 10 year old brand new to our overnight camp. How often in life do 15-year old girls demonstrate such kindness…and in front of their peers?! I love watching the look on the faces of the young campers when they were called up to participate. You could see how thrilled they were to suddenly be a part of this incredible tradition. This act of inclusion is but one way our oldest girls, the camper leaders of our community, model how our Evergreen sisters treat each other.
Kenwood has its own traditions at its ceremonial campfire. Tonight, Scott, Walshy, Bob and I all spoke about the characteristics of a Kenwood boy. We talked about how we try to give our all in everything that we do, but that we also remember that friendships come before winning. We talked about how we value qualities like empathy and honesty, and how we try to find ways to make the world a better place.
Tonight I created a new tradition at both campfires. After playing “The Star Wars Song” (a song I have been playing at campfires for many, many years) I brought out a collection of friendship bracelets with the words “Camps Kenwood and Evergreen” woven into them. I explained that because this experience is so life changing for so many people, lots of campers and counselors (and even directors) wear little reminders of our overnight camp all year long. Some keep a ribbon around their ankle from a version of capture the flag that we play mid-summer. Some keep their color war tag fixed to their sweatshirt. Others paint their nails or have rubber bands on their braces to sport our camp colors. These are great, but I wanted to make sure that we all had a camp totem that we all shared in common. I handed out these bracelets so that this fall or winter, when school friends aren’t being as accepting as they should be, or when the coach doesn’t motivate as nicely as our specialists do, or if you just don’t have the confidence that you do during your 7 weeks in NH, that you can look at your wrist and remember that it will only be a few short months until you return to this place. This place where the mindset is different, and where it helps you figure out how to be your best self.