The Heart of Summer Camp in Santa Cruz: Friendship, Kindness, and Community

The Heart of Summer Camp in Santa Cruz: Friendship, Kindness, and Community
Image Source: Unsplash user Danielle MacInnes

I still remember my first night at summer camp. I was petrified. What if nobody in my cabin liked me? What if I had to talk in front of everyone? What if—heaven forbid—I was a terrible hiker? They seem like such small fears now, but when I was a ten-year-old girl, they were everything. I had been too shy to say much more than “hi” to my new bunkmates, so at the dining hall that night, I had no idea where to sit. I felt lost. Just as I was starting to panic, I heard someone call my name. “Hey! Hannah!” It was Jeanine, a girl in my group. She made some space for me at the table. “That’s my brother,” she said, pointing to a kid gesticulating wildly a couple tables down. “Just ignore him. He acts like he’s Batman or something. Do you want some of my potatoes?”

That’s how our friendship started: with Batman (and potatoes). It continued with late-night ghost stories (Jeanine took the bunk next to mine), early morning circle-ups (we were always, always late), and, eventually, a short backpacking trip into the redwoods (where we found out that I was not, in fact, a terrible hiker). But I’ll never forget that first day because it was the first time that someone I saw as a peer had made me feel important. Later, when I told her how nervous I’d been, she told me that she’d wanted to be kind to me because another camper had been kind to her, and once I knew that, it became a circle of kindness that I was eager to pay forward.

Summer Camp Values: Cooperation, Perseverance, and Community

At its core, that’s what a good summer camp does: it invites us to be kind, it asks us to step out of our comfort zones, and it puts us in constant positions of growth. Challenges such as kayaking in the Elkhorn Slough or horseback riding in Soquel offer a number of opportunities for campers to grow.

The backpacking trip that Jeanine and I went on was formative in that sense: we spent several days trundling around the redwood forest with the rest of our group and our trip leader, totally removed from life as we knew it. It was a huge challenge for a kid who’d never camped in her life, but I’m glad that I met it, and here are a few of the reasons why.

  • It taught me the value of cooperation and community. When you’re out on a backpacking trip, there’s not a lot you can rely on besides yourself and the people you have with you, so you learn pretty quickly how important it is to trust each other, to help each other up the mountain (literally and figuratively), and to work together in everything you do.
  • It encouraged me to ask for help when I needed it. It took me a long time to recognize this as a skill, but it is, and it’s one I started learning during my first summer at camp. And, because I had such a great trip leader and a great group of girls, they always showed up when I asked.
  • It taught me how to persevere even when I felt discouraged. It’s a truth universally acknowledged that backpacking is hard. OK, maybe not universally acknowledged, but it’s pretty well known. For ten-year-old me, it was probably the hardest thing I’d ever done. But I stuck it out because I was surrounded by people who supported me in doing so, and that’s kind of an incredible thing.
  • It taught me how important it is to care for the planet we live on. In an age when we spend most of our time plugged in, wading through the hustle and bustle of modern life, there’s nothing quite like outdoor adventures to ground us and remind us that the environment is something we have to cultivate and care for. This is especially true for the Santa Cruz mountain ecosystem and the wildlife that teams in the summer fog. For me, that summer was the start of a lifelong love of the natural world right outside my home, and I’m grateful for that early connection.
  • It supported me in being brave. On our last day of the trip through the redwoods, our group hiked out to a pool at the base of a waterfall, and as usual, I was a little nervous about getting in. But our leader and the other girls were confident that I could do it, and that made all the difference in the world.

What Summer Camp Is Really About

When I started out on my camp journey many years ago, I knew very little about what it meant to go to summer camp. But now that I’m sending my own children on their camp journeys, I know that it’s about friendship, integrity, leadership, and a horde of other character-building qualities, qualities that camp staff modelled for my group and me from the get-go. That’s what summer camp’s about—not sports or crafts or campfires. As I get ready to send my own campers off for their first year, I’m excited for the things they’ll learn, friends they’ll make, and all of the ways in which they’ll grow.

Kennolyn Camps offers residential and day programs for kids in grades K–9, and a wide range of creative and outdoor activities give kids chances to grow. Reach out to us today to explore how our camps can guide your child on a fun summer in community.

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