Growing up in Texas was hot.... like really hot... as in I owned a T-shirt that stated, "I survived the 1980 Texas heat wave." That was the year we had 42 consecutive days with a high temperature over 100 and reached an all-time high of 113. I went to Girl Scout camp for a couple of summers on Lake Texoma (the lake breeze being the only thing that made those platform tents tolerable) until my mom declared it was simply too hot to go to camp in Texas. The next year, she started sending me to Camp Illahee in the mountains of North Carolina for five weeks each summer. That was back when unaccompanied minors on summer flights were the norm. It was pre-9/11 and before the advent of helicopter parenting, so kids flew alone to visit grandma, stay with cousins, or go to camp. I would hop on a flight in Dallas with 8-10 other kids heading to camp in North Carolina. We would fly to Charlotte where we would change planes for the short flight to Asheville. Looking back, I feel so sorry for the flight attendants (or I'm sure they were called stewardesses back then) on that flight from Charlotte to Asheville. Campers from all over the country converged in Charlotte, and then we all took that same flight to Asheville. Can you imagine being the flight attendant on a flight that was 90% unaccompanied minors? As you watched the baggage being loaded onto the plane, it was footlocker after footlocker after sleeping bag after duffel bag. They must have hated those flights.
I loved my summers at Illahee. I made friends who I still keep in touch with to this day. Don't I look like someone straight out of Hayley Mills' cabin in the movie The Parent Trap in my Sunday white uniform?
We wore whites on Sundays and blues on Saturdays and for trips out of camp. This photo was taken at the Biltmore.
Some of my fondest childhood memories are from camp - the hike up to Mount LeConte Lodge, rafting the Nantahala, organizing Surprise Day as a CIT, fried chicken and Biltmore ice cream for lunch on Sundays, the dances at the boys' camp, Camp Deerwoode, taking woodworking, weaving, riflery, synchronized swimming, diving, lifesaving, rappelling, and canoeing. When Addie asks me to sing to her at bedtime, she gets campfire songs from Illahee.
I always knew that if I ever had a girl, she would spend her summers at Illahee. Then... I grew up. I had not one but THREE girls, and discovered that the 3-4 week long sessions at Illahee are prohibitively expensive, especially times three. Also, sessions that long don't work out so well with a year-round school schedule. Neither our budget nor our schedule could make that dream happen, so off to Girl Scout camp they went. I'm not knocking Girl Scout camps. They are great for what they are - fun, affordable camps, with limited amenities and activities. My girls have enjoyed Girl Scout camp, but every year when we would drop them off or pick them up, I couldn't help but feel like they were missing out. It just isn't the same experience that you get at a bigger camp with a long history of traditions, (Illahee opened in 1921.) and campers who return to the same session year after year.
This year, we decided to try something different, Camp Cheerio, a YMCA camp. It has been around for 60 years, is priced about halfway between Girl Scout camp and Illahee, and seemed to offer the type of camp experience I had been wanting to find.
As we sat in the long line of cars to get into camp that first day with the windows open enjoying the cool mountain air, I think I was just as excited as Elise and Nina.
It all just felt right. We hadn't even gotten out of the car yet, and I knew they were going to have a great week.
Even the slide going into the lake looked just like the one at Illahee.
As we drove into camp we were greeted everywhere by counselors waving and yelling, "Welcome to Cheerio!" We got the girls checked into their cabins. (How cool are the bright colored footlockers these days? I don't think there was any option other than black when I was a camper.)
Pop culture decorating the cabin doors still seems to be going strong.. Ms. Pacman from the 80's to Taylor Swift now.
We dropped off their medicine, bought the requisite camp sweatshirts, hugged them good-bye, and left knowing they were going to have an amazing time creating camp memories to last a lifetime.
Every smiling picture we saw from camp during the week confirmed that they were having a ball.
The perfectly posed cabin photo even reminded me of the unit pictures we always took at Illahee.
I was feeling like I had finally found the perfect camp for my girls. Then Thursday came, a day that will sadly stick in the minds of many people for years to come. We got an email from the camp that evening that there had been a tragic zipline accident and a child had been taken to the hospital. By later that night, we saw on the news that the child had died. I can't even tell you all the feelings that were running through us that night... overwhelming grief for the family who lost a child, a heavy feeling in the pit of our stomachs that it could just as easily have been one of our girls, and worry for Elise and Nina - What had they seen? What did they know? Was this girl a friend or cabinmate? Did they need a hug from mom and dad? (We certainly needed one from them.)
When you send your child off to camp, you expect a few bumps and bruises, maybe a bee sting, sprained ankle or stitches. That comes with the territory of outdoor camp activity. I had to go to the hospital one year for stitches in my toe after a bizarre canoe accident at camp. You never in a million years though think that when you give your child a good-bye hug at their cabin that it is the last time you'll ever see them alive. I get overwhelmed just thinking about it.
On top of the fear, the grief, the anxiety, I had a much more trivial sad thought running through my head as well... "That camp seemed like everything I wanted for them, and now they will never want to go back."
We debated going straight to the camp the next morning to pick them up. We had visions of sobbing campers all over camp with parents rushing in to bring them all home. When I called the camp the next morning, that image couldn't have been further from the truth. I was told that if our children had witnessed the accident or had been a cabinmate of the child that we would have already been contacted directly. I was also told that camp was going on as usual with laughter, smiles, singing, and fun. Most of the campers didn't even know there had been an accident. Those that asked about it were told that she had been in an accident and had to leave camp but no more than that. Amazing. I had never been so grateful for the "no phones, no ipods, no electronics" camp rule. Despite the story being all over the news and social media, the camp was able to completely isolate the majority of the campers from knowing anything. Those young counselors are rock stars. The counselors had all been told Thursday night, but they put on a smiling face, and I suppose adrenaline kept them going.
Pick-up on Saturday was hard. All I could think about was that one family wasn't there picking up their daughter with the rest of us. I couldn't wait to see Elise and Nina, but I was on the verge to tears the whole morning. The camp program director and YMCA CEO greeted each car as we arrived at camp and answered any questions we had. We told them that we appreciated all their communication and felt like they had handled a horrible situation as well as they possibly could. We picked up the girls who were positively bursting with stories to tell us about all the things they had done at camp that week. Before we could even ask, they both declared that they were definitely going back next year.
Wow. Despite counselors and camp leadership likely in shock and grieving those last few days of camp, most of the campers were none the wiser. The week could have ended so differently for all those campers, but thanks to good decisions by the camp director and CEO, most of those campers had just as great a week as they have had any other year at Cheerio.
After about three hours of non-stop camp stories from Elise and Nina, Nina eventually told us that there had been a bad accident at the zip line. Sadly, two girls in Nina's cabin had witnessed the fall. Nina knew it was bad. She said one of the girls cried a lot and had counselors talking with her a lot (the camp had grief counselors there on site after the accident). Nina had definitely been affected by the accident and is still struggling with it to some degree, but the fact that it took three hours of non-stop talk before the subject came up tells me that the fun and adventures of camp overshadowed the sadness.
Later that evening, we told the girls the whole story, and we all shed some tears. Nina is still processing it all, but she is adamant that she wants to go to Cheerio again next year. She loved her time there.
I feel blessed, fortunate, and just plain lucky that our children came home from camp that week healthy and safe, but I feel like a little of my parent innocence has been lost. Those camp good-bye hugs will take on a whole new meaning in the future. Elise left for Costa Rica three days ago, and I think I hugged her and told her I loved her about 10 times between the parking lot and the airport. I'm pretty much holding my breath until their rainforest canopy zip line adventure is over. It is a little sooner than I'd like to have my child on a zip line again.
I'm thrilled that the girls had a great week at camp and that we have found a camp that reminds me more of my childhood camp memories. That was a hard week though, and my thoughts and prayers are still with the Burney family, the counselors who were working the zip line that day, the camp doctor and first responders, and the whole Camp Cheerio family.
"Making a decision to have a child - it is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body."
~ Elizabeth Stone