8 things I learned from being a church-camper, OR 8 reasons you should make your kids go to camp

When I was growing up, summer meant a lot of things to me. It meant late evenings playing in the fading sun and getting sticky from humidity and dirt. It meant bike rides and vacations. It meant the swimming pool and skin that smelled faintly of chlorine for weeks. And it meant church camp.

If you were a church camper, like I considered myself a church camper -- devout and passionate-- then you'll understand it when I say: church camp deeply and profoundly shaped who I was as a teenager. And not just in the ways you might think.

I started going to week long camp in fourth grade. Week long! In fourth grade! Now that I am a mom, I can't imagine sending my FOURTH GRADER to a week long camp. But my parents did. And I am so thankful. That first year was a little tough. I was homesick, but my sister was in my cabin and that first night that I didn't know if I could make it she crawled in my bunk with me and scratched my back and sang me a song. I felt safe, and at home, and I fell asleep. And I never looked back.

From that point forward, I counted down to church camp. And when I say counted down, I mean I put it on my calendar the instant I knew the dates, and then on each square until it arrived I wrote how many days were left. 88 DAYS UNTIL CAMP! 75 DAYS UNTIL CAMP! In neon gel pens. Until the date in June or July arrived. Obsessive. One year I even took a notebook with me and recorded every moment of camp. Everything. What I ate for breakfast. The names of everyone in my cabin. Their birthdays. And of course their addresses. What activities we did. How I felt each moment. What songs we sang every night in chapel [and what I wore!]. Who the "mission moments" speaker was each day. What silly joke Leroy shared in line for the cafeteria. What cabin got to go first for lunch for the best "cabin inspection." Everything. It's comical.

I kept any papers I received at camp in my bible until the next year. I developed my film immediately upon returning home, and that week of waiting to get the pictures back was excruciating. I cried when I had to say good bye to the camp grounds and my friends every year. I cried again the summer after my junior year of college when I realized I couldn't be a counselor due to my schedule, and would therefore NOT be going to camp for the first time in 11 years!

But beyond the FUN and the JESUS, there was a lot more about camp that shaped me. Here are the top eight things I learned from being a church-camper, and what I think are 8 reasons you should make your kids go to camp. 

// My world grew exponentially. 

I grew up in a small town. My class in school consisted of roughly the same 50-60 kids from kindergarten until graduation. To say my social experience and choices were limited is an understatement. And for a girl who is social, learning that there were people beyond my town was crucial to my ability to make wise choices when it came to my friendships. Let me try and explain: Friendship and social interactions were super important to me. And if, in my adolescent mind, my choice of friends were limited to the 150 kids that were in my high school, then I would have felt "forced" into making some poor choices just to have a social outlet. But by going to camp, I was exposed to a whole other world. There were kids in ALL the small towns around me. And a lot of them were like me! And some even shared my passions-- for sports, for reading, for being a good friend, and most of all for Jesus.

I found that kids my age really could pursue Christ, and that discovery allowed me to be okay with a social level of friendship with my friends at school. I still had great friendships within my town, but the deepest and most lasting friendships were ones I developed outside of it. Church camp exposed me to this bigger world. That lesson has stuck with me: there are always experiences and people and places beyond my "reality," and if I put myself out there I can discover them.

// My social skills developed.

Like I mentioned, I was/am a very social person. I was an extrovert from early on [my mom would argue I was NOT an extrovert as a young child, but I would counter that I think I was just rude]. Church camp gave me a safe place to learn the art of conversation. Every day, at any given moment, I could strike up a conversation with anyone I wanted. I learned how to ask questions about them. When you only have 5 days to get to know a person, you learn how to get past small talk pretty quickly. If I wanted an opportunity to speak or lead or share, I could do that.

As I got older I realized the beauty of this super-intense week of close social contact. The "real world" isn't like that. You can walk past the same person at work all year and never say more than, "Hello," or "How are you doing?" without really listening or speaking to them. Even for, and maybe especially for, an introverted person, a place like church camp, though exhausting, is a place to push yourself beyond what makes you comfortable in a conversation. It was there that I learned to ask, "How are you doing?" and really mean it, and really listen.

// I learned how to be a "long-distance" friend. 

This ties in closely with the first point, but if I wanted these friends that I made at camp to be my people, I had to learn how to pour into them all year until we made it back to camp.  So I wrote letters. To people who lived fifteen minutes away from me. One year I literally hung every letter and envelope I received from my friends on my wall. Later, when email and instant messenger were easily accessible, I could connect with these friends every day. And a small few I could call every once in awhile, even though it was long distance rates.

We celebrated birthdays together. We had sleepovers. And when we could all drive we went to bible study together and had Fourth of July celebrations with bonfires. The addresses we had written when we were just 6th graders became tangible places we could drive our beat up cars. We prayed with each other. We went to prom with each other. And when we left for college we returned to our emails and phone calls. And then Facebook was invented.

And I kept learning how to ask them about their days. Why did you decide on that major? How is your relationship with your mom going? What are you learning about who God is? 

And one of those long-distance friendships developed into THE long-distance relationship I had to keep putting effort and time into. And I'm so thankful that I had learned that art because I had friends beyond my town's boundaries.

// I learned how to seek out mentors.

Church camp is probably the first place where I saw the importance of and the reality of what a real mentor is play out. For a week there were these people who were older than me that were pouring into me and giving their time to me and listening to me and challenging me. I clung to that. I saw the beauty in that and I wanted it for the rest of my life.

I had older women pull me aside in the middle of the day and say, "Kelsey, let's pray about that thing we talked about earlier." I had counselors who would stay up with me until midnight just to hear my stories and share theirs. And these women would keep in touch with me, and check up on me, and pray for me throughout the year- and some beyond that.

To know there is someone in your corner that is not a parent is incredibly powerful. At every stage of my life since then, I have sought our mentors.

           //stay tuned tomorrow for the last four… 

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Carrie Fowler said...
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Carrie Fowler said...

I love this and agree 150%! Even more now that I continue to go to camp each summer and try my hardest to be a great mentor just like I had when I was at church camp. Its beyond words how awesome having the once in a lifetime experiences at camp change your whole percepective on life. I now get the opportunity to spend a week on Holy Ground with junior high kids and continually go back during the year to help guide high school leaders. Camp has made me who I am. (PS I met my boyfriend at camp too...:))

Better Is One Day . . . . said...

Wondefully articulated! I couldn't agree more with your input!!!~Live&Love Ana-Rose

*carrie* said...

This is crazy timing, Kelsey--I just picked Nathan up yesterday from his first stint (2-nights) at a nearby Christian camp!