Continuing CWW’s Mission Today
Camp Walt Whitman has been a huge part of my life for more than 30 years. In the 80s and 90s, I was a camper, CIT, counselor, and senior staff member. Now, my daughter attends and I’m a proud Whitman parent. It’s impossible to describe the impact that CWW has had on my life. I made uniquely close and lifelong friends while having amazing amounts of fun. It’s also no exaggeration to say that camp is where I learned the most about myself and where I figured out what I wanted to do with my life.
When I think back on my time at Walt Whitman, there are so many memories I could write about, and so many ways in which they’ve shaped the person I’ve become. The one summer that stands out as the most influential is my very first summer as camper. I had attended another sleep-away camp for the 3 previous summers, with my best friend from home and a first cousin. As far as I was concerned, I was happy at that camp: it was a comfortable environment where I could play sports all day long. My parents (who met and fell in love at summer camp when they were teenagers), however, knew that camp could be more than that. They did their research and decided to send me to a camp in distant New Hampshire, named after a poet, where I knew nobody. Needless to say, I was skeptical.
That first summer at CWW was nothing short of life-changing for me. Suddenly, camp became about so much more than the activities. I still loved all of the stuff we were doing, but that was eclipsed by the intense sense of belonging and the deep connections that I felt with my bunkmates and counselors. I remember the bunk challenge soccer games that we won and lost, the insanely fun canoeing traverse I went on, the hikes and square dances that I slowly learned to love. But mostly I remember the time I spent goofing around in the bunk with my friends. We had “sock wars” at night, in which the two sides of our cabin threw balled-up athletics socks at each other. It was an extremely rainy summer, which allowed me and my best friend to turn a game of Rummy 500 into Rummy 50,000. Those aren’t special moments in and of themselves, except that they were to me, because of the unique level of camaraderie that accompanied them.
My strongest memory of that summer – one that is still palpable to me all these years later – is how I felt at the end of my 8 weeks. It’s cliché to talk about campers crying at the final campfire (and as a camp director today, it’s a sight in which I take perverse pleasure at seeing from my own campers), but the truth is that as an adolescent boy, it was all new to me. I had no idea that I could feel that deeply about anything.That summer’s departure was heartbreaking to me … but in a way that made it impossible for me to imagine ever not having that in my life.
I went on to absolutely love my remaining time as a camper and CIT. When I became a counselor, I was determined to do my best to fulfill the role in my campers’ lives that my counselors played in mine. What I found was that being on staff, while extremely hard work, was every bit as joyful and infinitely more rewarding than being a camper. I loved building a community within my bunks, mentoring individual campers and helping them grow into young men. Later, as the director of the CIT program, I was able to help prepare and train the next generation of great Whitman counselors.
The combination of those two phases of my time at CWW had a direct influence on who I am today. As a camper, I became so much more independent and socially confident. I found my voice. I found out what I was capable of. I fell in love with camp and knew that I wanted it in my life as long as possible. As a counselor, I confirmed my passion for working with young people and I realized that I could make a difference in their lives. I witnessed how camp helped them reach their potential. In short, I fell in love with camp as a mode of education that’s critical to the social emotional growth of children.
A few years after leaving CWW, I started a new camp in Vermont, called Camp Akeela. There are of course some distinct differences between my camp and Walt Whitman, mostly because our campers are “quirky” and need a little extra social support. But a visitor would be struck by how similar it is, in terms of the program, routines and structures. What most closely connects us, however, is that my experiences at Whitman have fundamentally informed our mission, culture and philosophy, and approach to child development. Our camp strives to be a community where kids experience the same level of community, belonging, acceptance and empowerment that I felt at Walt Whitman. I know that if they have the kinds of camp memories that I have (and that I’m lucky enough to continue to accumulate), we’ll have done something right.