Photo: The Swimming Area at The Highlands Camp, Ohio, 1978
As a kid, summer camp was something I looked forward to each year and the memories created have remained strong. This was an annual chance to get away from “regular” life and immerse ourselves in the natural world. A chance to get away from the addicting TV and move nonstop. A chance to be a part of a larger community and form new relationships. Equally as important, are the feelings of joyful nostalgia that arise when I think about my summer camp days and the sense of camaraderie felt during this time. This feeling is really powerful stuff and can have a major impact on campers’ lives.
Nostalgia is a strong emotion that can have positives and negatives. It’s definitely a bittersweet feeling and most people cannot escape having an element of both from their childhood. Unfortunately, some kids, especially those living in poverty, have too many negative memories, and it can make it challenging for positive ones to leave a lasting impression. If more enriching experiences can be cultivated, joyful memories can win out and be an inspiring lifelong force. According to the NY Times, nostalgia has been shown to combat loneliness, boredom and anxiety. It can increase generosity and strengthen relationships. It can give life extra meaning and help people feel optimistic and excited about the future. It can make people feel rooted and offer a sense of continuity. These are some seriously convincing reasons to give kids more opportunities to develop positive memories that leave them feeling empowered. Summer camp can do just that, and it doesn’t take long to achieve this!
As a camper, memories of the songs we sang, the hikes we took, the games we played, the challenges we faced, all evoke a sense of contentment when I go back there in my mind. It wasn’t just about the friendships and adventures, but also the idea that we were all in this together. It felt like a huge family and we all had each other’s backs. Even the conflicts that inevitably arose proved to be valuable learning experiences. As a young adult, being a counselor at summer camp was also a very meaningful experience that gave me some amazing memories to look back on. This is what I ultimately want more than anything for these Footpath campers. A lifelong sense of peace they can tap into when times get tough. A community of people to look back on as encouraging and positive friends and mentors. Another opportunity to develop joyful memories for the future which can help keep kids on a positive path through life.
We weren’t sure it would be possible to accomplish all of this in just 4 days at camp but now we know for sure it can. Last year I volunteered for all 4 days and was fully convinced of the power of just half of a week of summer camp. This year I stayed for only one night, barely 24 hours, but I still got so much out of the experience. I felt sad saying goodbye to everyone and genuinely missed them soon after I left. If they were having that kind of impact on me after just 24 hours I can only imagine the kind of impact their counselors and peers were having on them over the course of the entire 4-day “getaway”.
Even after one night, the drive back into the city seemed like entering a different world. It felt like I had been away for so much longer than just one day. Important memories had been formed in such a short time frame because of the quality time spent with friends, campers and the new people I met. Thinking about the experiences of the 24 hours made me feel good, but I longed to go back…nostalgia at work!
In addition to building positive memories, camp helps kids refresh their perspective on day to day life. They get a much needed break, not only by being in nature, but from being with a new community of peers and mentors. It’s not just about the exciting activities and adventures, which are amazing and offer the kids so much growth and development in themselves. It’s also about the carefree happiness, the sense of family, the feelings of peace, and maybe one of the most important things we value for these kids’ futures, the joyful nostalgia being cultivated that will literally last a lifetime.
Sarah Tabeling, Footpath Foundation Co-founder