NEW YORK – When the school year ends a few weeks from now, millions of kids will head off to sleepaway camp for a summer filled with color wars, kayaking and bunk life. Most will have a great time, some will make friends for life and many will look back on the experience fondly.
But amid these happy campers is another group of veterans who recall sleepaway camp quite differently. These were the kids who cried every day and sent letters home begging to be picked up. They were lonesome, miserable, bullied; hated the bugs, hated the pool. Many refused to ever go back, and decades later, they can recall their suffering in visceral detail – from poison ivy to wretched food.
“Oh, did I hate overnight camp,” said Lauren Russ, 43, who lives in Chicago. “I cried every day and wrote two letters home a day asking my parents to come get me.”
Russ’ mom and dad saved those notes and even read some of them aloud at her wedding shower 10 years ago. “I got another letter from you,” reads one of the heart-wrenching lines in Russ’ schoolgirl’s script. “Every time I get a letter I cry and become very homesick.”
What was so bad about camp? Let Russ count the ways: “I’ll never forget the first night I had to sleep in a tent. I hated the public showers, I hated sharing a room with several other girls, I hated the anxiety of packing and saying goodbye.”
Some unhappy campers hated bunk life.
“It was dirty,” said Gerry Cotten, 25, a website developer in Toronto. “I was always into computers, and some sort of computer camp probably would have been fun, but sleeping in an ancient old wooden cabin, with disgusting washrooms a five-minute walk away, wasn’t really appealing.”
The great outdoors didn’t hold much charm either: “Taking a dip in the lake each morning instead of having a shower wasn’t really for me. They called it the Polar Dip,” Cotten said.
According to the American Camp Association, nearly 9 million children younger than 18 attend one of the country’s 7,000 overnight camps each summer, with stays ranging from a week to two months. Research on the association’s website suggests that going to camp can build confidence, self-esteem, social skills, independence and a sense of adventure.
But for some campers, the experience was more like the 1963 hit comedy song that began: “Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh, I am here at Camp Grenada. Camp is very entertaining. And they say we’ll have some fun if it stops raining.”
Kim Cooper, 46, hated the structured activities.
“They said ‘You need to go make lanyards now,’” she said. “Why do I need a lanyard?” She preferred “hiking solo in the woods looking for interesting wildlife.” But other campers thought that was weird, and Cooper soon found herself “surrounded by a group of scary big kids who were shoving me around and calling me Moses” – because of a stick she carried on her treks.
“I had no alternative but to bite one of them,” she said. But Cooper didn’t grow up to be a hermit in the woods. In fact, she makes a living dealing with groups of strangers, running the Esotouric bus tour company in Los Angeles with her husband.
Fran Walfish, a family psychotherapist in Hollywood who writes for Parents magazine’s “Ask the Expert,” doesn’t recommend sleepaway camp for kids younger than 9 unless they are very outgoing and transition easily, or unless an older sibling is at the same camp. Even with older kids, she recommends sending them to camp with a good friend so they have a built-in buddy.
And if you get tearful letters or calls home, “do not ever leap abruptly to rescue,” she said. But do call the camp, and “if the trend is not getting better by day three or four, that is cause for concern.”