How Lucky We Are

It’s been the most phenomenal session. The campers, both the seasoned, multi-year returning girls and the first-timers, took everything that makes up camp and elevated it to become one of the most joyful, supportive, friendly groups I’ve ever seen. How they sang songs in the dining hall, how they strolled together between activities, how they laughed and smiled watching each cabin’s skits during evening program —this was clear in these, and so many other ways.

summer camp campfireTonight during the closing campfire ceremony, what we refer to as the “Spirit Fire,” we saw the special character of community these girls and the staff have formed while at camp. As the girls gathered around the campfire, dressed in their white uniforms, they huddled close to each other, many with arms around, or their head resting on, the nearby shoulder. When they stood to speak about their time at camp this session, we heard girls express gratitude for the people they’ve come to know and love at Rockbrook. One marveled at how fulfilled she feels at camp, just by “being here.” A staff member said she felt lucky to have found Rockbrook, a place of such “authentic caring.”

Alternating between these reflections on the session and singing traditional camp songs, the program became increasingly emotional. Several girls sniffled, but when others had trouble stifling their crying, the melancholy mood was contagious and soon it was difficult to hear over the sobs and gentle weeping. I was reminded of the saying often attributed to A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh, “How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.” When something is this good, it’s just sad when is has to come to an end.

Cherishing the memories, saving the craft projects, and collecting the photographs from the session can help a little, as can staying in touch with their camp friends, but the feeling of camp will have to wait until next summer. Thank you everyone for being a part of Rockbrook. You are what makes it special, all of you, all of us, together. How lucky we are!

summer camp closing ceremony

Face to Face Living

pottery camper at summer campThe other day I was talking with a young counselor about camp and whether there was anything about the experience this summer that has surprised her. She had attended camp for 7 years as a camper already, so I was curious if she recognized anything different now that she’s older. She quickly said that she was having a blast with the campers in her cabin, and that she loves being a counselor because she gets to know the girls so well and do so much with them. She was surprised how “intense,” “emotional,” and “fun” camp is.

Put a little differently, life at camp is face to face living. We’re all in this together, sharing everything (costumes, food, pink eye —well, we try not to share that last one!). When we’re at camp we pay attention to each other constantly. We are very close, feel truly connected, to a lot of people. Being at Rockbrook means accepting the intimacy, thrills and challenges of community… but in exchange, building countless heart-felt relationships, deepening our humanity, and yes, having  a lot of “fun.”

By making this observation, I think this young woman, without knowing it, was also commenting on ordinary life outside of camp. Essentially, it lacks the closeness, the rich, personal experience that defines our days at Rockbrook. Ordinary American life, generally speaking, is more about individual consumption, privacy, personal advancement, and ego-centric entertainment— all while being mostly blind to the other people around us. As we speed along the course of our lives, tightly tethered to our smartphones, community is too often left in the dust. Feeling dis-connected, bored and alone, can easily be the sad remainder.

Painting Girl at summer campThere’s an irony to this, too. Think of all the daily technology we utilize ostensibly to be more connected to each other: text messaging, emails, social media posts, and telephone calls. Thanks to modern communication technology, it’s simple to announce what you’re doing, ask someone a question, or look up information. The ease and convenience of using these technologies has made them ubiquitous threads of modern life. At the same time— and here is the irony —it seems they are isolating us as human beings. Sending a text message is a thin gruel compared to the deep feelings that accompany being present with someone you care about. An email conveys only a shadow of its sender. Facebook, despite its attempt to offer a “multimedia experience,” can’t touch the emotions of being with supportive friends. There’s no electronic translation for kindness. If our ordinary lives are increasingly defined by these diminished forms of communication, if we’re left with only these rarefied connections to other people, then, as we become more isolated, our humanity is going to suffer.

Thank goodness for camp! Here we feel more connected than ever despite (maybe because of) giving up our electronic communication devices. For good reason, we unplug to connect more fully to those around us. Life at camp feels good because it begins with wholehearted connections, with the messy and rewarding energy of a community. The contentment your girls feel at camp springs from living face to face, directly and without the filtering “convenience” of technology. It’s providing them proof that having kind, compassionate relationships with other people is a bumpy, fun path to a rich and rewarding life.

camp girl friends

Smiling Faces

Smiling Camp FriendsSmiling Teen CamperAnother remarkable thing about life at camp, something that distinguishes it from ordinary events at home and school, is that when you walk around and see camp girls interacting with each other and their counselors, you are very likely to see someone smiling. It often includes laughing too, but incredibly, there are smiles while doing crafts, grins jumping to avoid the gaga ball, smiles at the lake, atop a horse, while on belay climbing, even while just walking down the cabin line on the way to lunch. Our online photo gallery provides a glimpse of this, and while it’s not everyone at every minute, it’s almost unsettling how regularly you encounter a smiling face during your day at Rockbrook. Recently a mother and her daughter touring camp noticed it as well. The daughter said, “Everyone here is so nice and friendly,” referring to the smiling greetings she got throughout the tour.

The best way to understand this phenomenon, of course, is to attribute the smiles to how the girls are feeling at camp, to how relaxed and happy they are here. All of the fun things we do at camp contribute to this happiness, as does the fantastic food, and beautiful, wooded mountain setting, but I suspect this feeling of camp life is more essentially derived from our spirited community than from what have or what we do. Put differently, it’s our relationships with the caring group of people around us, based upon respect for one another, that inspires this deep feeling of comfort and happiness. It’s the people who make smiling the language of Rockbrook. Knowing you belong to this community of kind, “sweet” people, “nice and friendly” folks, is a powerful force. Feeling it, you can’t help but smile. I’d say we’re all fortunate to feel it, and smile, everyday at camp.

Teen Girl kayaking celebrationToday was a big day for adventure trips, with rock climbing, canoeing, zip lining, day hiking and kayaking all pulling campers out of their regularly scheduled activities. We announce these trips during meals, sometimes at dinner to sign up a trip leaving early the next morning, and sometimes at breakfast for shorter trips, like to our zip line course for example. The kayakers were particularly excited about their trip because it was an all day paddle down the lower section of the Green River, near Saluda, NC. This section of the Green is perfect for beginners because its class I and II rapids offer plenty of opportunities to practice ferrying and catching eddies while not being too difficult. Instructors Jamie, Marjorie Ann, Leland and Andria led 9 campers down the river.  A highlight of the day was stopping to play at the “Surf Rapid,” a spot where a standing wave is formed in the river allowing boaters to scoot in, pointing up stream, and be held in place. Surfing in the mountains of North Carolina! Now after tackling the Green, these girls are excited to paddle more challenging rivers. Stay tuned, because next week, we’ve got plans!

Kayaking surfing whitewater wave

The Breadth and Depth of Camp

Camp girls exploring a waterfallIn yesterday’s post I was struck by the abundance of activity at camp, the simple fact that a sleepaway summer camp like this has so many things occurring simultaneously. We saw that there is zipping and stretching, riding and shooting, jumping and flipping, knot tying and plenty of decorating. And of course these are just some of the clear examples that stand out from the more day-to-day routines of camp life. Think of all the conversations, the songs being sung, the meals prepared and enjoyed… all the materials and supplies. Throughout the day, we are all trucking up and down the hills of Rockbrook, negotiating the rocks and roots that define each path through the woods. There are trips to the cabin to change for Free Swim, down to the gym for a game of Ga-Ga, and up from the lower pottery studio. We have the rush of falling water all around us, the cheers of excited groups of girls, and the regular tone of our 100-year-old bell marking the change of activity periods. Also most days, girls are leaving camp on trips for kayaking one of the local rivers, for hiking in the Pisgah National Forest or the nearby Dupont State Forest (like High Falls in the photo above). From the earliest moment of the day to the last giggle at night before drifting off to sleep, there is a true breadth of experience at camp. It’s an incredibly rich life we lead at Rockbrook.

Girls having fresh muffinsBut anchoring that breadth is a more fundamental dimension of experience, a depth that makes all the daily action of camp more meaningful.

The depth of camp experience rests firmly on the positive relationships we enjoy among all the members of this tight-knit community. There is a collective spirit here that inspires everyone to be kind, generous and compassionate, to respect and care for each other. It’s an ethos defining our culture and community, a basic attitude— Sarah calls it a “sweetness” —that leads naturally to encouragement and support for those around us. That’s the depth of camp. That’s the “Spirit of Rockbrook” that makes everything we do better.

I saw a wonderful example of this spirit at work tonight when we took our Mini Session Middlers and Seniors on a trip to Sliding Rock. We first hauled everyone up into the Forest for a picnic of hotdogs, Rick’s homemade cole slaw, chips and peaches. Then after each cabin group and their counselors finished eating, we held a massive game of elbow tag in a grassy field. As they raced from pair to pair, the “cat” chasing the “mouse,” the girls were so supportive, cheering and clapping for each other. It was a game completely free of criticism and competition, played simply for the fun of it. Some runners were faster and others slower. There was plenty of silly confusion, but what mattered was how much fun everyone was having together.

Girls grinning on sliding rockThen at Sliding Rock, the girls did it again. Filled with excitement, they took turns stepping into the chilly mountain water and sliding in pairs or threes down the rock. Almost instinctively they held hands to support each other during the wild, squeal-inducing ride. Each trip evoked laughter and encouragement from the other girls watching, making the whole experience really great, and proving once again how much they enjoy doing things together.  You can’t help but be proud of these girls! Be sure to check out the photo gallery of this event. There are several really great shots.

Girls Grimacing on Sliding Rock

We topped off the whole evening with a stop at Dolly’s Dairy Bar so everyone could enjoy a cup or cone of their wonderful ice cream. Cold rushing water and a frozen sweet treat on summer night; that’s pretty good stuff. But together with all these wonderful friends, it’s the best.

Camp Kids eating Ice Cream at Dolly's Dairy Bar

Heartfelt Euphoria

Counselor and Camper happy togetherGirls happy at summer campLately, it’s been tour season at Rockbrook, with families, often 2 or 3 at a time, visiting to learn more about camp. Over the last week, I’d say we’ve had more days than not with tours scheduled. This is great because we are always pleased to show off a little of what makes Rockbrook special, and to hear what prospective families find remarkable. For example, tour groups are often surprised that “everyone is so friendly around here.” It’s true, walking around camp creates a chorus of greetings, waves and smiling faces, no matter what time of day. Also though, a parent today commented that everyone at Rockbrook seems so “genuinely happy” and this got me thinking again about why this is the case. Everyone knows that camp is a happy, fun-filled place where girls can spend their days enjoying activities, being with friends, and playing outside in a beautiful setting. But I don’t think happiness at camp can be traced simply to these kinds of outward characteristics, to the activities, the camp facility, the quality of the food, or even the experience of the directors, though certainly all of these are important ingredients. Also, the kind of happiness we’re talking about here, the kind that brings out the best in kids, can be elusive elsewhere. Outside the haven of Rockbrook, even when every material need is met (and sometimes luxuriously met), the pure joy we find at camp can be missing. And that’s what stands out; there’s a heartfelt delight (even euphoria!) at camp very different from the mere pleasures and comforts of ordinary life.

Waterfall Camp KidsSo what’s the secret?  What is it that happens at camp that might be implemented or encouraged at home and school to make our kids more “genuinely happy?”  While not the whole story, I think Rockbrook succeeds in this way because it is foremost a community of caring people who appreciate and respect one another. The girls here know that they belong. They know that wherever they go in camp— to their cabin, to an activity area, to a picnic or an assembly on the hill —and no matter who is there joining them (an old friend or a new face, camper or staff member), they will be enthusiastically welcomed, sincerely encouraged, and fully supported. The deep happiness felt at camp blossoms from the positive relationships formed among everyone who is a member of our community. Free from competition and criticism, the way we interact here is uplifting and in important ways liberating. We talk about the power of community a lot, and this is yet another of its rewards.

Rock Climbing camp kidMuch like you and me, children need to feel liked. They need to feel that they are appreciated and that they are essentially good. This makes them keenly aware of how others, other children (their peers) and adults (parents, teachers, and camp counselors, for example) respond to them. It’s when these responses are affirmative and approving, as opposed to grumpy, demeaning or even just spiritless, that the magic happens. Put most simply, a child will begin to find genuine happiness when she feels those around her are likewise genuinely happy to see her, to be with her, and to love who she really is. Perhaps surprisingly, this kind of happiness derives not from what we do or what we have, but from who we’re with. If they are caring and kind, “sweet” and reassuring, enthusiastic and encouraging, we will find happiness. This kind of collective spirit, so beautifully embodied by Rockbrook, is a powerful force.

And it’s something that builds upon itself in a community.  Beginning with our staff and then with our campers, caring inspires care, kindness calls forth further kindness, and happiness leads to the happiness of others. We can already see that the girls this session are helping each other in this way. As they grow closer, support and encourage each other, as they become more comfortable with each other, and as they feel genuinely appreciated, the fun of camp intensifies. It’s no wonder that the girls love it here.

How do you show you’re happy when your kids are around?