In a previous post, I discussed how confusing and daunting the process of selecting a sleepaway camp is, given how lazy I am. Some friends responded by suggesting camps they went to and loved (granted, in the 1970’s and ‘80s, when Roy Moore was at his busiest). Others shared their own frustration with the sheer number of choices and the bombardment of information that will befall you (and kill all remaining trees) if you casually email a few camps for more information. There is no Zagat’s for camps, and it doesn’t feel right to judge them based on the production values of camp videos, however tempting and weirdly satisfying that may be.
I hated my first sleepaway camp. It was in the backwoods of Maine, run by the same family for decades. Marty, the patriarch, prided himself on being grandfatherly, but was more into the business side of running a camp than advancing the social and emotional development of his campers. I know because when I finally broke down crying from extreme homesickness, I begged him to let me call my parents. He told me my parents didn’t want to hear from me, adding: “They told me they want you to learn to be more independent.” This struck me as funny because if you asked my parents, then or now, if I was lacking in independence they would burst into convulsive, sardonic laughter. (When I finally spoke to my parents — on visiting day — they confirmed it wasn’t true. They told me I never had to go back, but had to stick out the final week so they could finish their New England vacation. Priorities).
It wasn’t just the director. I was in a cabin with a bunch of Long Island girls who had been bunking together since an obscenely young age to be attending sleep away camp in the first place. They were not remotely interested in expanding the circle, especially if it meant including two plump, nerdy interlopers (myself and a short, round, bespectacled ally named Ellen). The lake was two degrees from frozen and swimming was mandatory, and the food sucked. It was not good times, though I am pleased to report that I survived and my accounting of it was published in The Miami Herald. Screw you, Marty. I was a winner.
Every parent brings the weight of their own experience to the table when making choices for their children. My first sleep away experience, though not traumatic enough to forego the opportunity to send my daughter off for four liberating weeks for her and me, made me fearful of making a mistake in choosing for her.
A friend who had gone through the process–and was likely sick of me asking her questions–referred me to a “camp consultant” she had used. It sounds awfully hoity-toity and expensive but actually isn’t. In fact, it’s free. So I contacted Barb Levison of Tips on Trips and Camps. I’m a lover — not a plugger — but this was, honest to goodness, the best money I never spent. In fact, I hyperlinked the company name because as much as I hate the idea of you veering off my site to check out her’s mid-my-sentence, I wholly encourage it (though prefer you wait until the end).
Here’s how it worked: I just explained what kind of kid my daughter is and what kind of kids I wanted her to be around. I told her what her favorite sports and activities are, shared her and our priorities (including electricity and edible food, but no Club Med-style pampering or spin classes). I told her I wanted a co-ed camp that attracted down-to-earth families and had options for both short and long sessions (for when she was older.) Barb answered all my many questions and offered nuanced perspectives on things I hadn’t even considered: like how doing the first session at a camp where the majority of kids stay for both sessions could make short-term campers feel like they’re missing out. So she sifted out camps accordingly.
I then continued to add to my list in random, subsequent emails to her, usually sent late at night and riddled with typos (missives like “Oh, and preferably a place without a lot of tics [sic]. Thx!”). Barb acknowledged receipt of it all and came back within a few days with a list of a half-dozen, carefully curated camps that fit all my many, many criteria. She then contacted them on my behalf, so I wouldn’t have to deal, and within a few weeks, I had DVD’s and packets from those camps on her short list.
I had no interest in touring even a half-dozen camps for a whole host of life-choice and logistical reasons. Thanks to Barb’s frank counsel and candor in comparing and contrasting the options, I ended up only visiting one. I knew that we had to do a camp visit. It felt un-American not to. So I chose the camp on Barb’s shortlist that was the shortest drive from New York City and in closest proximity to a cute town with good restaurants. (Priorities.) I recruited one of my best mom-friends Beth (who I also referred to Barb) and we made a mother-daughter road trip of it.
Turns out, the camp we visited, while checking all the boxes, felt a bit too small — precisely as Barb had told me it might. I had been debating whether an intimate or more expansive camp would best suit my daughter, and now I had my answer. So after a rousing, second DVD screening of our favorites, we went with one of the similarly low-key camps on the list that had also appealed to us, but was a bit bigger. My friend Beth visited one other camp Barbara suggested, an all-girls camp in Maine, and decided to send her daughter there. Done and done.
Back then, my parents didn’t have the benefit — or the curse — of the internet to explore sleepaway camp options. And I think they would have laughed off the idea of a camp consultant, could they have even fathomed one. So while I could add my unfortunate camp experience to the list of therapy-worthy grievances of growing up me, I’ll hold off. I hold off because I am finally realizing as a parent, just how damn easy it is to add to that list. May the force be with all of us.