Last summer was strange at our house. We stayed busy enough, but we missed our normal summer trips. The things we missed most were summer camps. There is the traditional version of camp for a week or two at a facility away from town.

There is also the summer mission trip to other places to help for a few days with housing, water, food, or schools. The second version tends to be for older children and adults, but I have seen plenty of families doing this.

The American version of summer camp is one of the great traditions that has grown up in our nation since the 1960’s. There are many older ones (scouts and civic clubs), but there was a definite surge in the three decades following WWII. My own experience with camps is limited to five places in two countries. It is my opinion that summer camps play an underappreciated role in our society. Here are a few reasons why from where I am.

I wrote in this space a couple of years ago about a conversation I had with a young man (12-years-old) while we were working hard on a hot day. He said, “Man, this is fun!” I looked at him and say, “Fun! You think this is fun?” He thought for a moment and passed on what I believed he was learning, “Ok, maybe not fun, but it is satisfying.” He had connected hard volunteer labor with enjoyment and satisfaction.

I cannot count the number of young men and women who have had moments like this. Sweating and dirty, with a smile on their face, learning the value of working for a common cause for no other reason than that the work needs to be done. At camp, some kids learn to make their beds, pick up after themselves, and work in teams.

Every camp session I see young people who are leaving better people than they were before. Some (those who come from bigger cities) see a part of the world they never knew existed outside of a screen. Some encounter the countryside and nature for the first time.

At one camp session in the U.K., I gave permission for a few boys (about 14) to leave the swimming area and go to their cabins to change. After a couple minutes they came back, still cold and wet, and stood next to me. I asked why they came back. Their reply, “The beasts will not let us pass.” I had no idea what they were talking about until I walked with them to the edge of the field. Between us and their cabin was a small group of cows. They were terrified. By the end of the week they were comfortable with the beasts.

Some learn how to handle conflict in new ways that can end in friendships rather than alienation. One of the great blessings of summer camp is the friendships that are born and survive — sometimes into adulthood.

I have also been doing this long enough to see young campers return year after year and have the opportunity eventually to be counselors in cabins or lead activities. For our older high school and college-age students, camp provides a great place to learn leadership and what it means to be responsible for other people. For some it is the first time they have to work through differences with other leaders or be a part of the solution rather than a generator of drama — some learn faster than others.

Some camps become the keeper of stories and traditions. There are strange songs and special words and odd customs at most camps. There is a common language and expectation. All these things are important in building community and character in our children.

One of my favorite evenings at one camp I work with is the retelling of how the camp came to be. Some, by the time they age out of camp, will have heard the story a dozen times or more. They understand that they are recipients of generations who gave, worked, and sacrificed their time to create the place where they are sitting.

So far this spring we have been able to attend two graduations, a wedding, and now camp. Life is returning to normal for us in the United States. If you have an opportunity, work at a camp, donate your money to sponsor a child or make improvements. Summer camps of all sorts are needed and are a blessing to all of us.

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