When I was 11 years old, my older cousin who is named after my Mom convinced me that I should come to the camp she was working at. It was connected to the Bible conference that my Nana went to every summer. My cousin just knew I would love it. I was happily going to the day camp sponsored by the company my dad worked for but since I adored my cousin I decided to take the plunge. I saved up $12 in quarters from my allowance to contribute to the $46 it took to go to camp for a week. I packed my shorts and shirts and sneakers and stuffed cat that my Nana had made for me and whatever other stuff my parents thought I would need for a week at camp. I was going to be cabin mates with my neighbor friend with whom I shared a love for mystery stories and creating adventures in the little woods behind our elementary school. We figured if we had fun pretending to be girl detectives like Trixie Belden and Nancy Drew and didn't mind a little good dirt, then we'd probably have fun together at camp as well.
I can still remember curling up in my sleeping bag that first night in Ute Cabin like it was yesterday. The metal bunks creaked and squeaked as nine other campers and myself settled in and listened to the sweet voice of Chief Frannie sharing evening devotions while a candle flickered at her feet. She came around and talked to each one of us before we went to sleep. The darkness and night sounds wrapped around our little cabin like a soft, summery blanket so that the flutter of butterflies in my stomach could relax and sigh with sleepy contentment.
It took me about one activity period the next day to realize that I absolutely loved camp!There was so much to do and learn and enjoy! Horseback riding and canoeing and archery and crafts and swimming and silly skits and funny songs and cook outs and camp outs at the waterfront and Capture the Flag and wonderful, crazy Chiefs who both loved Jesus and loved fun. They made camp camp. They made camp fun. And they made me realize that there had been a song in my heart just waiting to be sung out loud that wove the joy of life and the joy of Jesus together. Up until then I thought the two had to be kept in separate compartments. Church was a great place to learn lots about the Bible but it wasn't a great place for fun. My Sunday School teachers were kind and cared about us but church was pretty serious and leaned rather heavily to the rule side of things. I was a kid who followed the rules but in my heart I often wondered if Jesus gave us joy, why was everyone so serious, so worried about their outward appearance and so focused on keeping track of everyone else's inability to follow the rules. The rules seemed to suck the joy out of anything that had to do with God.
Camp changed all that. Camp was this amazing combination of God and fun. The Bible and fun. The same Chief who taught a Bible study about God's amazing unconditional love for us was the same Chief banging on our cabin's table in the Dining Hall to get the kitchen boys to sing us a song. The same Chief who led 200 campers in singing all the crazy words and motions to Doodle - e - do, Flea and Jr. Birdman stood before those same campers on Saturday night leading us in singing There's a Place in God's Son and holding us spellbound with her story of Jesus and the gift of salvation He freely offers us. The same Chief who listened to our teen angst, fears and questions, answered our letters over the winter to continue to remind us that Jesus would never fail us. We sang songs to guitar accompaniment instead of piano and organ and we clapped while we sang and the words about Jesus and the place I could find in Him resonated deeply inside me. Camp released that tentative song in my heart to sing freely and with joyful abandon that there actually was joy in Jesus and His amazing love for me.
Camp called me back for eleven more years. When I was too old to be a camper, I entered the CIT (counselor in training) program, knowing that I wanted to be a Chief too! What a thrill to finally wear a red and white striped staff shirt knowing it was my turn to bang on the table, sing crazy songs, lead devotions, stay up late listening to my campers' fears and questions and let God use me in their lives like my Chiefs had done for me. And through the winter I wrote letters . . . to my campers, to my fellow Chiefs, and to the Chiefs who had set the example for what joy in Jesus at camp was all about. Camp was a place unlike any other and most of us would have chosen to spend the entire year there if we could have!
I have always said that camp was one of the biggest influences on my life and on the person, the teacher, the parent, the leader, the friend I am today. It's hard to really explain it unless you've been to camp yourself. There's just something about being in residence together, away from the rest of the world, in the beauty of nature that creates a unique environment so conducive to learning and to listening. For some, camp was a wonderful, fun week of making new friends and learning new things. For some, camp was a refuge, a haven from homes devoid of love and care. For some, camp was an opportunity to stretch their wings and escape the labels or expectations that weighed on them at home. For many, camp was a place to fill up our tanks with everything we could squeeze into our hearts and minds and souls so that we could get through the winter until it was time to come back again.
This past weekend it was time to come back again. Actually it was time for the third year in a row. Through the magic that is Facebook and email and the connections the internet continues to help us make, a group representing Camp Sandy Cove, the 70's Staff gathered back at our old girls camp grounds. Sadly, because of decisions that were made at the end of that decade, that property is no longer a girls camp but a family campground. Our cabins have been replaced by new, modern log cabins complete with electricity, air conditioning and indoor plumbing! Our round pool has been replaced by a bigger, rectangular pool, complete with bath house and pavilion. Tent and RV sites stretch across the area that was home to Chippewa, Navajo, Shoshone and 17 other Indian tribe named cabins. The Dining Hall is now sectioned off into offices, laundry and storage space. One might be tempted to think that the acres of land that once created a little slice of heaven in Maryland had changed too much to still hold any special appeal. One might also wonder if too many years had gone by for old friends to still remember, still want to remember, those camping days at Sandy Cove.
But just like camp wove that melody of God and fun, our reunions weave then and now into a song with harmonies riches and fuller and deeper than anything I imagined when the idea "Let's have a camp reunion" first started its journey. Searches were made to find dear old friends who had lost touch with one another while focusing on careers or raising a family or moving to new places. After a winter of anticipation shared on Facebook, in emails, through phone calls or even snail mail, Chiefs who hadn't seen each other in over 30 years started arriving. Nervous and excited, we started to meet and greet and hug and shed tears. These are the friends, the Chiefs, with whom we shared some of the best summers we've ever known.
As the reunion carried on with meals and memories and as many meaningful conversations as can be squeezed into one weekend, I realized I could hear another song intertwined with the reconnecting going on all around me. Squealing, splashing Maidens at the pool. Excited Papooses and Braves chattering on their way to horses, hoping to ride Blackie or Rosie or SweetPea today. Squaws blending their voices in newly learned harmony in the Chapel in the Woods. The first year we had a reunion I stood and looked in awe down the long table of Chiefs gathered for
breakfast on Saturday morning. Women who were my mentors, who had led by example, who had created fantastic all camp programs, who had given those Saturday night Vespers, who challenged me to do so much more than I ever thought I would or could, who had listened to my teen angst and written me letters of encouragement in the winters, believing in me when I found it hard to believe in myself. Women who I longed to be like when I grew up.
Guitar strings strumming. The metallic thump of canoes lifted off the tall, wooden rack. Waving hands joining clear voiced goodbyes as the bike trippers head out. Women who I had hiked the Appalachian Trail with, all 65 miles of PA granite and copperhead snakes and weary bones still willing to stay awake for challenging and encouraging conversation in a Timberline tent.Women who had looked to me to teach them how to be a good Chief, how to
teach a Bible study, how to write a lesson plan, how to soothe a
homesick camper. Women who were 'my girls' during the darkest summer
we'd ever had to live through at camp and for whom I found I still had a
fiercely protective spirit. Women who had grown from being my girls to
becoming amazing women who were now my friends.
The crackle of a campfire. The applause for the newly crowned Miss Camp Sandy Cove. The sweet young voices rising in song from the circle around a candle on the floor of Shawnee, Wassiki or Ojibwa. Women who I hated saying goodbye to at the dreaded end of summer. Women who I was overjoyed to discover and reconnect with in the last several months or this very day in this very place that held more memories than a heart hardly has room for. Women who in so many ways, at so many times, God had used to change my life with their handprint on my heart.
Whispered prayers with a homesick camper. Whispered prayers with a worried staff friend. Whispered prayers at the end of a long day to the amazing God Who seems closer at camp than anywhere else in the world.Our amazing God had so much more in mind for us than we imagined when it seemed like a fun idea to put a reunion together. How He must have smiled back in the 70's, knowing in His omniscience that we would find each other again, would gather around a campfire to share both laughter and tears, s'mores and our stories, photographs and philosophies, rewarding successes and sad regrets. Who we've seen God prove Himself to be in our lives. Where we are in need of encouragement and prayers. The sisterhood of camp, and especially of our beloved Camp Sandy Cove, would be rekindled before our tear filled eyes, as God in His grace and mercy, would orchestrate both new and renewed friendships, ready understanding and forgiveness, and a modern version of that song of faith and fun, of levity and love that He awoke in the heart of a camper in pigtails so very long ago.
♫ Sandy Cove, Camp I love
Rocks and trees and beauties that are from above
Skies so blue, friends so true
Take me back to camping days at Sandy Cove
We're loyal to you Sandy Cove
To you we'll be true Sandy Cove
We'll back you to stand
You're the best in the land
For we know you are grand Sandy Cove
Rah! Rah! Rah!
Here's to your fame and success
Our love for you n'er will grow less
Our camp's the finest ever
Our girls are slackers never
Here's to our Camp Sandy Cove
Rah! Rah! Rah! ♫