When I became a camper at age 11 in 1995, it was the first time I found myself surrounded by other Orthodox children my age. At home, in beautiful Allentown, PA, I was the only Orthodox student in my class throughout my primary and secondary education. But at camp, things were different. Everyone had something in common with me. We all had a common background, a set of shared experiences that meant we no longer had to do any explaining about who we were or where we’d come from. As a child (and even as an adult), there is a comfort in knowing that the person next to you already knows how to respond to ‘Christ is Risen’, and doesn’t confuse our Lord’s Pascha with an Italian dish.
This solidarity fostered an instant bond from which friendships blossomed. And in fact, friendship is really too light of a word to describe what happened at camp. My fellow campers and counselors became instant cousins, aunts, uncles, and adoptive moms and dads. It was a giant family reunion every year. Summer after summer, we sang together at morning and evening prayers, spent time boating on the lake, ventured into the monastery woods to follow the Beatitude Trail, sat at the foot of a giant bonfire, gazed at the icons of the monastery church, and made daisy chains in the field. The religious education aspect of camp was also valuable, but in retrospect, the most important memories I have as a camper were the ones that involved spending time with my friends. I am still in touch with many of those people today.
At age 18, too old to be a camper, I volunteered my time as a counselor despite my parents’ warnings that nobody would hire me for the summer if I was away for a whole week in July for camp (not true!). During my years as a college student, I served as the camp lifeguard, ensuring the little ones’ safety in the pool.
It was during these college years that some of my camp friends began to lose interest in the church. I watched many of them dwindle away. Their parents and priests couldn’t or didn’t know how to inspire them to return, and with that, a large handful of youth from my generation were lost from Orthodoxy. They still are. I thank God every day that when I went through my own spiritual rough patch as a junior in college, it was Saint Tikhon’s Summer Camp and the good example of my fellow counselors – now lifelong friends – that swiftly brought me back to the faith.
When I was 21, the camp decided it could no longer accommodate the 14-17 age range, and thought about dropping them from the program altogether. Knowing that this could have precipitated the loss of even more youth from the church, my friends and I volunteered to develop and implement a specialized program so that the teens could continue to attend camp and grow in their faith in a way that made sense for them, separately from the younger campers. We offered workshops appropriate to their educational needs, organized competitions for prizes, and made sure they had plenty of free time to bond with each other. The program has been a great success. The rate of return for our teen campers is over 95%, and those who graduate typically continue to attend as counselors.
For six years, I co-directed the Teen Program, and it taught me a thing or two about leadership, organization, responsibility, and event planning. I was able to apply those lessons to my own life as I graduated from college, entered the workforce, and moved out on my own. Coordinating the Teen Program gave me the confidence I needed as a young independent woman.
Now, at age 27, I am one of the Camp Directors. And just last week, July 3-9, the camp entered its 40th Anniversary year with 115 campers and 53 counselors on board. It was my first year as a co-director along with Tatiana Bohush of Endicott, NY and Nicholas Macura of Pottstown, PA.
I can say without hesitation that directing summer camp was the most challenging thing I have ever done in my life. The experience taught me more lessons than I can count in humility, patience, discipline, resilience, and trust. But as difficult as it was, I know we accomplished our goal because of the sea of smiling campers’ faces greeting us every day – at morning and evening prayers, in the pool, on the lake, at the bonfire, and making daisy chains on the field just as I had done so many years ago.
Over the past 16 years, I can say that because of camp, I have a network of Orthodox friends to rely on in good times and bad, wherever I may land. Because of camp, I’ve learned life skills and gained leadership experience I never would have had otherwise. And most importantly, because of camp, I am still an Orthodox Christian today. If camp could do all of that for me, it can certainly do it for you. Please make plans to attend an Orthodox summer camp next year and join the family that’s waiting for you.