Rabbi Ana Bonnheim, Former Director of Year Round Programs at GFC, writes about the gifts that camp gives to us and the impact that it makes on all of our lives.
It had been two years since I’d been at Greene Family Camp for a brief visit and three years since I’d spent any real time at camp. For the first time in many years, I felt a little nervous driving to camp—would it still feel like home? Would I see anyone I knew? Would anyone remember me? I had worked at camp full-time for nine years as the associate director, development and education director, founder and director of year-round programs, and camp rabbi. I knew camp as deeply as anyone could, and yet now felt a little out of sorts.
It didn’t help that the I-35 highway construction around GFC’s famous exits 318-B (and 318-A) was complete. I’ve driven to camp over a hundred times, and this time I missed the exit….because the exit wasn’t there anymore. Rationally, I knew this was coming; I’d lived through the years of construction, detours, and lane closings on that part of I-35. But I never really thought the construction would end, that there would be a new, smooth transition off the road, through Bruceville and to the camp gates.
All that said, it didn’t take long to feel at home at camp again. The minute we drove through the gates, we saw an old friend driving out of camp. We rolled down our windows to catch up, and that feeling of seeing a camp friend—someone who knows you at your most tired and most exhilarated—came rushing back.
It turned out that my nervousness about returning to camp (no different than so many campers and staff members) quickly vanished, and I settled into what I love about GFC and camp as a whole: the people, the freedom to experiment and explore, the tactile nature of all of the experiences, from horseback riding to making a lanyard to taking a walk with a friend. My children, now 7 and 3, were also overjoyed at the return to beloved places and reminded me that camp is truly built for kids.
But what struck me most in my return to camp was something else entirely, something unexpected. I was overcome again and again by the sense that each of us who contributes to camp—as a counselor, as a unit head or director, as a volunteer or as a donor—has a tangible impact not just on GFC broadly but on actual people’s lives. Over and over, I saw my legacy in the campers and staff members whom I had mentored and supported.
I saw counselors playing with their campers, and as I watched, I remembered running Greene’s campership (scholarship) process and working in partnership with families to find the means to send their children to camp. I saw a staff member mentoring counselors and designing activities and remembered when that staff member many years ago, sat in my office struggling with the difficulties of life in middle school. I gave a counselor a hug and remembered when years ago an illness struck that then-camper’s family and camp was a respite from long days of terror in hospital waiting rooms. I watched a counselor comforting a homesick camper outside the Chadar Ochel (dining room) and remembered a time when that counselor was a camper, we sat together on top of the Alpine Tower until he felt brave enough to make his way down. I watched another staff member leading the camp in Birkat HaMazon (blessing after meals) and remembered talking to that then-camper’s mother about how camp could be a safe place for healing after the parents’ hard divorce.
These were just a few of the powerful moments and memories I had during my time at camp, and each time I was overcome, sometimes with tears forming in my eyes, as I thought of the role I had played in helping get each of these children to camp and in making camp the spiritual, joyful, safe place that it is.
Life was not easy for any of these then-children. Even in the best of circumstances, growing up is hard. Camp is a place where we can escape some of the more painful and unavoidable realities of life. It doesn’t mean those realities won’t be there, waiting, a few weeks later. It just means that camp can be a gift of time and space.
It takes a village of adults and college students to create the magic of camp, and in the moment, it can seem like the end result is a messy evening program or a silly bunk activity or a heart-to-heart conversation. This is all true.
But the result can also be growth and healing. Growth of inner-strength, self-confidence, and resilience. Healing with new perspective, with close connections to counselors, mentors, and friends. And what I saw when I stepped away—the gift of time—is that camp can be a constant and a support, there for campers summer after summer.
Greene Family Camp is constantly growing and improving. Just look at the amazing STEM program and the Goldberg Performing Arts Center. Even getting off the highway is better. But sometimes it takes settling into life at camp to remember that GFC is also about the quieter moments of helping children find time and space for the growth and reflection.