Rekindling Community in Summer 2021

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For the first time in more than a year, a familiar sound could be heard across the dunes of Miniwanca and the valleys of Merrowvista: campers’ voices, laughing and singing as they finally returned to American Youth Foundation properties.

AYF Senior Director of Programs Matt Loper said while 2021 was still a year affected by the pandemic, it was thrilling to welcome campers back to Miniwanca and Merrowvista once again.

“It’s so sad when Merrowvista or Miniwanca are empty and an absolute delight when they are filled with communities of purposeful young campers,” Loper said. “There was an electric joy in the air this summer as we celebrated something truly special after such a long, difficult stretch of time.”

COVID-19 presented new challenges in 2021, but the AYF was determined to offer summer programming at Miniwanca and Merrowvista, even if it would be different. They knew that after 18 months of social isolation, youth needed the social and emotional solace only camp could provide.

Or, as Andrea Caesar, mother of Merrowvista camper Anelya, said: “Reintegrating her into a group of kids after one-and-a-half years of remote learning was critical this year. I’m so grateful that she was able to spend the summer at camp and reconnect with life as it should be.”

Adjusting Our Sails
This year, the AYF offered a single three-week session at both at Miniwanca in Michigan and Merrowvista in New Hampshire. Due to the unique requirements and limitations of the summer, the AYF knew it would not be able to accommodate all who wished to attend camp this year.

Loper acknowledged how disappointing it was to not be able to welcome the usual number campers, but explained the extended application process implemented this year aimed to make access to camp as fair as possible.

“Every year, we take great care to build diverse, balanced cabin communities that offer campers the opportunity to make new connections with children from different socioeconomic, geographic, racial, and ethnic backgrounds,” he said. “The application process allowed us to maintain that careful, intentional balance in our 2021 camp communities.”

AYF Senior Health and Safety Director Astrid Wielens was pleased to report there were no cases of COVID-19 at Merrowvista or Miniwanca this summer. “The coronavirus never entered our camps and that is entirely thanks to the tremendous efforts of camp families and staff that began well before camp started,” she said.

Anyone who was onsite at Miniwanca or Merrowvista this summer had to adhere to strict COVID-19 prevention protocols in the 10 days prior to their arrival at camp. Once they arrived at staff training or on Opening Day, everyone was tested for COVID-19 and tested again three days later. This created a COVID-free bubble that allowed those inside to forgo masking while outside or in their cabin groups.

Miniwanca Boys Camp Director Michael Harter said he was grateful to camp families for their pre-camp caution, and he was particularly impressed with the seasonal staff who chose to enter the camp bubble as COVID-19 rules were being relaxed in many places across the country.

“It’s important to give a real ‘Hear, hear!’ to the young staff who made a choice to come to another bubble and give up a social life just as things were reopening in June,” Harter said. “They knew this experience was so important for youth. Our staff made sacrifices – even their days off were spent onsite in the bubble – but those 18-, 19-, and 20-year-olds gave that up because they knew how important it was for kids to be at camp this summer.”

Living in Community
Miniwanca Girls Camp Director Emily Knuth anticipated it would be difficult for youth to return to living in community after so many months of remote learning.

“Certainly COVID anxiety played a role, but also, youth just hadn’t had a lot of practice living in community with one another,” she said. “We saw more raw, intense emotion from campers during week one of the session.”

Knuth said the changes in campers’ emotional and social well-being over three weeks was remarkable. “The first week was the toughest for us because we were all masked and there was anxiety waiting for test results,” she said. “Once it was safe for campers to remove their masks, they were able to see each other’s expressions and relax a bit more. People were more at ease, more joyful.”

Brian Lynch said summer at Miniwanca helped his daughter, Claire, learn how structure could ease the stresses of the pandemic. “She had a wonderful experience and came back more like her pre-pandemic self,” he said. “The social anxiety that had crept in during COVID improved, and she thrived on the structure that she is trying to carry forward.”

While many elements of camp soothed anxiety and isolation, Knuth said it also gave campers the opportunity to discuss larger issues like the pandemic, social justice, and equity.

“I think a lot of people were looking for an escape, to get away from the world’s problems, but for a lot of campers and staff, it was a wake-up moment for them,” Knuth said. “It allowed to them to rethink why camp is there and how it can rekindle and recenter them as they go back into the world. Camp is as much the real world as anywhere else, but it’s a safe place where we can talk about these things and how we deal with big issues in our lives in a safe, respectful way.”

More than 900 miles away, the same conversations were taking place at Merrowvista. Loper and AYF President Anna Kay Vorsteg returned to their hands-on programming roots this summer, assisting Merrowvista Camp Director Chris Wellens, who welcomed his first child just as staff training began.

“I think a lot of campers grew a ton in self-confidence and in self-affirmation. It was a big deal to assemble as we did this year, and it was not lost on the campers that their experiences were different than prior years’ expectations,” Loper said. “I think, too, that campers had to face more of the healthy and natural interpersonal conflict that arises out of communal life. Each village at Merrowvista spent more time as a cluster of 12 to 14 people than any summer ever before. Campers increased their S-fold skills and navigated through this healthy conflict in increasingly effective and skilled ways as the session unfolded.”

Caesar saw that growth in Anelya and said she appreciates how camp offered her child the opportunity to discover her best self in a safe, inclusive environment.

“I appreciate that Anelya feels safe enough to lean into discomfort, to dare to try new things and improve at activities she is already familiar with,” Caesar said. “As I raise a child in such a worrisome time in the world, sending my daughter to such an inclusive environment that not only welcomes but fosters diversity feels like a responsibility and a privilege to me as a parent.”

Lindsey Mogren echoed that sentiment, saying Merrowvista gave her daughter, Ella, the opportunity to think critically about her values.

“I love that she has the opportunity to experience a place that actively and overtly lives by values that we hold in our family and to think about how these are practiced,” she said. “The ability to make and grow new friendships in such an open, honest and authentic way (without the ancillary challenges of middle school, peer pressure, phones, etc.) is something I hope she recognizes as possible, not just the exception. Knowing this way of being with others is not only possible, but also healthy and real, is something I hope she will carry with her through the year.”

Wayfinders Chart a New Course
One of the biggest changes to summer 2021 was the launch of the Wayfinder program, which replaced the traditional Four Trails experience this year. The pandemic prevented campers and staff from embarking on the Odyssey, Voyageur, Adventurer, and Explorer trips, but it also gave them the opportunity to explore the hundreds of acres that make up Merrowvista and Miniwanca and provide valuable service to the camp community.

At Miniwanca, Wayfinders spent their last week trekking to the Well Site, where they camped and took on an extended “solo” experience in the woods. At Merrowvista, the oldest Wayfinders hiked out armed with sledgehammers and power tools to rebuild the Ledge Shelter, now dubbed the North Star Shelter.

“The Wayfinders rose beautifully to the occasion and came at everything thrown their way with a ton of spirited open-mindedness,” Loper said. “Most of the campers had no idea what to expect, yet they totally leaned into the newness of the Wayfinder program.”

Both camps honored their accomplishments with a “hike in,” welcoming them back to the community and celebrating their persistence and dedication in the face of so much uncertainty and change. And there was one important tradition that withstood the test of the pandemic and changes to the program: Wayfinders were presented with their well-earned rugbies at Closing Fire.

Bringing It Home

As camp came to a close, Harter said he watched campers confront the reality of leaving the safety of the community they’d formed in the bubble. He addressed anxieties at Closing Fire, reminding youth of the power of their own best selves as they returned home.

“We encouraged kids to find ways to connect with each other away from camp and bring that spirit of community home,” he said. “We talked about how there is no ‘real world’ separate from Miniwanca. The community we build and support here doesn’t have to stay here. The messages of the Founders, of best self and balanced living – we bring them home.”

Three weeks of living in community rekindled the spirit of best self for hundreds of youth this summer, something one Miniwanca parent noticed immediately when she picked up her daughter.

“Since coming home, she has energy. She’s talking to me again and just seems lighter, more confident and at peace,” she said. “I feel like this summer gave my daughter what she was craving most – a deep sense of belonging and friendship. She told me she doesn’t think she’s ever laughed so hard. I don’t think I realized just how lonely she has been until I saw the impact camp had on her.”

This article originally appeared in the 2021 Founder Fire.