For as long as she can remember, Carrie Hargreaves Smith was interested in a health care career. She loved math, science, and learning about all the human body’s intricate processes. She also enjoyed working with children as a Merrowvista camper-turned-Village Leader, then a full-time Four Trails Coordinator. She combined those two passions as a pediatric ICU nurse, and she recently returned to the American Youth Foundation as its Lead Health Officer. Smith says spending summers at Merrowvista made her the health care professional she is today. Here, learn more about her favorite Merrowvista traditions, how she’s preparing for summer 2022, and the importance of teaching youth in her care the value of balanced living.
When not working with the AYF, you’re a registered nurse in a pediatric ICU. Why did you decide to pursue a career in health care, particularly in pediatrics?
“After I had my oldest three children, I decided to go back to nursing school to combine my interest in health and education. Some of the people I most admire are nurses – smart, wonderful, caring humans – and I hoped to help others by teaching them the importance of balanced living in health.
“I knew from the start that I wanted to work in pediatrics. I love helping young people achieve health and wellness however that is possible for them – and it looks different for everyone. I love the joy and hope young people bring to even the most challenging situations. I have learned so much about joy, resilience, and the power of positive attitude from the children I have worked with as a nurse in the pediatric ICU and at camp.”
You credit values learned through AYF programs with your success as a registered nurse. Can you share how the ideas of best self and balanced living have affected your work?
“The children I work with inspire me to be my best self. I am awed by the resiliency of children and their ability to find joy in the small things, even when they are sick and struggling. Some of my sickest patients in the ICU have shown such grace and strength in the way they confront their health challenges.
“Children remind me how precious life is and that bringing my best self to my work is critical to ensure that I am providing safe, compassionate care, whether I am caring for a critically ill child or a homesick camper.
“It is so important to exercise and strengthen the mental, social, spiritual, and physical facets of our beings to achieve balanced health. Camp provides a natural landscape to help children recognize and appreciate how this works. In the intensive care unit, the landscape looks different, but finding balance and time to exercise the Four Folds is still crucial for healing, and I strive to help my patients and my colleagues find ways to ensure this is part of our approach to care.”
COVID-19 has taken a toll on everyone in the last two years, but especially health care workers. How did you care for your own mental health and practice balanced living during the most stressful times?
“I am grateful to have a very solid support system at work and in my personal life. As difficult as some days in the hospital have been during the pandemic, my work has given me huge perspective. I feel so honored parents have allowed me to be a part of their children’s care team and to provide some comfort during the hard days.
“The unit where I work is a very tight-knit crew. Because of what we regularly experience together, we were able to support each other in ways that other units hit hard by COVID-19 were not. While it was very hard – and the impact of the pandemic continues to overwhelm the health care system – I was more fortunate than most to have a close group of coworkers with whom to share the hard times, and to celebrate the better days.
“Outside of work, I tucked in and held my own family, friends, and children close. We spent time outdoors and camping and trying to take advantage of some flexibility and a less busy schedule. There are six of us, so it was a treat to just be together in one space. Living in the south, we were able to spend a lot of time outside and exercise to tap into our physical, mental, and spiritual folds.”
You joined the AYF team full-time this year as Lead Health Officer. Why did you want to take on this role?
“When this role presented, I jumped at the chance to return as a part of the year-round staff. I want to help create safe, healthy experiences across the sites and to be a part of rebuilding camp and the AYF post-pandemic so more children can discover their best selves and feel empowered to go out into the broader world and share their lights.”
Two years into the pandemic, COVID-19 is still a serious concern for our camp communities and our families. How is the AYF protecting camper and staff health against the pandemic this year?
“The AYF showed its commitment to the health and safety of participants and staff by requiring the COVID-19 vaccination for all campers and staff this year. This alone is a huge step toward helping us return to pre-pandemic programing, and I am grateful to our board and our leadership for making the immunization a priority.
“In addition to the vaccine, our team stays informed about the latest COVID-19 guidance from the Center for Disease Control, American Camping Association, and the Alliance of Camp Health. We continue to practice mitigation strategies we know work, such as spending time outdoors, hand hygiene, and partnering with families and staff to reduce the chance of bringing COVID-19 into camp. We are very lucky to have supportive families, and we feel confident staff and families will take precautions to come to camp COVID-free and share any concerns and questions.”
In 2021, the AYF camp communities’ precautions prior to arrival at Miniwanca and Merrowvista were crucial to keeping COVID out of camp. What can families do this year to ensure the health and safety of our camper families?
“Our camp families and seasonal staff are our biggest partners in ensuring a healthy camp experience for our communities. As we saw last year, our families are committed to helping us make camp happen. They’ve already taken a huge step in preventing illness this summer by getting their children vaccinated and boosted, if eligible, against COVID-19.
“As we get closer to camp (just a few short weeks to go!), families can limit their risk of being exposed to COVID-19 by avoiding large gatherings, masking indoors around people outside their family, monitoring the health of their campers and family members, and testing if anyone becomes ill.
“Families have asked so many great questions about our COVID-19 protocols for summer, and this open communication is key. While some aspects of COVID and other illness are out of our control, I feel confident we can have a healthy summer again this year if families and staff take precautions to minimize exposure to illness in the weeks leading up to camp.”
This summer, you’ll be working at the Merrowvista Health Center. What are you most looking forward to when you return to New Hampshire?
“So many things! Camp filling with the infectious energy of our campers – hearing their laughter, singing, and joy. Connecting with new and returning campers and staff and sharing this unique summer 2022 with each other and my own camper kids. Dips in Dan Hole Pond. The stars. Definitely seeing the Wise Old Barn Owl whooooooo lives by the Health Center!”
You’ve been a lifelong member of the Merrowvista community, starting as a camper and seasonal staff member. What is one of your favorite memories of summers at Merrowvista?
“One of my favorite memories is from my Trailblazer camper year. We hiked in the Presidential Range and camped at Thirteen Falls. It was this beautiful site with natural waterfalls and pools. We spent the afternoon and evening jumping into the water and laughing and being together. It felt amazing after a long day on the trail! And of course, I have to mention many nights spent sleeping under the stars. These are consistent memories throughout my years at Merrowvista – there is nothing like that amazing star-filled New Hampshire sky in August!”
What are some of your favorite Merrowvista traditions?
“I love so many of our Merrowvista traditions: the Fire Circles, song challenges at meals, celebrating our oldest Four Trails campers as they walk into camp after completing their big trips… Candlelight Sing is probably my favorite tradition. I have powerful memories of being at the waterfront on the last night of the session with my best camp friends, co-leaders, former campers, and the larger Merrowvista community. The community connection on this night is palpable. I receive so much light from the songs and the celebration of all that our campers and staff have accomplished during the session and summer. Evenings watching the sun set behind the Ossipees as the moon and stars rise up over Dan Hole Pond are my happy place. These are nights I come back to often when I’m away from camp during the year.”
You are also a camper parent. What effects have AYF programs had on your children?
“I have four children, three of whom are current campers, and I get to witness their connections to camp, the people there, and the impact that camp has. Camp is a constant for each of them. After a summer at Merrowvista, they are more comfortable, compassionate, curious, and confident. They approach the world a little lighter and with an open heart. As a parent, this means the world to me, especially after the hardships and uncertainty of the past few years.”
What are some of your favorite things to do outside of work and the AYF? How do you enjoy spending your free time?
“I love my down time. This can be by myself or with my kids, my husband, Cody, and our dog, Nova. Some of my favorite times are hiking or camping with my crew. I love to be outside, and especially in the mountains. It recharges my soul.”