Staff Spotlight: Merrowvista’s Jamie O’Hagin

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Jamie O’Hagin knows what it’s like to be the nervous new kid at camp. A bully tarnished her only prior camp experience, and she was worried she’d find the same thing at Merrowvista. Instead, her fellow campers welcomed her with open arms, sharing their favorite camp songs, traditions, and most of all, their friendship.

“I had never felt so included,” O’Hagin recalled. “That was my first impression of Merrowvista, and that’s the one I want to remember every time I think of a camper coming here for the first time.”

Nearly 25 years later, O’Hagin has held just about every job at camp, including her current role as program coordinator. Here, she shares her favorite camp memories, exciting summer 2022 plans, and her go-to author when she wants to escape into a good book.

You have had a lifelong affiliation with Merrowvista. Can you share your history with the AYF?
“I was 12 years old when I started coming to Merrowvista, and it immediately felt like home to me. I started working at camp as soon as I was old enough. I wanted to pass along the same Merrowvista magic that I experienced as a camper. Over the years, I’ve been an in-camp leader, a Four Trails leader, an intern, a Rhyolite coordinator, a Pioneer coordinator, a community coordinator, an office assistant, a kitchen assistant, a school programs assistant, and for two brief months, I ran Miniwanca’s kitchen (thankfully for Miniwanca, they found a full-time food program manager shortly after!). I loved working in all these different areas, because every time I took on a new role, I learned about another element of camp and new ways to support the amazing work we do.”

What is one of your favorite memories of Merrowvista as a seasonal staff member?
“I always loved taking campers on hiking trips. They were adventures in the wilderness where we could bond as a cabin away from the business of camp. Even when things went awry, we would push through those challenges together. There are so many memories from these trips that I treasure: campers seeing a moose for the first time in their lives, playing Mafia around a campfire, swimming in a cold mountain creek next to our campsite, coming back into camp covered in mud with giant smiles on our faces. Most kids I led on those trips are now adults with jobs and sometimes kids of their own, and I hope they remember those times with a similar fondness.”

You worked in education for several years. What did you enjoy most about teaching?
“Before my son was born, I worked at a local elementary school as a short-term and long-term substitute and paraprofessional. I loved that work. It was a fantastic school, and I loved getting to work with kids over a longer period than we have kids at camp. It was so neat to see kids learn and grow throughout a year. My favorite part of the day was supervising recess – I love watching how kids play and interact with each other when they got to be independent. “

This summer will be your first as a full-time program coordinator. What are you most looking forward to? What do you think your biggest challenge will be?
“I can’t wait to see kids diving into Dan Hole Pond, playing knockout on the basketball court, making friendship bracelets and talking with friends, climbing on the climbing wall as high as they can go, running the relay in the Four Fold Tournament. I am excited to have the Eating Lodge full of campers and staff. It always has a special buzz of energy when everyone is belting out a song after lunch. I think the most challenging part of summer will be trying to balance the needs of each part of camp – supporting campers through homesickness, helping staff with logistical problems, rearranging everything on rainy days and still finding time to put my own children to bed at night.”

Program coordinators work year-round. What do you do outside of camp programming?
“After camp ends, we begin the busy work of preparing again for next summer, which might involve calling up first-time camper families to help ease anxiety, hiring staff, planning staff trainings, finding new fun activities to try out the next summer, and looking at the post-camp surveys to figure out what worked and what didn’t in the previous summer. In addition to all this, Merrowvista will see an uptick in the schools that come visit during the fall and spring, and I’ll help support those programs, too!”

How has Merrowvista changed in the last 25 years?
“Merrowvista has grown so much, both literally and figuratively, over the last 25 years. When I was first a camper there was no Odyssey program (and when it was first introduced, everyone was a little skeptical of it). The Eating Lodge, Health Center, Boat House and many cabins and BIFFs have all been replaced, and the Activity Center was new the first year I was a leader. I believe the most important changes, though, are in our camp culture. Merrowvista has grown more inclusive, especially in our traditions as we move away from those that appropriated Indigenous cultures and as we adjust our programming to meet the needs of youth today.”

What are some of your favorite Merrowvista traditions?
“My favorite tradition has always been Candlelight Sing. On the last night of camp, we gather at the waterfront and sing songs that begin rowdy but slowly transition to slow and meaningful as the night goes on and the stars come out over Dan Hole Pond. As a camper, it was always a bittersweet moment of celebration for a summer completed and sadness knowing I would go home and have to wait so many months to come back, but I loved how connected I felt to everyone at camp in that moment.”

What is new this year that Merrowvista campers can look forward to?
“This has been my favorite thing to think about this year. We are adding a Superhero Dinner – kids can dress up like a superhero, and there will be staff dressed as villains but only one of them will be up to no good (and a prize for the Village that can guess who!). We are also bringing back some camp favorite activities like woodworking, archery, and pottery. Other ideas are in the works but not finalized yet: Camp Clue, Smugglers Run, Duck Day, a circus arts Interest Group, new service projects and maybe even new hiking trips. We’re also hoping to build little libraries and put them up around camp so no one will ever be far from reading material, and it’s my dream to put a loose-parts play area in the woods especially for our youngest campers to use.”

Outside of camp, you are also a trustee at your local library and always have a stack of books nearby. Did you love to read as a kid?
“I was one of those kids who would build cushion forts and curl up with a book and a flashlight. In fourth grade, I won a prize for reading the most biographies of anyone in my class. There’s just something so magical about losing yourself in a story.”

Which books have left lasting impressions on you?
So many. It’s impossible to list them all. My favorite author is N.K. Jemisin, and I turn to her when I want a good fantasy/sci-fi book. I also am a big believer in the power and artistry of picture books, and my favorites are ones that remind me of my own kids. Love by Corinne Averiss is about a little girl going to school for the first time and the connections she feels with her mother, and I Love You Because I Love You by Muợn Thị Văn, which makes me cry every time I read it.”

What else do you enjoy doing outside of work?
“Outside of work, I have two lovely and energetic children (ages 7 and 5) who keep me busy, and I also love to garden and cook. I’m usually reading several books at once when I have time at the end of the day.”

As Merrowvista and the AYF look toward the next 100 years, where do you hope our organization is headed?
“In the next 100 years, while we are teleporting to our Four Trails trips and learning to hoverboard in our Interest Groups, I hope we keep our culture of inclusion and belonging, and I hope that we can continue to create communities that feel like a respite from an increasingly complex world. With that, I also hope we grow with the times and change in ways that I can’t even imagine yet. I know the campers who come every year will have those ideas that push us forward, if we are brave enough to listen to them.”