Staff Spotlight: Merrowvista’s Katsu Okuma

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Katsu Okuma wasn’t a “camp kid” growing up. Instead, he spent summers traveling around Ohio playing baseball. The camp bug finally got him in high school when he attended the National Leadership Conference at Miniwanca – he was hooked. He worked seasonal jobs first at Miniwanca, then at Merrowvista, where he grew in leadership and discovered a passion for youth development. Katsu’s family returned to Merrowvista as seasonal staff and campers in 2023, and this summer, he takes on the role of Interim Camp Director. Here, he shares his advice for first-time campers and their families and why he decided to take on this role.

When did you first encounter Merrowvista?
“My first encounter with Merrowvista was near the end of college when I was seeking more experience working with youth. I worked as a driver knowing I would have many opportunities to see the camper experience through many different lenses. The passion and creativity individuals brought to their roles was unlike anything I had ever been a part of. It was clear to me after that first summer that Merrowvista was going to be a bigger part of my life.”

In 2023, you worked at Merrowvista as a service-learning specialist. What did you enjoy most about that role?
“It was great to reconnect with folks I was very close with but had not seen in years. It was so refreshing to pick up where we left off and hear the incredible stories of their lives since I last saw them.

“But connecting with the campers in a deep and meaningful way is really what we are all here for. There was a particularly tough moment for a group last summer, and it felt amazing to be there for them and to reassure them that they were still in control of their own destiny. I was so proud of how they were able to finish, and I know they had a great sense of pride as well. I was very happy to be accepted into such a strong group of kids who will always hold a special place in my heart.”

Why did you want to be the Interim Camp Director?
“Returning to the valley last summer for the first time in 16 years, I was hoping one thing still existed: the magic of Merrowvista. I could not have been happier to see not only that it was still here but also alive and well.

“Stepping into the Interim Camp Director role is an incredible honor. I wanted to help a place that holds some of my most cherished memories and friendships. The chance to impact and drive forward the legacy of Merrowvista summer camps is an honor I do not take lightly. I’m very proud to be part of it.”

Your children attended Merrowvista for the first time last year. What advice do you have for first-time camp parents?
“Take a deep breath. I was nervous our kids would not love Merrowvista the same way my wife and I do. I was nervous our city kids would hate all the mosquitoes during a wet summer. I was nervous they would miss Rhode Island beaches and all their friends. I was plain nervous.

“How quickly I forgot the intention behind the community of Merrowvista: how infectious the staff smiles are, how they over-plan that first day so kids won’t have a chance to realize how much they miss home. When it was time to leave, my youngest asked if we could stay just a little longer and my oldest asked how soon we could return. They saw the power of this community and they wanted more.”

What advice do you have for first-time campers, especially when dealing with homesickness?
“Homesickness is real, and it’s powerful. It’s okay to miss home but try your hardest to get through that next activity. Sometimes that next hour is just what you need to get a smile going. Before you know, it’s dinner and you are banging on tables and singing – something that could never happen at home. Take advantage of all the experiences at your fingertips and get through one step at a time.”

What is one of the biggest challenges facing youth today, and how does summer camp help them meet that challenge?
“Meaningful interpersonal interactions and relationships are becoming harder and harder to find, let alone develop. So many of our interactions these days happen via a screen. By removing this barrier, it forces us to meet face to face and learn how to communicate in a healthy, meaningful way. Maintaining eye contact through a conversation must happen when you are learning how to climb or paddle. It is just as important when they go back home.”

If you could be a Merrowvista camper for one day, what activity would you most want to do?
“Probably learn to sail because I need that skill to be able to say I am a Rhode Islander someday. And I love anything that has to do with water!”

What else do you enjoy doing outside of work?
“I take any opportunity I get to be near an ocean. Once I was introduced to the ocean at a young age, it was love at first sight. I am starting to get more opportunities to fish, even though it never seems like enough. Surfing is a life passion, and freediving is something I desperately want to get better at.

“I also have a passion for getting to the mountains in the winter. I love the feeling of standing on a peak in the winter and letting the silence surround me. I also like going down the mountain fast and thinking on my feet.”

What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
“To be grateful and show gratitude whenever you have a chance. My aunt made sure I was a good tourist in Hawaii. She is responsible for teaching me what aloha means and how to regularly express it.”