Unpacking the camp experience

Last week, in our interview with Andrea Foote on the summer camp experience, I ended by asking how to support campers when they come home from camp. Andrea started her answer by saying something very interesting and very important: “Leaving camp can be hard.”

She's so right. It can be jarring to leave the intense experience of community, activity, and faith that is camp and return home. I remember myself the letdown of being home and settling back into the old routine. It was frustrating, though I couldn't name that at the time.

I suspect that part of that was due to having nowhere to put the experience I had. I’m sure my parents asked “How was camp?” and listened to me talk non-stop about it on the way home. But for them, nothing had changed. For me…something might have. But in my youth and lack of experience, I neither knew nor could articulate that there was something important going on in the camp experience.

Karen Schlabach, Youth Missioner for the Diocese of Kansas, wrote a wonderful article on 10 questions to ask your youth after camp, pilgrimage, or mission trip. But it’s more than the questions, as she points out. It takes time and reflection to make sense of an important experience. Don’t expect to get it all on the car ride home. But it's important to be attentive for the moments when meaningful reflection can happen.

Memories come up with odd associations, and when they do, it’s worth doing a little digging. There’s no need to be intrusive, and it’s not that there’s always going to be a goldmine when someone says, “This reminds me of the time we made soup,” but it’s worth slowing down and asking about the memory. Get some details like, Where were you when you did that? Who was with you? Once you get a better picture, you might start to get more of the meaning and emotion behind it.

Reflection doesn’t all have to be verbal, and it's not always about asking questions. You might want to ask your returning camper to lead a family hike or teach a skill they learned. Walking especially is a great time to get some reflection. Just go for a walk and see where it leads you.

Also remember that reflection doesn’t need to be done one on one. If you have more than one camper returning from a week away, get them together to bounce ideas and experiences off one another, and see what comes out.

And reflection doesn’t need to stay in the theoretical. It can lead to action and change. After you and the camper have had some time to reflect, it might be good to say, “I’ve heard you talk about X, Y, and Z. Based on all of that, is there anything you want to change or do differently for the coming year?" Don’t lead the witness! Don’t say, “Maybe you want to do a,b,c.” Listen! See what they suggest. They may surprise you.

Bear in mind that campers are not on vacation. Camp is deep spiritual work. It is, in fact, a kind of pilgrimage. They leave their home and all that is familiar. They have an intense connection with adult mentors in the form of their counselors. They spend 24 hours a day in a new community with its own rituals and traditions. They are exposed to new people, new ideas, and new activities. They gain mastery in some and fail in others. They bond deeply with some people and have bitter rivalries with others. They share stories with those around them, some of which they’ve never shared before. They create new stories of their own that they can share only with those who are there. And then they have to say goodbye and return. In ways large and small, after an experience like this, youth are going to be different.

Be patient. Be kind. Listen. Take them seriously. This is hard work.