A Return to Summer Camp

A Return to Summer Camp

After 25 consecutive years at Teatown’s Natural Science Summer Day Camp, first as a camper, then as a counselor and now as health director, 2020 became the summer without camp. As the world struggled with the COVID-19 pandemic, Teatown made the difficult decision to cancel summer camp. For the safety and health of campers and staff, it was the right decision at the time. This left me with an emptiness and, to some extent, disoriented. How do I cope without a summer spent at Teatown Camp?

I remember the first time I attended Teatown’s camp. I was 7 years old and had previously attended town camp and arts camp. My family was not the “outdoorsy” type and my exposure to nature was limited. I instantly fell in love. My counselors brought energy and enthusiasm that made me want to be just like them when I grew up. I learned so much about everything around me, from the smallest aquatic macroinvertebrates to the complex relationships within ecosystems. I remember coming home muddy every day, excited to share my new knowledge with my parents. My summers at Teatown heavily influenced who I am today.

In the spring of 2021, the Teatown camp directors began making the final preparations to reopen for the 2021 camp season. With COVID-19 still a major factor, health and safety considerations became a focus of our pre-camp planning. There was anxiety and uncertainty leading into June 2021. We were dealing with the emergence of a new COVID variant and constantly changing guidance from the CDC, American Camping Association, and the Westchester County Department of Health. We knew we could provide a welcoming summer experience in the outdoors for campers. Teatown’s camp is based on exploration and creative play in nature, stewardship, and respect for all living things. But how would 15 months living with COVID and the ensuing protocols affect campers, counselors, and the camp experience overall?

The arrival of our summer staff in June brought a sense of normalcy. Many had been my campers when I was a counselor and have a long history with Teatown. They were keen to shed months of isolation and aborted college plans and greet new and returning campers. A week of intense staff training flew by and before we all knew it, the first day of camp had arrived. I watched as children with curious minds and eager hearts flooded camp. Summer camp was here! After a year and a half of virtual classes and zoom calls, everyone was excited to be outdoors. Campers began sharing their discoveries: cicadas emerging from exoskeletons, baby painted turtles, snakes galore, large bald-faced hornet nests, monarchs dancing around milkweed, and piles of scat filled with berries and fur.

In the midst of the shouts of happily exploring campers, it was difficult to think that the pandemic was still with us. Outdoor gathering and mask wearing were practiced, but in the woods, there was an escape from the pandemic. The background hum of worry was replaced by smiling campers running in each day to greet their counselors. Campers built fairy houses and forts, shoes were lost in the muddy lake, and numerous frogs were caught. I envied the campers, wishing I could go back to being a camper. As a director, however, I had the enjoyment of watching the face of an excited 4-year-old find a worm and a 14-year old with a curious mind ask about the implications of non-native pets released into the wild.

Sitting in my office a week after camp ended, I feel a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction that 2021 was a successful summer camp season. With the school season ahead of us, I am looking forward to bringing nature to all. For me, summer camp is a reminder to have fun, never lose your curiosity, embrace your inner kid, and enjoy the peace that can be found in nature.

About the Author

Elissa Schilmeister
Environmental Educator and Volunteer Coordinator

Elissa is a homegrown Teatowner, starting as a camper, and going on to be a camp counselor, volunteer, and now staff. Elissa is also a NYS licensed wildlife rehabilitator and EMT.

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