Home is where the heart is

It’s been a great start to the summer. Our returning campers are so happy to be back at Birch Trail, and our first year campers have been making new friends, trying new activities and learning the ins and outs of camp life. For a first time camper, things like being away from home, being in a new culture, and learning to be independent are very exciting growth opportunities.

Some of our campers jump right in and find that they have no trouble adapting to camp life. Other campers might struggle a little bit with one area or another. Parents often tell me that they want their kids to have an easy adjustment to camp, but I tend to disagree. While I certainly want the camp experience to be overwhelmingly positive, it’s okay for the adjustment to be a little tough. These temporary moments of small struggle are where the growth occurs.

One of the most normal ways that campers struggle at the beginning of camp is through homesickness. At Birch Trail, we see homesickness as a good thing since it means that your campers like you, and since they like you so much, they miss you when they are away from you (don’t worry, even if they are not homesick, they still like you). While homesickness is a good thing, it’s hard to be sad. Our staff is well trained and knows how to work with the campers who are homesick. We talk with the campers and help them verbalize their feelings. Once the campers have overcome their homesickness they feel a great sense of accomplishment and independence.

I received an email today from one of our recent alumni. While her story might be a little bit extreme, it’s a great illustration of homesickness, the adjustment to camp, and just how quickly time flies.

This morning my mom handed me a piece of paper from her drawer of “special things.” It was stationary, the cheery, colorfully decorated kind, the kind that comes from Camp Birch Trail. The folded paper was sealed shut with two googly eyes, and sure enough, on the back, the return address “Lilly Dickman.” That’s me. The letter was mine from camp. The faded stamp was dated July 20, 2011. “Oh god,” I thought to myself, as anyone who knew me in 2011 would know that these weren’t my glory days. I was a first year camper, a Lower Maple, and pretty much won the award for “Most Awfully Homesick Child to Ever Grace the Planet”. Bracing myself, I opened the letter.

“Dear Mom and Dad,” it read, “I miss you soooooo much!” I laughed knowing that my 8-year-old self had definitely placed the extra o’s in “so” in order to subtly signal to my parents that I was brutally miserable. “I was very, very homesick this morning,” the letter continued. “I was crying, so I had my first homesick time with Gabe. I am better now. I was also wandering (spelled as such) if one of you guys could write me every day. I love you! Love, Lilly.”

As I read the letter, my entire self was swept back to my first day, and the vividness with which I recalled my surroundings and feelings was eerie. I was so little, probably the smallest in the camp. I wore a little white tank top, and little grey shorts with the green Birch Trail logo. We’d just arrived and were sitting outside because the weather was so hot that summer. Everything felt strange, faces were unfamiliar, and my stomach hurt. Even the first-night’s dinner, spaghetti, seemed foreign. I didn’t eat it. Instead, I held back tears, trying to be tough, trying to convince myself it would be okay. Clearly, according to both this letter and my memory, it wasn’t, because I wound up at my first Homesick Time with Gabe the next morning.

Homesick Time, I’m pretty sure, was invented solely for me, after Gabe, Barbara, and pretty much every single staff in and around the office area dealt with me. I don’t think they’d ever encountered a child so helpless and chronically sad. At Homesick Time, ironically my favorite part of the day, I would go to Gabe’s office, and we would talk about my homesick feelings. The point of Homesick Time was to get out all of my sad feelings for a little bit of time so that the rest of the day I could focus on having fun. As I recall, only the first part worked for me, the part where I got out all my sad feelings, and then I spent the rest of the day mourning as well.

Homesick Book Club was another activity that seemed to be invented in effort to make me smile, or at least get me out of Gabe’s house for more than 30 minutes per day. Homesick Book Club was a gathering that took place during rest hour. Little kids like me attended and read books or opened letters. Most kids went to eat the fudge that was brought in from Hayward, some went for the Book Club part of it. I went for the Homesick part, and blurred the words on my letters with my tears. We solved this issue by having staff read the letters to me, taking breaks when it got to be much much to bear and I needed a breather. I was a mess.

But going back to the stationary, what caught my eye was a little circle in the corner that said, “first full day at camp”. Today, actually, is the first full day of camp of 2018. However, 8 years later, instead of sitting at camp, I’m sitting at my local public library with tears again rolling down my face. Instead of homesick tears rolling onto letters from home, they roll onto the pages of the ACT College Prep textbooks surrounding me. Suddenly I realize how quickly I went from little to grown up. Not once in my 2011 summer did I ever think that one day I would overcome my homesickness, let alone be mourning my skip year, my “dark summer” as some call it, when I cannot return to my favorite place on earth. Despite all odds though, here I am. Somewhere in between my first Homesick Time in Gabe’s office and now, Birch Trail raised me and turned me into the strong, functioning, and independent person that I am today.

So, parents, my message to you: if I made it, anyone can. Your first year camper will most likely not require the creation of two whole activities for her homesickness. Even I, by the time the session ended, outgrew my daily support groups and went home with tons of friends and wanting to return. However, if you do happen to receive a letter from your daughter reporting her first Homesick Time, don’t panic. Savor the moment instead. Because I can say confidently that this special place and her experiences this summer along with all the ones to follow will transform her into a self-confident and self-aware individual. She will know how to handle herself in strange situations, and tackle all types of problems that may seem utterly impossible in the moment. And, before you know it, she’ll be sitting in the library like me, on her skip year, surrounded by College Prep books, willing to give anything in the world to be sitting in Gabe’s office 8 summers ago, crying her eyes out at Homesick Time.

2 thoughts on “Home is where the heart is”

  1. What a beautiful story Lilly shared. Priceless. I’m always in awe of the book clubs and home sick time so many other resources that the BT Staff have developed to address campers’ challenges, big & small.

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