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An American Tradition – Summer Camp

Camp life offers a view into the makings of a future generation.

A hot shower followed by a nap.  Then a cup of coffee while cycling two loads of laundry between machines. 

Already this past week’s experience directing a residential youth camp in rural, north central Illinois is fading in the face of duties back home.  The washing machine won’t remove all the evidence or the memories.  The garments deemed ‘not dirty enough’ that will carry the fire circle smell, the place where songs were sung and ghost stories were told.

In truth, the camp experience with youth 9 through 16 is not all that different from the world of the corporate office or the manufacturing warehouse.  The age differential does not override the essential human needs or behavior patterns. 

One can post the daily schedule in several places to empower the children and encourage time management skills, but there are the children who must have the staff’s attention to ask, “What are we doing next?”  One assigns tasks to foster the camper’s owning the community that is being built, but always know that clear job description and affirmation of work well done go a long way in the camp setting, just as in the work place.

At camp this past week, when a large task was gearing up, something very similar to the typical workplace occurred.  Some youth ran up and offered to help.  Others continued to play or hang out with new friends nearby and were willing to lend a hand – when asked – to hasten the fun that the upcoming activity promised. 

And then there were the rest who visibly worked their way out of the line of sight of the adults who were setting up for the activity.  These hoped to avoid being recruited.  The ones we successfully intercepted on their way to the wooded path to the gymnasium objected with predictable questions of “Why me?  Why don’t you every ask anyone else to help?  What if I don’t feel good?” 

The initiators, the responders and the dodgers.  Doesn’t this describe the workplace, the classroom, the church or the synagogue?  After 35 years of summer youth camps and retreats I am no closer to a conclusion on the question of whether a work ethic is an acquired attitude or if it is a factor of the temperament. All I can say is that my annual experience at church youth camp never fails to provide an interesting laboratory for studying “community in the making.”  Camp residents never fail to provide a fresh look at the shaping and nurturing process that produces a future generation ready to take over the transmission of the culture.

Ah, it’s good to be home.  Still – a week with selfless staff, staged in a beautiful setting, entertained by the spontaneity of youth will always be the highlight of my summers!

The Rev. Donal R. Limmer is the senior pastor at Naperville Congregational Church.

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