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Ahhhh!WOW.  That’s my word for the summer of 2012 at Camp Jorn YMCA.  WOW!!

It was our biggest summer yet in terms of number of campers, but that’s just one part of the story.

The rest of the story can be seen in the many photos below from our sessions at CJ; the rest of the story can be seen in the eyes of the campers, and heard in the words of the campers; the rest of the story is written in the tall pine trees, in the sparkle of sun on Rest Lake, in the sound of laughter and the hush of reverence.

It’s a story of friendship, fun, challenge, and growth.  The story is in all of us who are part of Camp Jorn.

A Camp Jorn Story

This story came to us from a social worker who wanted to express her feelings about what Camp Jorn YMCA can do for kids.  It can be hard sometimes for those of us who have experienced Camp Jorn to put into words what camp means to us, but this story embraces the essence when we think of our Camp Jorn.  Enjoy.

I first became aware of Camp Jorn YMCA when, as the classroom social worker, I asked the students in my classroom who would like to attend camp that summer.

Immediately, Peter shot up from his seat. He knew exactly where he wanted to go. Well, not exactly, he had to scramble to recall the name of the camp since it had been two years, back in the 4th grade, when he had attended Camp Jorn.   When we pulled up the Camp Jorn website, surprisingly we found Peter’s picture on their home page.  It is also worth noting that when I asked Peter’s junior high classmates who of them were interested in attending camp, only Peter responded. I sadly noted that even by junior high, some children had lost their hope or enthusiasm for the pleasures of good things to come….. but not Peter!

I’d begun working with Peter during his 6th grade year. He came across as a bouncy, sweet kid, but I knew from reading records that his past had been laden with significant family turmoil, displacement from his parents’ home, poverty, as well as a learning disability. At the time he was living with his grandmother. Finances were so tight that when the electric bill went unpaid, the family lived without electricity for a few weeks. Despite family struggles, Peter flourished in school during 6th grade. He went from an impulsive, not very directed kid, to a boy who was conducting himself in a more meaningful, thoughtful manner. Things were looking up. And now he would top off the academic year by returning to Camp Jorn.It was clear in working with Peter’s family that they not only needed the financial support to plan for camp, but also the “maternal function” of someone working out the details between camp and home – that was me.  I was warmly and ably assisted in this process by Camp Jorn’s Registrar, Emir Butler. She and her lovely Irish lilt were my first personal contact with Camp Jorn. She was personal and personable, interested in Peter, and ready to assist me in the many ways needed to support him.

Peter was so excited to return. Earlier, toward the end of the 2010 academic year, our Special Education District of Lake County (SEDOL) classroom that Peter attended was closed. I’d had to inform Peter that not only was our classroom team of teachers, aides,  and  support staff disbanding, but that he would be moving to a classroom several towns away. He’d looked at me and said, “Every time something good happens to me, it gets taken away.” We both had tears in our eyes. Since that 6th grade year, Peter had not yet regained his grip on being the student he had become. He continually found himself in a vicious cycle of depression, lack of focus, and limited motivation. But then Camp Jorn returned for him. From about March to June, the largest part of our work together was preparing, with his father, to attend camp. We made decisions about TEVA, locating camping clothing and supplies, and just being excited together. His excitement filled me with happiness for him and renewed hope for his future.

I had heard from a colleague that Camp Jorn offered a one-week camp scholarship if a social worker professional donated time to the camp. So I volunteered to spend a week at Camp Jorn, which gave Peter an extra week added to the two-week scholarship from SEDOL, I knew that the longer Peter was in the camp environment, the less likely that he would fall prey to all the difficulties a boy in his circumstances can find themselves in when they have three months of free time and no structured recreational activities available. 

If you’ve ever seen the 1954 movie Brigadoon, that’s a bit of what I felt as I entered Camp Jorn that Saturday in August. Brigadoon is this magical place that emerges out of the fog once every 100 years. The town’s people come alive and merriment ensues. For some kids, more fortunate than Peter, I imagine Camp Jorn is the icing on the cake of their lives. For kids like Peter, it’s much, much more.. Last summer, when I experienced Camp Jorn firsthand, I understood why Peter reports to me that going to Camp Jorn is the best part of his life.

There are many factors. First of all, the beautiful setting. The land and the water are novel and a wonder for many urban kids. Things in their urban neighborhoods can be treacherous and unmanageable. At Camp Jorn they learn to feel the magnificence of our world in a manageable way. They are given opportunities to explore the environment, engage with others, and succeed in ways often unknown to them. 

Kids, in the school environment, are primarily there to learn, but Camp Jorn is designed to put the cares of life, sometimes lives burdened with worries, loss and limitations, off to the side and focus on play and friendship building. I know for Peter, and I imagine for other kids, school can be a place where students with learning problems or family concerns are forever feeling lesser than others. Not at Camp Jorn. Camp Jorn programs and activities are set up for children to succeed, not necessarily in all areas, but in many. These successes can and do linger with Peter throughout the year.

The counselors are terrific. Many of the camp counselors, counselors in training, and even some of the  administrative staff have attended Camp Jorn in their youth. They have wonderful memories of their experience, know what it has done for them, and want to provide it for others. Many of the counselors  are high school or college students themselves and, therefore, “tell it like it is,” which I believe promotes a sense of realness, a sense of alternative family, a sense of community, and above all, a sense of playfulness. The ability to play is an essential ingredient for developing creativity and a joyful life.

Even though his second experience with Camp Jorn was as wonderful for him as the first had been, Peter has continued to struggle. During his rough 7th grade year, Peter and I maintained contact in a slightly different way, not as the direct therapist working with him in the classroom, but as an outreach worker. Whenever we speak about Camp Jorn, Peter lights up.

This spring, when beginning our planning for Peter’s next summer at Camp Jorn, Emir asked me what would happen to Peter and Camp Jorn when I no longer worked with him. She reported that repeatedly she has seen a camp “regular” fall off the radar, never to be heard from again. I was so moved by her personal investment in this child. Attitudes and dedication like this among Camp Jorn people are ultimately what makes it such an important experience for kids like Peter.

I’ve learned from speaking to Peter over these past years and observing him at Camp Jorn this past summer, and observing Camp Jorn itself, that in the right setting, with activities thoroughly orchestrated to enhance fun, skill building, playfulness, friendship, and community, the participants at Camp Jorn are exposed to the sweetest experiences in life. The thoroughness and the duration of the Camp Jorn experience actually set in motion, for youths like Peter, a sense of hope, and in my experience as a social worker, hope is one of the most valuable things we can give to our kids.