I was 11 when I first came to Camp Tecumseh. My only previous camp experience was a few days of Girl Scout camp the previous summer. At Girl Scout camp, we slept on raised wooden platforms covered by tent flaps. There were daddy-long-legs everywhere. On our first night there, another girl in my cabin wet her bed and then woke me up to ask if she could sleep with me. It was ridiculously hot and there was a burn ban, so we couldn't even have a campfire. I didn't like the food, so I survived solely on peanut butter for the duration of our stay. I came away from that experience thinking that camp was awful.
So the next year, when my parents decided to send me for a week at Camp Tecumseh on our neighbors' recommendation, I was prepared for the worst. But what I found at Tecumseh changed my life forever.
While rustic-looking, the cabins were downright luxurious compared to those tent-covered raised wooden platforms. I was still a picky eater, but I never went hungry. The campfires on Sunday and Friday night were amazing--full of goofy songs and hilarious skits, then rounded out by slower songs about faith and friendship. And the counselors--they were nothing short of amazing. They were energetic and silly, able to bring even the shyest child (me) out of her shell. They were so confident and full of life. They were wise and kind, and excellent listeners. The devotions and chapels that they led laid the basis for me to develop my own faith. Their example taught me about accepting and loving myself. In short, they were everything that I wanted to be.
The summer after my freshman year of college, I got a job working at a YMCA daycare in Peoria. I hoped that having worked for the Y would make me more marketable when I applied to be a counselor at Camp Tecumseh the next summer. Then, during my sophomore year of college, I got to go back to camp on a retreat.
After that, I applied to work as a counselor that summer. During my interview, I told the summer camp director that being a camper at Tecumseh had been the most significant experience of my life, and I wanted to be able to give other kids what my counselors had given me.
1999 was my first summer on staff, and I grew that summer in all the ways that I had hoped, and in others that I would never have been able to predict. I became, in many ways, the best version of myself. I never wanted to leave camp. Never in my life had I felt so at home, so at peace. I toyed with the idea of leaving college to work year-round at camp, but ultimately decided to continue on my college path.
Back then, I thought that 1999 would be my one summer of glory. I studied abroad in the spring of 2000 and didn't return to the States until camp was already in session. But the summer camp director called me up and asked me to return for part of the summer to fill in for another woman who couldn't finish the summer. (Ben and I watched the staff video from the summer of 2000 last night, which is what brought on some of these reflections.) After that, I knew I couldn't stay away. I was back again in 2001 and 2002, and even after Ben and I were engaged and embarking on our epic summer road trip in 2003, we returned to camp to volunteer for a week before setting out.
In the following years, I returned to camp every chance I got. We came back to visit at Friday night campfires. I worked some weekends and volunteered on others. I brought my students on retreats to the Tecumseh Leadership Center. Bryn spent her first night at camp when she was 9 months old, as part of a retreat that I was chaperoning. We brought the kids for Family Camp. Shay rode her first horse when she was 2, and Liam attended his first campfire at 2 months old.
And then Ben was offered a full-time job at camp. So now, the home of my heart is my physical home too.
And you know what? Remember how I felt about the counselors when I was a camper--that they were energetic, inspiring, wise, kind, full of life, faith-full, and accepting. I still think all of those things about this generation of counselors. As I look back on my journey from camper to counselor to staff family, I am filled with admiration for the counselors that I have known over the years. They keep going strong even when it's 110 degrees every day. They are always smiling, laughing, singing. The inspire the campers, each other, and even me to grow in confidence and faith. They give every single kid the best week of their lives.
I am so, so proud to call this place home and to know that I have been part of its history. Truly, it provides experiences that last a lifetime.