A Good Country for Young Women

Tammy Oliveras at Vermont's Aloha Camp for Girls
Tammy Oliveras is enveloped by family who support her summers in Vermont at Aloha Camp.

“Tammy has always wanted to explore other countries,” her mother tells me. Herminia Oliveras can remember her middle child, only seven or eight years old, ticking off the countries she wanted to visit: France, Italy…. “I told her, ‘I can’t afford to take you to France or Italy,’” Herminia says. She knew that her daughter, an outgoing and curious child, wanted to learn about other cultures. She told her, “You’re going to have to find another way.”

Neither of them expected that spending the summer at a camp in Fairlee, Vermont, would be that other way. When Tammy, who had followed her older sisters from their Lower East Side New York City apartment to Fresh Air Fund camps, was invited to apply to Aloha Camp, she thought that living in tents sounded “weird.” She wasn’t sure she wanted to wear a uniform, either. Her mother, however, recognized the opportunity and told Tammy, “Jump for it.”

That first summer, Tammy felt immediately welcomed by her counselors, and immediately comfortable sleeping in a tent and wearing green shorts and a white top. Just as quickly, she started meeting campers and counselors from other countries — France and Italy, but also Australia, and more. Over seven weeks together, the girls from different cities, different countries, and different continents shared experiences. They went swimming together. They talked about their lives back home.

When Tammy left Vermont, she brought her friendships back with her to New York City. Her friends at home heard how she spent her summer and had same reaction she’d once had: Tents? Uniforms? Weird.

Over the next school year, Tammy stayed in touch with friends from Aloha. As summer approached, she added a ticker to her Facebook page, counting down the days until camp started. Emails flew back and forth, across oceans and continents.

Tammy, now 14, recently finished her third summer at Aloha Camp. She started working toward her first swimming rank. She has friends from many places now — friends who still hear Reveille from a hundred or several thousand miles away, as Tammy does; and who wear their green shorts for a few extra days when they return, because they’re not quite ready for summer to end.

After Tammy returns to New York City, she keeps to the same routine from camp for a week or so. It takes her a while to start using the phone and computer again. “I want to go on the computer,” she admits, “but I don’t want to go on the computer.”

Her mother and father see other changes, too. “She carries herself differently,” Tammy’s father, Gil, says. “She’s more eloquent.” Herminia sees that Tammy is neater at home. “Camp teaches her a certain level of responsibility,” she says. Tammy agrees. “It helps when it’s not just you, acting a particular way. When you see everyone around you doing it…”

Not all the changes last, of course: Tammy starts to stay up later and sleep in later, and spends more time watching TV than her parents would like. But for a while, it’s as if Tammy has visited another country and come back with some of its traditions and habits. You could call it the country of mature young women.

Before she left Vermont this year, Tammy heard advice she plans to heed over the coming months. Someone told her, “when you leave camp, don’t be sad. Just think of it as the beginning of looking ahead to next year.” She’ll start the countdown on her Facebook page as soon as she gets home: “364 days until I come back.”

Next year, there’s the Purple Albatross, the five-mile swim around Lake Morey, maybe learning to be a counselor-in-training, friends from everywhere, and new countries to explore.

Author Kristen Laine writes and blogs about environmental education, women’s issues and children in the outdoors.  Laine rowed as a lightweight on the Radcliffe Crew and now competes as a Master with the Upper Valley Rowing Foundation.