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Camp Philosophy

A Chat with Two Campers

By Jenn Merritt

Journey’s and Elsie’s Stories

Journey is from New York City. She attended Hive for two years and Aloha for two summers. Journey is excited to be entering Aloha’s leadership program “Club” in 2022. Elsie is from Durham, NH and attended Horizons for one summer, Hive for five years, and Aloha for three. Elsie is looking forward to applying to be on staff at Aloha or Hive in our counselor-in-training program as a “Midi” in 2022. 

In a typical year, the Aloha Foundation welcomes nearly 10,000 people into its programs. In this post, Journey and Elsie, two Aloha campers, share perspectives on their passage through our programs. They explore what’s challenged them, what they’re most proud of, how camp has changed them, what makes them want to return, and more.

Equally powerful as the opportunities the Aloha Foundation offers its campers is the mark our campers leave on the organization. Here, Journey and Elsie also share how camp has changed, and can continue to change, to be an even more inclusive and equitable experience for all. We are committed to learning, growing, and adapting alongside the people who join us.

Interview by Andy Hilton, Aloha Foundation staff member and camp parent

Artwork by Emily Zea, former Horizons camper and Aloha counselor

An external view of the Aloha main house

What was the greatest challenge you faced at camp?

Elsie: Figuring out what I wanted out of my camp experience and deciding whether to pursue ranks [optional skill development in activity departments from beginner to mastery level]. Outside of camp I seek validation for my actions and like to be publicly recognized. Marge, my first-year counselor, was a vital part of my Aloha experience, and she didn’t pursue high ranks. Her example helped me realize that I could focus on trying everything, building friendships, and developing my sense of self. Now I know it’s okay to not always work toward achievement to make the most out of an experience.

Journey: Going on an overnight. At Hive, I never wanted to go on an overnight. My tent family would try to convince me, and I’d say, “I’m already staying in the woods at camp!” At Aloha last summer I went on the Art overnight. I had such a great time. It wasn’t scary, I was with a lot of people I knew. I was like, “Ok, maybe this is something I can do!”

The hanging metal bell on the porch of Aloha.

What are you most proud of when you think about your camp experience?

Journey: Swimming. I was really scared about doing my swim check. The diving board is not for me. I don’t like heights, I don’t like jumping. But I did it, I passed my swim check! And before I knew it, I was swimming every day. I even spent a double period in swimming!

I’m also proud of doing the Show last summer because it was such a big commitment. Going to rehearsals meant missing out on other things I wanted to do. So I’m just proud of myself that I kept on track with rehearsals. And it was such a great Show!

Elsie: I’m proud of developing new interests at camp and bringing them home with me. I got into pottery at camp, and I’m now in second-year pottery classes at my school. At camp I also took risks trying new things, like performing in the show and sailing solo. Taking big risks at camp taught me how to take risks outside of camp.

A camper cooking over an open flame by a lake.

How do you think camp changed you as a person?

Journey: At home – before I came to camp – situations would come up and I could have a really bad reaction to them. I could get very angry and would sometimes say things that I didn’t mean. At camp when those situations occurred, I learned to remind myself, “Ok, that’s ok, that’s all right.” And I’d talk with a counselor and it wouldn’t be that big of a problem. I wouldn’t talk back to the other person. I wouldn’t say things that I knew could be hurtful. Camp has made me realize that you don’t always have to react to what someone says. You have counselors around who can help you and get the situation solved.

Elsie: Being part of a community where you can have such good, close friendships and reflect on the person you want to be has definitely changed me. Camp provides the space where I can try out new things and ways of being. I feel like it’s something everyone should have access to. You’re able to build trust and be vulnerable at camp much easier than in the outside world – that builds strong relationships very, very quickly.

Since going to camp I’ve realized that I deserve to have strong friendships, and I’ve learned how to foster them – at camp and away from camp. For example, this year as a junior I was elected co-captain of my school’s JV soccer team. We have a big team this season. It was challenging to create a community outside of the camp environment that is as cohesive, and where we all have a lot of respect for each other. I was able to take leadership skills that I learned from my summer in Club [Aloha’s leadership program], though, and apply them. We talked about giving each other compliments, and how to give good criticism, things that I learned during camp and Club training. It definitely wasn’t easy in a community that’s not as intentional as the one at camp, especially with a lot of the pressures that we have at school like social media, different school cultures and sports cultures. But we were able to create a really cohesive team. We got together for spaghetti dinners and had tie-dye parties, and focused on getting to know each other and developing respect for each other. We did well in our games because I think we were able to get along so well. Camp has provided tools to help me build myself into who I want to be. In that way, I think camp has played a crucial role in my development and growth as a person.


Platform tents at Aloha.

What surprised you the most about the Aloha community?

Elsie: I am surprised by what I learned about courage at camp. It takes different forms. One summer, the theme was “Powerful women dare…” I loved it when counselors dared us to bring our camp selves out into the world. For example, I learned that we – as women – don’t have to apologize for everything. That is something I used to do; and at camp I found the courage to respect others’ feelings while also standing up for myself. I keep that in the back of my mind now: I don’t have to apologize for everything. I’m learning skills and values of kindness, community, self-respect, hard work, and leadership.

Journey: At Aloha, I felt older and more mature. Elsie and I spent a lot of time together on the porch, swinging, talking. Older girls and counselors gave us good advice and encouraged us to challenge ourselves in new ways. They role modeled being themselves, which gave us leeway to be ourselves and do what we love most. I found more time to reflect on who I am.

That reminds me: this year’s camp theme was “Together we can…” Now I tell my friends at school that it is ok to ask for help. You can ask a family member, a friend, a teacher. I say, “Together we can do anything that we want to do.” And they’re like: “Where did you get that?” I tell them, “I go to a sleepaway camp over the summer and that’s what we focused on. It’s helpful anywhere you go.” A lot of the things I do and think about come from camp. Camp teaches me things that I would not learn at home.

Campers learning how to sail.

In what ways have you found camp to be inclusive?

Journey: When it comes to playing games or talking, no one is excluded at Aloha. There are places and people that will tell you, “I don’t like your race” or, “I don’t like what you are, so I don’t want you around me.” It’s not like that at camp and I’m thankful for it. One thing Arlynn [the Aloha Foundation’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Manager] and Gordo [Aloha Camp Director] talk about at assembly is that everyone is human and everybody has feelings. There are certain things that shouldn’t be said to certain people. Everyone has different emotions and everyone’s blood is red.

Elsie: From a young age, camp is a place you can be yourself and explore. Having all types of role models is really important to that process. All that different representation is enriching.

To have that place where I could learn about differences was also really important. I had already had a lot of conversations about DEI at my school in DC  and I still learned a lot of new things. I’m still learning, and I always will be! Providing that to a whole community is a really important thing. To have those conversations and to make everyone feel comfortable is vital to creating that sense of community.

A campfire with a lake in the background.

If you could change one thing about camp, what would it be?

Journey: The way that other kids word things to me, or to other people of color. We talked about how kids should talk to people of color. It did get better over time. I was really happy for that. We created affinity groups, which were safe spaces to talk to people who can relate. I could just sit with someone I could talk to about how I was feeling and not have to hold it in. So that was really great, too. But besides that camp is great, there’s nothing else I would change.

Elsie: It would be great if it was year round! Seriously, though, having those affinity groups was really helpful. It’s important to have a space to talk to people who are like yourself. Having difficult conversations has been handled a lot better too with the development of these affinity groups. I’ve just seen that now these issues are being brought up, are being discussed, are being talked about. It’s definitely a positive change. Obviously the need for them will never go away, we’ll always need to have these conversations, and these affinity groups should continue.

Also reviewing the history of the camps and going through all the songs – I think those were changes that needed to happen. I’m really glad to see that it’s continuing to be worked on. We should always be scrutinizing traditions. I think we’re moving in the right direction.

Campers hugging by the water.

What are some ways you think the camp experience could be improved?

Elsie: When it comes to uniforms at the camps I know that there were some campers who did not feel affirmed by what they had to wear. I don’t know if this is possible but to have a longer shorts option, like basketball shorts in the Aloha green. And maybe not such girlish silhouettes. Maybe more masculine silhouettes.

Journey: If I speak to a counselor about an issue, they should talk to the camper or the counselor because there are always two sides to a story. Maybe the way I heard it, they didn’t mean to say it in that way. Maybe they thought they were putting it in a different way. The counselors could help me and that person have a conversation to see where things went wrong.



People on canoes on a lake.

When you’re not at camp, what do you miss most?

Journey: My camp friends. Keeping in touch year-round is good, but seeing them for 7.5 weeks in the summer is better. Coming back to camp I can be with my second family again!

Elsie: The people. I miss the community. I miss the role models of so many amazing people. There’s also less to worry about at camp. I love the separation from my phone, school, and pressures at home. It creates a good space to develop friendships, try out new things, develop yourself and grow. There’s also more forgiveness for mistakes at camp than in the outside world. At camp we all share common things, even clothes. Camp is such a happy place.