In the summer of 2009, Mary Anne Vaughn was trying to decide whether to send her oldest daughter, Olivia, to camp the following year. It wasn’t the first time she and husband Peter had wondered whether sleep-away camp would be a good experience for their oldest daughter. The year before, when Olivia was 10 years old, the family had visited a sleep-away camp in Maine, but they’d decided that it wasn’t the right time.
The Vaughns were facing a question familiar to thousands of parents: Should my child go to camp? Answering that single question means answering other, interlocking questions about the child, the family, and the camp. Both the questions and the answers vary for individual children and families.
Mary Anne and Peter Vaughn wanted a good fit between their daughter and a camp, but also between a camp and their family values. Peter had gone away to summer camp as a child; Mary Anne had not. They had already built strong family traditions that included spending two weeks together at a rustic cabin on an island in Maine. Mary Anne needed to be sure that if Olivia went away to camp, she’d get something beyond what their family was already providing.
Olivia was more interested in sleep-away camp after the visit in Maine. Mary Anne and Peter talked to a friend whose daughters attended Aloha Hive and recommended it for Olivia. As Olivia started sixth grade in a new school, Mary Anne wondered, Was now the right time?
She started researching camps online. Following their friend’s recommendation, she looked at The Aloha Foundation website. She liked the success counseling, the emphasis on empowering girls and fostering independent decision making. She liked being able to pick up the phone and reach a knowledgeable person on the other end who could answer her questions. One of those questions was which Aloha girls’ camp would be the proper one for Olivia, who would turn 12 during the summer of the camp session. Aloha Hive took girls ages 7 to 12; Aloha Camp, girls ages 12 to 17. Marijean “MJ” Parry, director of Aloha Camp, told Mary Anne, “Listen to your daughter. She’ll tell you which one she wants to go to.”
And so she did. Olivia liked that at either camp she would have the freedom to choose her own activities. But she also wanted a change from being the oldest child at home. She was comfortable with older girls after being one of the youngest in her grade and playing on a travel soccer team. So she decided that she’d rather be a young camper at Aloha Camp than a member of an older group at Aloha Hive. She’d go to Aloha Camp for the first half of the summer, 3-1/2 weeks.
Yes, it was time.
“We had never set foot in the place” the day they dropped Olivia off, Mary Anne says, but they knew immediately that they’d made the right choice. A huge smile on Olivia’s face confirmed it. Mary Anne half-expected burst into tears when she said good-bye to Olivia, but tears wouldn’t come until later that night, when Mary Anne walked into Olivia’s empty room and it hit her that her daughter was gone for the next 25 days. It helped to know that Olivia felt safe and secure enough in her family life to leave for nearly a month.
Letters started arriving from camp. Olivia sent long lists of activities, described the “amazing grilled cheese sandwiches” and cookies, and talked about her new friends like her parents knew them. And in case that information wasn’t clear enough, she wrote, “I’m not even homesick.”
It helped that Olivia was an outgoing, gregarious, and independent-minded girl. If she wanted to do woodcraft or go on the two-day camping trip, and her friends didn’t want to go, she could say, ‘That’s OK. I’ll do it anyway.’ She tried things she’d never done before, like archery and singing in an a capella group. Mary Anne saw that the environment Aloha provided made it safe for Olivia to make decisions for herself.
She played soccer, too, but with a different focus than at home. It was nice not to have to win, she told her parents. She could just step on the field and have fun.
Picking her up at the end of July, Peter and Mary Anne saw Olivia’s pleasure up close. “We loved seeing her run and jump into the arms of all these girls she’d gotten to know.” Mary Anne says. “She wanted to show us everything and dragged us around the entire camp at break-neck speed. It was easy to see that she was very comfortable.”
Mary Anne and Peter heard many stories about Olivia’s experience at Aloha during their two weeks at the island in Maine, where they went immediately after picking up Olivia at Aloha. Olivia told them about the “star climb” at the ropes course at Lanakila, Aloha’s brother camp down the road. Campers climb up and over a six-by-six foot wooden star, shinny up a rope, ring a bell, and come back down — blindfolded the entire time. Olivia broke the record for the fastest climb. (Several months later, ask her time, and she replies immediately: 42 seconds.) Mary Anne and Peter could see how the Aloha experience stayed with their daughter. Olivia would break into song, or another story from camp would spill forth. One of the first things she did when they got to the island was to write a letter to a friend who was staying at Aloha for the whole season. “The two weeks in Maine were a good transition,” Mary Anne says now.
Although Olivia is a live-in-the moment gal, her mother sees the ways her daughter has changed — yes, grown up — from the end of one school year to the beginning of the next. Olivia celebrated her 12th birthday shortly after she drove away from Aloha. Mary Anne sees a big change: “She went to camp, turned 12, and pierced her ears.”
Now it’s another school year. Olivia has started seventh grade. Mary Anne sees the Aloha influence on her daughter coming out in subtle ways: The way Olivia dealt with a recent difficult situation with a friend was a direct result of success counseling. Mary Anne says, “It works.”
Olivia has already made her decision for next summer. Says her mother, “She talks about returning to Aloha as a foregone conclusion and bugs me to complete the forms… and it’s only September!”
Mary Anne’s one rueful note on Olivia’s first summer at camp is that she and her younger sister, Maggie, fought “like cats and dogs” after Olivia returned from camp and vacation. Maggie liked being the only child at home, and Mary Anne wasn’t surprised by the mutual readjustment. But Mary Anne can also see Maggie looking at Olivia, noticing the difference.
Mary Anne and Peter are considering Aloha Hive, the camp for younger girls, next summer for their third-grader. Maggie says she’ll go for the one week trial, “’cause my sister will be there.”
Author Kristen Laine, writes and blogs about environmental education, women’s issues and children in the outdoors. After her graduation from Harvard, Kristen went west, and in between outdoor expeditions in the Seattle area, became “Outside Magazine Online’s” first editor. Now on the east coast, Kristen lives with her husband and two children in Orange, New Hampshire, and when she’s not writing, can often be found rowing on the Connecticut River.