About 4 years ago I was invited to join a volunteer committee headed up by the American Camp Association and the Association of Camp Nurses. We were then, and continue to now, looking in to the MESH (Mental, Emotional, and Social Health) issues that are affecting camps throughout the United States. The goal of the committee was to gather information and create resources that camps could use as they tackle the ever-growing concerns of parents that stem around the MESH of their campers.
To say that the work of the committee has greatly changed my outlook and sensitivity to these
Camp Foley renovated a cabin built to store ice and made it into a Lego room.
‘The campers need a place to get away from it all for a little while,’
says camp director Alli Faricy.
TIM GRUBER FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
concerns would be an understatement. I have had the honor to speak to countless camp directors that are working tirelessly to continue the development of both their campers as well as the college-aged staff that they employ. And although they all run different programs with different focuses, one thing remains the same: they put the MESH concerns of their campers and staff at the top of the long list of priorities. Although there is no possible way for me to list all of the things I have learned through this work, I do want to share a couple here:
- Camps are ahead of the curve. For those of us that have created careers, lifestyles, and passions that revolve around the summer camp, and specifically the traditional summer camp experience, we are in paying attention. We talk to parents. We talk to professionals. We attend conferences that have nationally and internationally renowned speakers that talk about MESH in both youth and adults. We take note of what campers, parents, and staff say.
- Camps are innovative in their hiring. Even those of us that label ourselves as “traditional” are constantly looking for ways to evolve. At Foley, that has involved working with teachers that are also Foley Alums to serve as “Camper Coordinators”. They supply an extra set of eyes and ears to help us create an atmosphere of connection and acceptance that has become synonymous with Foley. Whether a camp has determined that they need to hire full-time social workers, clinical psychologists, or other professionals, or simply make sure their staff has additional training around MESH, they have one thing in common: innovation.
- MESH is about growth. And so is camp. One of the biggest reasons kids go camping is to grow. And they can’t do that without supporting adults guiding them along the way. They need a steady hand. They need positive influences and role models. They need to have independent experiences and learn how to make friends. They need to hold a conversation without the use of a device (text messaging and social media). And yes. A lot of kids get that from their parents. But some don’t and I feel they deserve it. And does it really hurt to give more to the ones that do?
Through the work I did with the above-mentioned committee, I was recently interviewed by the Wall Street Journal. Although the author does draw attention to the growing number of mental health concerns at camps, he seems to not completely paint an accurate picture of what anyone that has attended a summer camp or watched their child return from summer camp would already know: the kids come back changed. They grow up. They are taller. In short, camp is an opportunity to help kids understand their own Mental, Emotional, and Social Health more. And yes, camps are evolving and seeking new ways to provide care for their campers and staff, but they are also thinking WAY outside the clinical box.
I am proud to see the pictures of three generations of my family’s life work in a nationally recognized newspaper (both in print and online). I am proud of the work our staff does at Foley year after year (for 94 summers!). I am proud to show the photographer around camp and hear him comment on how welcomed he felt. I am proud to be part of the greater summer camp community and have so many friends that work just as hard as I do to provide camp experiences for kids across this country. But mostly, I am proud every day of the work our kids put in (even if they don’t know they are doing it) on their personal mental, emotional and social health.
As a society, we can not deny that our kids need us more than ever. Whether that is in the form of professional mental health care or the guiding hand of a camp director, we have to give our kids opportunities to practice mental, emotional, and social health just as we allow them to practice getting up on water skis or swinging a tennis racquet.
I can think of no place better on Earth than on the shores of a lake, disconnected from technology, surrounded by other campers and staff who allow them to investigate their own heart and head.
Alli Faricy, Director