The summer camp experience: Interview with Andrea Foote

Andrea Foote

I'm grateful to have the insights today of Andrea Foote, Camp Director and Volunteer Coordinator at The Bishop's Ranch camp and conference center in Healdsburg, CA, and a former youth group member of mine. Andrea "counts her lucky stars" to have stumbled into the camp world, first as a camper, then counselor and now in her current role as Camp Director. She is active in the national organization Episcopal Camps and Conference Centers, Inc, and finds joys in serving on the Program Committee and helping plan its annual national gathering.  Andrea enjoys spending time outdoors, canoeing, camping, roadtripping and backpacking with friends.  She recently adopted a puppy and can be found hiking or running trails at the Ranch with a black and white poodle-mutt named Jasper. And she's just rad. I couldn't think of a better person to give a 360 perspective of the camp experience. Thanks, Andrea!

First of all, why do you think camping is important (assuming you do, of course)?

I do!  I see camp be transformational every summer, and think everyone should have the chance to attend.  For elementary aged campers, a week at camp is generally the longest they have been away from home alone.  This space, while being supported in a cabin of counselors and with a counseling staff, lets them have agency about their day’s activities, learn personal responsibility and accountability in a new way, and can be incredibly confidence boosting.  For middle and high school campers both getting away from their home communities to a place that is intentionally universally welcoming can be a huge respite.  All ages of campers benefit from being in residence with engaging counselors and Chaplains who help them articulate, doubt and learn about their faith, and in my case the Episcopal tradition, more in depth than in a parish community. 

How long have you been going to summer camp?

I first went to camp in 1998 at St. Dorothy’s Rest, one of the camps sponsored by the Episcopal Diocese of California.  Like most campers, I think of that time as magical and I spent most of each year reminiscing about my week at St. Dot’s with friends (as pen pals or over AOL instant messenger at the time!), singing camp songs, and dreaming of the summer to come.  I continued camping at St. Dot’s and was subsequently a counselor for three summers.  Living in community, my first experience with paid hard work, constantly learning new skills, the responsibility of caring for young children, and long hot days that were slivered with blissful happiness was an overwhelmingly formative experience. 

Our Diocese is lucky to have two retreat centers with camping programs.  I also attended BREAD camp at The Bishop’s Ranch, where I am lucky to currently serve as Camp Director. 

What do you remember about your first experience of camp?

I went with one friend, but we were put in different cabins, which was traumatic for a few hours, and then was a non issue.  I wasn’t homesick, completely idolized the counselors and loved learning new songs and camp traditions.  I felt at home in a community that welcomed all.

What made camp a good experience? 

The counselors and staff.  In hindsight I realize they had probably gone through a rigorous training.  As a 10 year old I just knew I felt safe with them and in the community they created with guidelines and input from the campers in my cabin.  In general it was novel and FUN living with a big group of other kids, getting to know them, singing, playing and trying something new every day. 

Campers in action

St. Dorothy’s has a long (almost century old) tradition of hiking from camp, near Occidental, CA, out to the ocean, roughly 12 miles.  It was a daunting task as a young camper but that yearly pilgrimage and its trail is host to many of my most cherished childhood and formative adolescent memories.  We complained and rallied, then sang and told jokes and swapped endless Harry Potter trivia, stopped for lunch and carried on renewed by the power of trail mix (or picking out the M&Ms).  Campers disclose worries, joys, secrets, jokes and do some serious bonding with each other and their counselors on hike days, called “Woods to Waves.”  In the end, regardless of how tired a camper had been a quarter mile earlier, when they saw the vans that would carry us the last few miles down Highway 1 to the beach we’d run towards them triumphant.  Parents are shocked their young camper hiked all day, because at home they complain or are unwilling. 

Daunting activities like this (or a challenge course, “blob,” rites of passage, backpacking trips, etc. depending on the camp program) are transformative and are grace-filled in camp settings, I believe, because campers are already pushing themselves outside of their comfort zones of daily life.  Camp isn’t “the real world,” though we sometimes lament, but this liminal space is what allows the incredible to occur.

How did your camp experience impact your faith?

Camp made my weekly parish church experience more tangible and personal.  Camps at The Bishop’s Ranch have a tradition of camper small groups planning, implementing and leading Compline each night.  I remember being shocked at how much ownership other campers had over their faith, and how comfortable they were expressing it. Compline changed in word, location and style each night, but faith became clear and simple while holding a candle at the edge of a dark river valley.  I felt comfortable contributing a prayer of thanksgiving, praise, or concern as part of the group and holding that candle. 

Camp is incredibly empowering in many ways, but for me, made faith and church attendance more than just a rote weekly family activity.  It was now a personal experience I actually cared about.

What did your parents do to help with the camp experience?

I don’t remember expressing interest in going away to camp the first time, so they must have believed it to be important.  I am thankful they continued to make it possible for my siblings and I to attend, and sometimes multiple camps each summer.  They organized carpools and recruited other families in our community. 

Personally, they were happy to listen to our stories, remember our friends and counselors names, write us letters, and when the time came to be a counselor, supported me in going away for the summer at 16.   As an adult they have told me that my siblings and I would come home just glowing and rejuvenated, and that they were proud of us for our work creating that experience as counselors, which was awesome to have their support.  

How about pastors? What, if anything, did they do (she asks sheepishly since she knows she didn’t do anything but left it up to camp to take care of things)?

Rectors and Youth Ministers would write letters or postcards, which is always fun, especially today when “snail mail,” is a rare treat.  Many parishes in my diocese have realized how camp experiences end up directly supporting their church school or youth program.  Parishes can support campers and families by creating funds to assist with tuition, have “Camp Sundays,” to promote programs and encourage registration, write letters, or include campers in that weeks Prayers of the People.  Ask campers about their experience once they are home, ask about their Chapel time and if they would share the week’s program theme with their youth group, for example.  Bringing the “mountaintop experience “ home can be hard but at least interest from their home community lets campers know their camp experience matters. 

Why did you decide to become a camp counselor? And how did that change your experience of camp?

As a young 15 year old I couldn’t imagine a summer without a “camp fix,” but as I grew older the job grew into a ministry of serving the campers, and creating the sacred space of camp for them.  Being part of the counseling staff at a summer camp was a totally new experience of living in intentional community.  Playing and praying, laughing and working harder than I ever had before created incredibly tight bonds, and sharing that experience and relationships with campers was overwhelmingly powerful as a teenager.  Now well into my young adulthood and leading camp staffs I am so proud to see groups of teens and young adults come together as both a cohesive whole group to serve the community and tight group of peers and friends. 

As a counselor and now as camp director, how have you seen camp make an impact on people’s faith development?

I continue to see them take ownership of their experience, or grapple with doubts and disbelief (which to me is ok and brings another perspective to conversation).  For many camp counselors in college or beyond camp is their primary religious community.  I see them sharing stories, creating friendships that a sacred in their care for one another, having staff small groups during time off, and sometimes reaching out to campus ministers at their colleges.

Why do you think camp has such a big impact?

Camp is a placeSimply time away from school, families, or campers’ usual identity in their group of peers is powerful.  Camp is a place you can “try out” being the person you want to, or are being called to be.  An entire week unplugged from all electronic devices and off social media is becoming an increasingly rare and powerful experience.  Living in a group where sharing faith, doubts, joys and thanksgivings daily isn’t “weird” but instead celebrated and connects campers to other teens in their faith tradition is renewing.  The established norms of a camp community are so decidedly different than that of the “outside world,” that campers keep coming back for that taste of the Kingdom of God so they can take it back home with them again.  

What advice would you give to youth who are thinking about becoming counselors, or who are going to be camp counselors this summer?

Be ready to work hard, spend substantial time away from your home community, and create a transformative experience for campers, but in the process maybe also yourself.  You likely won’t have daily access to your phone or Internet.  Have an open mind, working so closely with other counselors is hard.  You can learn a lot about your needs for personal space, extroversion/introversion, group dynamics, problem solving techniques and reconciliation.  Realize that you have a tremendous responsibility caring for the well-being of children and youth, physically, emotionally and spiritually.  You will be on a stage 24/7, anything you do or say they will see and emulate.  Spending so much time with kids or youth in a cabin or large group with be exhausting, utterly draining, but hopefully also empowering, fun, and transformative in your own development.

What advice do you have for parents? For example, what should parents be looking for in a camp or camp experience? What are some of the things parents can do to assist in providing a positive camp experience? And what are some of the things they do that make it more difficult for their kids and for the camp staff?

Just sending their children to camp is a great start!  Sometimes families think that camp is outside of their budget, or are stuck between that feeling and also not feeling deserving of scholarship funds.  I would encourage families to reach out to camps about scholarship options; we want your child to have a camp experience!  If you have a first time camper its smart to talk through being away from home, or help your young child pack and prep for the week.  Try not to stress about it and let any of your own nerves transfer over to them.  You could call the camp and ask whom else in your area or parishes near by will be at that session or have attended before. 

Its great when parents come to camp to drop their child off, meet their counselors, see the cabins then say bye and leave.  A long goodbye is can exacerbate nerves for campers and doesn’t allow them to fully join the community. 

The most disruptive thing is when parents don’t honor the camp schedule by dropping their child off late, picking them up early or hoping to take them in and out during the camp session.  For the sake of the camper and the rest of the community we don’t allow this anymore and ask families commit to the full session.  Every camp has different rules about care packages, but these can be really problematic for multiple reasons.  Severe allergies a real health risk these days (and many candies and snacks are processed in facilities prone to cross contamination).  Some campers don’t receive any mail all week, while other campers might receive multiple boxes with gifts similar to Christmas morning.  Not only can this highlight socio-economic differences that might not have been apparent but it can take all campers out of the present moment.  Simple greeting cards, small boxes with games, activity books or trinkets the whole cabin group can share are great.

What can pastors and congregations do to support camps and campers?

Rectors, Vicars, Youth Ministers and fellow parishioners can be influential partners of parents and campers. Celebrate campers in your parish going to camp! Bless campers at the end of the program year, and include campers in weekly prayers of the people.

If possible create funds to support their registration fees; positive camp experiences directly benefit congregational life!  Camp scholarship funds are investments in your church shool, youth group or weekly formation programs.

Letters sent from the Rector, fellow youth groupers or youth ministers are wonderful. Support parents in registering their campers, communicate with the Diocese or camp about publicity and forms, and help connect parents organizing carpools. 

And how can we support campers when they come home from camp? What’s the next step?

Leaving camp can be hard, and leaves some campers melancholy, while others want to talk all about it.  Let campers open up to you at first. Gently ask them both general questions and more specific ones (was there a program theme?  Tell me about your cabin or counselors, Who was the Chaplain? Did you make anything there?) Some campers might want to present to the congregation or youth group, and enlist them next year in recruiting their friends.  Camp is great and everyone should go!