Under the pine trees around Lake Anne, Jennifer D. Davis carried a little three ring binder. Inside this Top Secret binder was the contents of all the week’s blunders and spills. It also contained the list of homesick campers. I remember the early morning unit meetings where I was introduced to this binder and we discussed all the day’s events and activities. I learned so much from these meetings in the crafts cabin at CRS.
See, all the chiefs sat around the craft and pottery tables chatting about camper issues. All we needed was a TV camera and a few cups of coffee, and it would have been the early predecessor to “The View,” but with bantering about kids. I remember being completely overwhelmed with the daily logistics and some of the emotion of being an assistant counselor or AC at Camp of the Rising Son. I remember a camper named Virginia being homesick and Cheva reassuring the UD that all she needed was “tough love.” I remember all the rounds of get-the-camper-to-the-next-lunch-or-dinner. Trying to get the homesick camper to the next meal, next activity, or next day was a diversion.
Now many years later and all grown up, after serving as the band aid brigade at Twin Lakes, and reading a few books on child physiology, I have an understanding of this thing we call homesickness. Fortunately for the younger version of me there wasn’t a large population of hel-i-kop-ter parents. Moms or dads would say goodbye at the screen door with a hug and a kiss that was all. Currently, moms and dads focus so much of their time and attention on the kids; they need constant contact, and constant reassurance that Johnny or Suzy are ok.
Going away to camp is a necessary right of passage. It is needed to grow independence, perseverance, and self confidence. I have told countless kids that being homesick is a good sign. Homesickness shows that a kid loves his family and enjoys being at home. For some kids they dread returning home because of some unknown evil. I grew up in a very encouraging home. They pushed me to stay with my commitments and not to focus on the negatives the world may throw at me. Keep your head down and plow through whatever adversity you find yourself in. I like to think God gives us the valleys so that we will cherish and rejoice our time on the mountain tops. I am sure no camp will use that as the marketing slogan, but it is a great way of looking at homesickness.
At CRS, one of the strategies we used was to point out the fact Christ left his heavenly home for a time. It was back during the WWJD bracelet era. We pointed out that Jesus didn’t give up on this world and the camper shouldn’t give up on camp. Maybe it is a little corny, but it worked. I encourage campers at Aviation Challenge by pointing out that homesickness is natural and they need to learn to cope with separation before they are freshmen in college. Imagine Aubie Bryant of Cullman, Alabama crying in the freshmen dorm room because he misses his mom and dad. Aubie doesn’t feel like going to the football game because he thinks his ATO brothers wouldn’t understand. This strategy works well! Football and crying do not mix in the state of Alabama unless you are Alabama getting the thumb a few years back!
The first step to dealing with homesickness is diagnosis, is the patient/camper “terminal” or “treatable”? A terminal camper is miserable and they will make camp miserable for the other campers around him or her. There is always going to be a sacrifice when dealing with bad campers or homesick campers. One camper for the whole team’s success or one camper’s success for the whole team’s enjoyment. This can be difficult at times. Most of the time terminal campers should leave camp and try again next year. These campers should maybe try again at another camp or with a buddy next time.
When dealing with a treatable camper it is all about finding the correct medication. Sometimes a strong word of encouragement works. But other times they need compassion and time to talk to parents. Other campers may just miss their brother, sister, dog, or goldfish. Making a kid feel valued and not letting his or her feelings get the best of them is always a winner. Often youngsters don’t understand their feelings and this can create panic. I have seen homesickness manifest itself in many different ways. Vomiting is my least favorite. Just because a camper is classified as treatable doesn’t mean they will not have physical symptoms.
It is common for a camper to let their brain get the best of them. The night before arriving at camp kids are anxious to arrive and see camp. This will lead to not enough rest going into the first day at camp. Kids that are not rested are cranky; even I am cranky when I don’t sleep. The camper arrives and there are so many emotions when meeting other kids for the first time, and suddenly and almost unexpectedly mom and dad leaves. It happens so quickly that sometimes sadness strikes. Parents, I do a suggest quick good bye. Long and tearful goodbyes are sometimes hard for a camper to bounce back from. The hardest night is the first because of the good bye, and the first night in a foreign environment.
Tears happen in life. The second night is better than the first and hopefully will be the last real tough night. Often campers will have twenty-three hours of tear free summer camping in a day with only one hour of sorrow. This is acceptable. What is not acceptable is fifteen or sixteen hours of activities to be a sobbing nightmare for a kid. Believe me; this will break anyone’s heart into a million pieces. Sadly, I have seen too many parents leave campers at camp and refuse to pick them up. The worst thing ever was when a kid was sent to camp while mom and dad cruised around the Mediterranean on the QE2. The kid was miserable and everyone one around the kid was miserable while mom and dad was living the high life!!!
The best thing anyone one can do is be a positive encouragement to a sad camper. If you are a parent it is best to reinforce your love, remind your child how proud you are, and don’t tell them how much fun you are having without a kid in the house. As for staff working, there is not one answer or solution. It is a combination of things: support, affirmation, kindness, and a little bit of structure. There are thousands of tricks but I caution, never try drugging a kid with Benadryl. This method could back fire on you. Always be honest and never promise anything you can’t deliver.
Life is hard, it is complex at times, and it can be so much fun. Homesickness at camp is a time where kids can see life’s twist and turns. They get to try on being an adult for a week while wearing their favorite shorts or t-shirt. Kids can make new friends and keep the old all the while growing through life’s challenges. Whether it is jumping off a 60 ft zip line tower or sleeping away from home for the first time, camp is meant to be enjoyed! I have enjoyed my life at camp! From Camper, to Chief, to Lifeguard, and now as a Manager I have learned so much! And it all started around Lake Anne.