Summer camp: The gift that keeps on giving


I spent the summers of my youth in camp. First came day camp, where I made embroidery-floss bracelets and sculpted a gigantic dragon out of clay. I learned a faster way to knit, and I drew each tiny scale on the dragon.

I’m pretty sure that my clay dragon either exploded in the kiln or never fit inside it to begin with. Either way, I never saw the completed project. Summer camp was a place outside of time, where the final product was never the point – the hours of work and play were.

Because I converted to Judaism in my early thirties, I didn’t attend Jewish summer camp. Instead, I went to art camp, film camp, leadership camp. Camp was both a practical way for my single mother to access childcare and a way for me to explore things in-depth that the classroom environment didn’t enable. I remember a field trip to swim in an outdoor pool in the summer rain, the way the two waters met around our bodies, and afternoons spent playing pool in the main room of the Boys & Girls Club.

In middle school, I went to sleepaway camp for the first time, in the San Juan Islands of the Pacific Northwest. PCAL (Patsy Collins Adventures in Leadership) was an all-girls leadership camp held at Camp Orkila, a large facility that had operated camps since 1906.

Our girls’ leadership camp hadn’t been running for that long, but it still had a coveted reputation. We did many of the regular camp activities, such as swimming, boating, ropes courses, hikes. We ate with the other campers, from the traditional camp, horse camp, Marine camp, in a large mess hall. I remember the enormous salad buffet and a counselor remarking on her recent discovery that she didn’t need to include lettuce in a salad if she didn’t like it.

Beyond the regular camp activities, we participated in leadership workshops, had impressive guest speakers, and did yoga every morning with a counselor who was a certified instructor.

One of our culminating activities was to lead a group of younger campers on an overnight trip. As we, the middle school girls, watched the younger children falling asleep, one little boy told us the names of all the stars. This was the most profound lesson in leadership I would ever receive – that those you are leading know beautiful things that you do not, and your job is to listen.

I returned the next summer for a week-long kayaking camp around the islands, learning to read tide charts, mapping out routes and times. We paddled from island to island, making camp with tarps and our kayak paddles, eating our weight in GORP.

The gift of these experiences has stayed with me for my whole life: a strong sense of self; the confidence that even if the winds change, I can adjust course; and a certainty that the joy of art is in the making.

Camp is a place where you learn how to give yourself the world, and where you learn that you deserve it.

SARAH GREENLEAF ( is the digital marketing specialist for the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island and writes for Jewish Rhode Island.

camp, summer