How Summer Camp Prepared Our Family for Hard Things

Over the next few months many of us will be sending our children off to camp. Whether it is a sports, church, or summer camp, our children will be out of our parental care and in the full-time care of camp directors and counselors. They will be living in cabins with new friends, eating new foods, learning new songs, and participating in new activities.

Whether this is your child’s first or tenth year at camp, this summer will have its own set of joys and challenges while you are separated from one another. For some families it will be hardest on the parents to leave their children, for other families it will be more difficult for children to leave their parents. And if we are being honest, we all have at least a little anxiety about the separation.

Full disclosure, I am “all in” when it comes to summer camp. I am a second-generation camper, having attended the same summer camp for eight years that my mother attended when she was growing up. I also worked at camp for several summers as a young adult. This summer, our son will be spending his fourth summer away at a month-long camp.

We are excited that our son will be in Christian community, outdoors, and without screens. I have known the camp directors most of my life and I am aware of the seriousness with which they consider the safety and well-being of children. However, despite my enthusiasm for camp and knowledge of the safety considerations, it is still a long four weeks for all of us.

For the first week I feel like a limb has been removed from my body. I wander around the house aimlessly, obsessively thinking or worrying about him, checking the camp website for pictures multiple times each day. By week two, we’ve swapped letters and emails and I’ve settled down. As week three rolls around, I’ve seen pictures of him with friends and in activities, I’ve read the directors’ blog, and I find myself delighting in the rhythms of camp life that he is experiencing. In week four, my husband and I, his younger sister, and the dog, are counting down the days for him to come home. Based on conversations I’ve had with other parents, all families go through some version of this timeline, depending on the length of camp, personalities, and family dynamics.

Due to its popularity, we sign our son up for camp almost a year in advance. We pay for it incrementally throughout the year. Every spring, when the last payment is due and we’ve been knitted tightly back together as a family for so many months, we all begin to wonder, is it worth it? Do we send him if he is lukewarm about going? Are there family vacations or school tuitions that the money would be better spent on? Does he really want to leave his school friends or miss out on summer youth group activities?

In 2020, when I was diagnosed with breast cancer, my answer to “is it worth it” became a resounding yes.

When you are diagnosed with cancer, things move very quickly. Within the first week, I had met with two surgeons and completed genetic testing. A few days later I found myself in the confines of an MRI machine. I was told not to move, and the only sounds were from the machine and the tech’s instructions over an intercom. I was cold and alone with my thoughts about my cancer and my children. It was the end of the first pandemic summer and so I had basically been sitting on the back porch reading the Bible for the past six months, yet when I tried to remember what I had read my mind was blank. I tried to remember hymns from church. Nothing. The trauma of the last few weeks had clearly set in. I started deep breathing, but not too deeply, because that would mess up the scan.

And then it happened. Camp songs. Songs we sang daily at Morning Watch or on Sundays at church and vespers. And songs we sang in the Dining Hall. All songs about Jesus, mostly lyrics taken directly from Scripture. Songs that I mindlessly sang each summer as a child with three hundred other voices, yet hadn’t heard in over ten years, were suddenly the only words I could remember. As it is with God’s redemptive nature, my strongest memories of that MRI experience are those camp songs.

In July 2021, with most treatments behind me and lots of positive reports from doctors, my son left for camp. I had margins of time to reflect on my cancer journey, even as I enjoyed reading the camp blog and seeing pictures of my son having fun.

I realized that camp taught me that I can do hard things. Even when I was outside the care of my family, I was never outside the care of God or the reach of Christian community.

I didn’t get to choose my counselors or cabinmates. I certainly didn’t choose cancer. But I think learning the easier lesson of how to live life with people I don’t always choose to live with helped me live the more difficult unchosen life with cancer.

The activities that I did at camp were also “teachers.” I learned from the ropes course that I could be afraid and cuss a little as I high climbed higher and higher up in the trees, but that I was safely tethered to a trained counselor and had camp friends cheering me on. Similarly, I was terrified of cancer and cussed a little about it, but I knew the whole time I was safely tethered to God and that my church was cheering me on.

Sitting at a table in the dining hall with 10 other campers and counselors eating family style helped me accept what was on the menu and try unfamiliar foods. Beef stroganoff and vegetable lasagna were not meals I ate at home, yet they became two of my favorite camp meals. Breast surgery, radiation, and Tamoxifen were all unfamiliar to me before cancer, but sitting in a waiting room with other cancer patients, talking with breast cancer survivors, and hearing the wisdom of good doctors gave me the confidence to try the treatment “menu” recommended for me.

It will be hard for my son to leave his dog and his friends (and his parents and sister, I think), and for us to say goodbye to him for a month. It will not be hard for me to trust that Jesus will be his best camp friend and cabinmate, the Holy Spirit his best counselor, and the Father always by his side, lovingly preparing every meal and activity, for his good and God’s glory. The separation we experience this summer will begin to prepare us all for life’s bigger separations, like college, a move out of town, marriage, or even death. But my biggest hope is that summer camp will provide, amid great fun, the time and space for him to learn that “as we make our pilgrimage through this wide wilderness of a world, we have a steady constant friend” in Christ (Ortlund, 2020).

Camp, both secular and Christian, allows children to practice for other separations that God has sovereignly and lovingly planned for a family’s future. As parents, we can pray that the Lord would provide our children with just the right balance of aloneness and Christian community to cause them to lean on God and God’s people while away at camp.

Jesus left heaven when he came to earth as a man and was separated from the Father upon his death on the cross. Yet Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, along with the gift of the Holy Spirit, give us peace in times of physical separation from those we love. When we send our son off to camp, he is in the tender care of a Savior who knows how it feels to leave home and to be separated from family. Furthermore, any home that I provide my son is but a shadow of the true and better home that awaits him in a life lived with Jesus. Jesus called his disciples to leave their homes and families and to follow him with other believers. Christian camp gives our son a safe space to practice leaving us to follow Jesus with other covenant children.

Ortlund, Dane C. Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers. Crossway, 2020.

Dr. Melissa Powell is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) and Assistant Professor in the Department of Health and Human Performance (HHP) at the University of Tennessee Chattanooga (UTC). She is married to Chris Powell, Executive Pastor at North Shore Fellowship, and the mother of two children. An old dog, a good book, a big salad, and a long walk are a few of her favorite things.

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