Back to Camp
In May, Shelly Green of Wantagh and
about 60 friends from long ago rented a bus to visit a place most of them
hadn't seen for more three decades: a defunct summer camp called Camp Impala in
Although it's now overgrown by weeds and its structures are dilapidated,
the property triggered Green's memories about one of her favorite summers, back
in 1968 when she was a junior counselor.
"I felt great being there with everyone, and they made the place come
alive," said Green, 54, one of the organizers of the spring gathering. "I got
to go back to my bunk, and it looked smaller than I remembered it; and some
people saw their names carved on trees."
The camp visit was one of many highlights of a weekend reunion that
included a dinner reception, camp trivia contest, softball game and bonfire at
a resort about three hours from the original campsite. Attendees were mostly
baby boomers who had spent summers at Impala in the 1960s.
"We all felt 16 again," said Green, who is married and has two children,
ages 17 and 21. "It was definitely an escape to when life was easier, more fun
and there was less responsibility."
For years, camp owners have relied on reunions to remind kids about the fun
they had the previous summer and to persuade their parents to sign them up
again. But camp reunions are not just marketing tools aimed at youngsters. Baby
boomers who last attended camp before The Beatles split up are traveling from
far and wide to attend reunions for camps they haven't visited in 30 years or
Longing to reconnect
No statistics exist on the number of camp reunions for the 50-and-over set,
but "it is a growing phenomenon in a post-9/11 world," said Adam Weinstein,
executive director of the American Camp Association chapter in New York.
"People want to connect to where they were nurtured, made good friends and were
happy. We are seeing a lot of reconnections."
Although baby boomers' camp reunions attract people from throughout the
country, and even around the world, anecdotal evidence suggests that Long
Island and New York City have produced a particularly large number of campers.
"In New York, everyone wanted to get out of the city because it was hot,
and camps were close by," said Phil Brown, a sociology professor at Brown
University who has written about Catskill resorts and summer camps.
Behind the boomers' strong impulse to reconnect after so many years apart
is a mixture of curiosity about each other's lives and a desire to rekindle
friendships with people who came of age at the same time. Living in close
quarters for two months - including bunking in the same cabin, sitting at the
same table for meals and participating in activities alongside each other -
they shared the secrets of their lives, and together they learned the ups and
downs of everything from color war to puppy love.
"People [in camp] form such strong bonds; since you wake up to your
friends, they see you in every mood, and you're with them every second of the
day," said Starr Goldberg, the director of Trail's End Camp, which her family
owns in Beach Lake, Penn. The camp last month hosted a 60th anniversary reunion
that attracted 350 people, including about 200 Long Islanders.
While some milestone anniversary can be a catalyst for a camp owner to
initiate a reunion, many former campers organize get-togethers on their own.
More often than not, their onetime summer playground is no longer in business.
The impetus to reconnect after so much time has elapsed can be spurred by any
number of factors, including the death of a much-beloved former camp owner or
an out-of-the-blue call from a long-lost camp friend.
Long-overdue reunions are not for lack of interest. Rather, camp reunion
organizers said that through the years, they have wanted to meet up with their
old bunkmates but only now have the time and tools to do so. Thanks to Internet
search engines, they can track down buddies from the past and, with many of
their own children grown, they are free to spend hours surfing the Web, making
phone calls and organizing a gathering. Plus, they don't have to think about
taking care of offspring during the much-anticipated, emotionally charged adult
The growing interest in camp reunions doesn't surprise Jay Jacobs, 49,
chairman of the Nassau County Democratic Committee and owner of several day and
sleep-away camps, including Timber Lake Camp in Shandaken, N.Y., which he
attended. The camp is holding its own 45th alumni reunion next month.
"The sleep-away camp experience is about being away, bonding, making
friends and doing things that build self-esteem and confidence away from your
parents; and those create very strong emotions and memories. You want to go
back to those places where you have those memories," said Jacobs, adding, "Camp
has tremendous impact on kids and the adults they become."
Just ask Michael Eisner, the former Disney chief whose book "Camp" is an
ode to his summers at Camp Keewaydin, a Vermont sleep-away camp he attended "on
and off" between 1950 and 1964 and where he sent his three sons. Eisner said
his hiking trips taught him about work, survival and friendship - lessons that
have helped him in his adult life.
"Anything you are associated with in your formative years stays with you,"
And like the original camp experience, a reunion after so many years can
have a positive impact on people that goes beyond bonding with old friends,
according to Christopher Thurber, a clinical psychologist who created "The
Secret Ingredients of Summer Camp Success," a DVD and CD set produced by the
American Camp Association.
Reunion-goers, said Thurber, can use the event to reflect on what they were
like during their camp days and whether they have changed for the better. The
reunion also can provide former campers with "a renewed sense of the direction
that their own life has taken and with an idea about how they would like their
lives to grow in the future."
Reunions rarely disappoint the graying, former campers who attend them. As
participants tell it, that's because they tend to attract individuals who had
positive camp experiences and are enthusiastic about reuniting with one
another. Campers who were teased or didn't make close friends aren't apt to
want to see people they didn't like in the first place.
T-shirts and tears
In general, camp gatherings tend to be laid-back affairs. In contrast to
high school and college reunions, which are often showcases "to bring your
spouse, show them off and talk about accomplishments," camp get-togethers "are
down-to-earth, with people walking around in T-shirts and Tevas," said Thurber.
"They are about who you are," he said, not what you have become.
Ambience aside, attendees say they often are caught off-guard by their
reactions to seeing friends from the past. In many instances, camp
reminiscences and updates about their current lives are intermixed with
laughter and tears.
"I didn't anticipate the strong emotions that made me cry," said Trail's
End's Goldberg. "We kept saying, 'Where did the years go?'"
Chuck Debrovner, 71, attended the recent Trail's End reunion with his wife,
Pat. Debrovner, who owns a home in Lido Beach and is a semi-retired
gynecologist, had gone to the camp for a decade, beginning in 1947. Although
many of his peers did not show up, he was not disappointed. The property, he
said, evoked fond memories, including "trying to sing in South Pacific," and
"winning in Olympic races."
[CORRECTION: A story in Act Two on Saturday gave the wrong date and
location for a Camp Chicopee reunion. It will be Aug. 18-20 at B'nai B'rith
Perlman Camp in Lake Como, Pa. Pg. A19 ALL 7/11/06] In anticipation of a
reunion next month for Camp Chicopee in Galilee, Penn., Karen Sandell-Stern,
54, invited its beloved former music and drama director, George Blouin, and
more than two dozen former campmates to her Woodbury home. Their purpose was to
create a DVD of the songs they performed in camp shows.
"I started to cry when everyone came in," said
Sandell-Stern, who had gone to Chicopee from 1960 to 1969, the camp's last
year. "We've all gone so many separate ways, but to be able to come together
and recreate the feeling and closeness of what we had at Chicopee, which was
such a special time for us, was very surreal."
And just as in the past, "We all wanted to please Uncle George [Blouin],"
said Sandell-Stern who, surrounded by her camp friends, said she felt like an
"I was singing notes that I had no right to sing," said Sandell-Stern, who
is married and has two sons in their 20s. "But, who cared? I was with people
who smiled and laughed with me."
'Boys of summer'
Last year, Floral Park resident Chris Schneider, 62, planned a weekend
reunion after his longtime friend and former Camp St. Joseph's bunkmate, Albie
Milanesi, suffered two heart attacks and underwent a successful heart
transplant. Schneider, a retired teacher and a part-time volunteer coordinator
for Catholic Charities, said the mini-reunion brought together eight former
bunkmates, including Milanesi, a retired orthopedic surgeon in New Jersey.
During their get-together, the "boys of summer" - as they called themselves
- explored the grounds of the long-gone camp that had brought them together
ages ago in Monticello, N.Y.
"We toasted our many years of friendship and also the new life of our
leader, Albie," said Schneider, noting that the reunion "was a step back in
time. Nothing had changed, except we were older. Our personalities were the
same." Delighted to be together again, the group is planning a visit in October
to a camp friend who lives near the Canadian border, a cruise to Bermuda next
year and a boat trip to Bear Mountain a year or two later.
"Life is fleeting, the clock is ticking, and it's important to get together
as much as possible," said Schneider.
Despite the uplifting experiences that camp reunions offer, they are not
without their downside, namely having to say goodbye again.
Two years ago, Marion Henken, 64, of Jericho, helped organize a reunion for
the no-longer-in-operation Camp Ferosdel in West Copake, N.Y. She last
attended Ferosdel as a 17-year-old. The get-together took place at a Manhattan
restaurant and drew more than 100 people, some of whom Henken hadn't seen for
half a century.
"The reunion made me feel like life is a blink of the eye," said Henken. "I
was disappointed that it had to end."
Green said the last day of Camp Impala's reunion reminded her of the last
day of camp, with "so many hugs, kisses and tears." But, this time around, she
said, efforts are under way to keep her fellow campmates connected. Besides
planning another reunion for 2009, the organizers have set up an Internet chat
room for former campmates to stay in touch on a monthly basis.
"We're keeping the momentum going," Green said.