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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

Woodbourne, N.Y.

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.

Shared secrets

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,"

said Eisner.

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

adolescent again.

"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.

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