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My American Summer Camp experience is a memory I will always keep

Georgina Melvin reflects upon her American summer camp experience and explores the benefits of student volunteering.

BY Georgina Melvin

We all watch American films and television show where teenagers and young adults spend their summers away from the school system sunbathing under the heat that covers America, going on road trips with friends and sitting around camp fires whilst their sun kissed skin cools down under the moonlit sky. Instead, we are greeted with mild weather, the occasional warm day and lots of rain. In the summer of 2016 I decided against that, and I applied for what I thought would be the best summer of my life, which it was, but only nostalgia brought me to realise that.

Photo by @andozo

I applied through Camp America to work at an American Summer Camp, knowing more than a handful of people who had spent their summer doing this already, I knew it was something that I wanted to do, and was an essential part of life for someone who has nothing tying them down, but I didn’t realise it was going to be such a long process. Much like any job you apply for, it can take time, identity and security checks, traveling to London, money, rejection, interviews, and more rejection until you finally land a job. My placement took me almost 8 months and 3 interviews, attending a recruitment fair 2 hours away from home where I queued for an hour to speak to a camp to be told they had no more jobs available, to finally being offered a job and having to make my way to London to get my visa. I had been offered a place at an all girls Jewish camp, eager to experience this summer abroad, I accepted a job offer to work as a photographer and videographer, not being Jewish myself the camp director assured me that I would not be expected to follow their religion and to only dress respectfully at camp which didn’t bother me. Then the countdown began for my departure to 9 weeks working at a camp for about 600 dollars pay, working 6 days a week, in the mountains, with no Wi-Fi, and a half an hour drive to the nearest shop, which was a town called Honesdale and looked like something from Texas Chainsaw. I was excited, I was going to meet people from all around the world, spend the summer doing something that I loved to do, photography, and come home with a tan.

After arriving at Heathrow airport, where I was alone, anxiety slowly building up on how to check in at an airport, where to go, how to make sure I don’t miss my flight, I finally met 5 other people in the same boat as me, and we all did what was the only thing distinctively natural to do…find the nearest bar and calm our nerves with a pint. The nerves had started to go, and I was feeling adventurous and ready to go to the land of opportunity, America. Sitting in the departure lounge, I look across, and behold my first opportunity crosses before me, Rita Ora is getting on my flight, my first celebrity spotting happening before I even arrive in America. 8 long and filled with nerves hours later on a plane with unlimited alcohol, which I couldn’t even take advantage of because my nerves were making me so unwell, we arrived in New Jersey, the humidity brushing against our dried out skin from the aircon on the plane, the sun was setting and the airport carpark was filled with yellow taxis. We climbed aboard a coach and made our 2 hour drive to the Camp America arrivals hotel where we could rest our exhausted heads on comfy beds, the next morning was spent filling our empty stomachs with an all you can eat buffet breakfast because we all knew this was going to be the last good meal we would get for a while. Fast forward a long day of sitting in the hotel and using their swimming pool, spending hours in the only nearby shop which was Target, which of course you can easily spend several hours in. Flash flood warnings were sent to our phones, rain was heavily pouring it down and we didn’t get picked up to be taken to our camp until 5pm, 3 more hours spent on a coach as the rain chucked it down and we finally arrived at our camp in Pennsylvania. My initial reaction on arrival was ‘what have I sent myself to?’ the grey storm that was showering over the top of us did not create the image that I had in my mind, this camp had been untouched since last summer and been buried under snow during the winter, left looking unkept and derelict, its only occupiers were the wildlife that used it for hibernation. Our job as staff members was to spend the week before campers arrived cleaning the bunks, building bunk beds from dismantled pieces that had been piled up and stored away, painting fences and steps, picking up rubbish from last summer, blowing up the lakes inflatables, moving 18 picnic tables uphill, and anything else to bring this haunted camp back to life. When my nightmare of a summer couldn’t seem to get worse, I found out that the previous summer 3 staff members had died near the camp when they had lost control of a van they were driving and plunged into a pond, at this point I remember sitting on the edge of my bunk bed with an itchy blanket regretting my decision.

My summer, however, was not completely a storyline from a slasher film that would be released captioned ‘based on a true story’, albeit my summer started off like a Friday the 13th sequel, each day brought something to be grateful for, whether it was having fresh American style donuts and waffles for breakfast, sunbathing by a lake and making s’mores around a bonfire or celebrating 4th July drinking from red cups and under fireworks at a local bar. I won’t deny that during my experience there I wanted to go home, cried because we felt segregated because we didn’t share the same religion and we felt like we were being treated unfairly, or homesick when family day came around at camp. The conditions I lived in for 9 weeks were not what I expected, I was constantly covered in mud, I slept with bugs in my bed, the showers would sometimes not be warm for days and our toilets blocked so regularly that I can now quickly plunge a toilet with my eyes closed. Pennsylvania rained more than England does, I almost stood on a snake, had to take cover inside because there were bear sightings on camp and were next to so many skunks that I’m surprised I didn’t have to bathe in tomato juice at any point.

“On my return to England after spending 3 months in America working and traveling, nostalgia hit me hard”

On my return to England after spending 3 months in America working and traveling, nostalgia hit me hard, and the memories of waking up each morning to 32 individuals from all around the world who became my best friends, who were like my rocks and at the end of an exhausting day you knew something good would come out of it as we spent time at the lake watching the sunset. Becoming a big part of the campers lives in making them smile everyday and receiving hugs from them every time they saw me, taking part in archery, horse riding, gymnastics and water sports. Camp gave me the opportunity to see places like Nigeria falls, small town county fairs that were filled with locals and not tourists where I could see pig races. I left camp educated about other cultures and religions around me, more knowledge than what I gained in GCSE religious studies if I’m honest.

“the experience made me grow as a person, I became much more independent and grateful for everything that I have”

I wouldn’t tell anyone to not take the opportunity to spend a summer working at a summer camp, I made friends with people in Australia and New Zealand who I regularly call, as cliché as it sounds, the experience made me grow as a person, I became much more independent and grateful for everything that I have. The advice I would give to someone wanting to spend their summer at camp is to go with an open mind, to not expect anything more than rustique conditions and to keep in mind that the only thing you actually have to worry about is the wildlife that you’re living amongst, by going back to basics it’s a shock at first, but by the end it will feel like the best thing that’s happened to you and you will have some of the best memories that you can only make by doing Camp.