Issue 5: All About Family Camp
Summer camp...with your family.
I had wanted to release this issue earlier this week, but it did not feel right. It still does not. My mind is in Uvalde. Last week it was in Buffalo. Where will it be next week? I’m afraid to ask.
Fellow substack writer Anne Helen Peterson gave voice and reason to my frustration earlier this week, in This is What Happens When You Live Under Minority Rule. Like so many, I read a lot, and took some actions this week. One of many ideas I’ve found compelling is the idea of community (excerpt from the NYTimes, Something Terrible Happened Today’: Parents on Telling Their Kids About Uvalde) :
‘The No. 1 antidote to school violence is building community’
I’m a teacher at my child’s school. She is 13. I told her that some people’s solution to school shootings is to arm teachers. We talked about how that is a nonsolution and how the real solution is to control access to guns. She agreed that arming teachers does nothing to address the mental health crisis among teens who turn to violence. We treat our public schools like trash and our students like they are worthless.
My daughter is sad but not as sad as I am. I think she is numb to these stories, having grown up with school shootings and lockdown drills. We hugged and spent time connecting. I also try to connect as much as possible with the students I teach. The No. 1 antidote to school violence is building community. Kids need to feel loved and valued. They are trying to tell us that schools have not taken care of them and they are angry.
— Kristina Ratliff, Crested Butte, Colo.
I realized later that this newsletter describes one way my family has build community. And so I thought, maybe it was worth sharing this week after all.
Deer Valley YMCA Camp
One of our favorite family traditions is our annual-ish trip to Deer Valley, a YMCA family camp in western Pennsylvania, about three hours from Washington DC. We visited for the first time in 2018, when our kids were 5 and 3, and have returned every year since. Though I had never been to any sort of camp as a child, I immediately fell in love. While family camps are not for everyone, they can be a pretty magical way to gather with family and friends, especially if you love the outdoors.
Ice cream, a nightly tradition at Deer Valley, 2019
The family camp at Deer Valley has been in operation since 1957 on 740 beautiful wooded acres surrouding a beautiful lake. The camp’s main programming is a 10 week summer family camp, accommodating 50-60 families each week. Many of these families have been coming for generations, and continue to gather with extended family members. So many, in fact, that we never got off the waitlist for one of the summer weeks.
Instead, we decided to join the the camp’s weekend programs, which take place in the spring and fall. We visited Memorial Day weekend in 2018 and 2019, and found a long weekend to be the perfect amount of time for us to disconnect and enjoy the beauty and activities at Deer Valley. In later years, we visited for fall weekends, which, though still fun, felt a little short given the time and energy to pack all the supplies and travel there.
The beautiful lake at Deer Valley, 2019
Recreational facilities at Deer Valley include a staffed waterfront for swimming, sailing, boating and fishing; horse stables with riding trails; hiking, jogging and biking trails; basketball, tennis, volleyball and softball courts; an elaborate arts and crafts studio; and a zip line, high ropes course and climbing wall. There’s also a full roster of counseler-lead activities to take part in or not, from family games to scavenger hunts to guided hikes.
View of my two favorite sailors from our kayak, 2019 (see cabins in background)
Perhaps the most special part of Deer Valley for us is the free range that I’ve honestly never quite encountered elsewhere. Most (all?) families stay in cabins without locks and cars are parked in the lot outside camp. It’s not uncommon to see relatively young kids roving in packs or riding their bikes to counselor-led activities without a parent in sight. There is no wifi apart from the camp office, and cell service is almost nonexistant. It’s not for everyone, but for us, the lack of internet/cell access seems to expands the freedom and time at Deer Valley.
Family Camp Tips
Consider family camp with young kids: before the pandemic, Deer Valley, like many other family camps, provided counselor-led camp time for kids. We still had plenty of time with our kids, but also three hours off each morning to take a break and enjoy some time to ourselves in the beautiful surroundings. I’m hopeful that kids’ camp programing will be back this summer at Deer Valley and other places like it.
Go during the same time each year: as mentioned above, we participated in long weekend programs the first couple of years we went to Deer Valley. Due to pandemic shifts and scheduling conflicts, we visited during different fall weekends in 2020 and 2021 and really missed running into familiar faces. The magic of these camps is that many families due return for the same annual visit year after year, and it’s nice to return with them.
Use family camp as a way to introduce sleepaway camp: we met another first-time family our first year at Deer Valley who had decided to come as a means of introducing their daughter to sleepaway camp. Family camp offers a really good way to let your kids try out sleepaway camp, and see when they might be ready for it. For people like me who did go to sleepaway camp as a child, it’s also a great way to get a taste of it as an adult.
Go with friends and family: after talking about it for years, we brought my parents and brother to Deer Valley for weekend in 2020. It was a really nice way to connect with them in a different setting and gave us all the opportunity to really hang out and spend time together, without the common stresses of vacation (e.g., food planning and prep, finding activities everyone can agree to, etc.). I was especially grateful for Deer Valley in 2020, when we were careful about social distancing practices, since the camp made it possible to get together with my parents safely outdoors.
View from top of DV Rocks, our favorite hike at Deer Valley, 2020
YMCA Family Camps: Deer Valley is not the only (YMCA) game in town. I’ve heard good things about Silver Bay and Camp Letts. The latter offers family camp programming for only Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends, but has a popular and relatively affordable sleepaway camp for kids the rest of the summer.
Fancier Family Camps: over the years, several friends and colleauges have recommended Tyler Place. It looks fantastic, and I’d love to visit one summer. While considerably higher priced than Deer Valley, which is also all-inclusive (food, lodging, and nearly all activities are included), Deer Valley is definitely NOT luxury. And Tyler Place seems to be?
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