Summer Camp Memories are the Best at Aurora!

Camp Aurora summer

I had a curious conversation a few years ago while visiting South Korea. I was talking to a mom and asked about what her kids did during summer vacation. I started expounding about my work with Camp Aurora and the fun the kids have at summer camp, only to realize my enthusiasm was being met by a blank stare! Eventually, she politely asked me “Why would you do that?” To Americans who grew up with the tradition of summer camp that seems like a really odd question. It got me thinking. It made me step outside my own culture and reflect on what is gained at summer camp.

Camp Aurora is now in its 24th year thanks to the crazy determination of a few moms and dads. But that effort is now overshadowed by young adults who lead it and have made it their own, taking it to a new level. They grew up at Camp Aurora and wanted to pass on that experience to their younger brothers and sisters because it was so much awesome fun!

“Summer camps, like Camp Aurora, create an opportunity for youth to transform their lives. Each year, the core staff come together to create an intentional theme for the camp such as this year’s theme, “Rise Up.” Within each camp, the directors and counselors work hard to create age appropriate activities and content to inspire, transform, and empower the campers so that they leave camp with a sense of ownership of their lives, regardless of what stage of life they are in. This year’s theme placed emphasis on learning to recognize their God-given value and to use their unique personalities to be a light for those around them. Camp Aurora has a culture of love that is inclusive of all people regardless of their background, so we focus on filling campers up with so much love that they can leave camp and spread that love to their peers. We do not want our camp culture to last for just that short week of camp, but to be something our campers can share with their family and friends. We want Camp Aurora to grow and grow so that we can expand our culture of love exponentially!”- Tamami Sugawara, Camp Director

Creating Lasting Traditions

The traditions that became synonymous with Camp Aurora were developed intuitively year-by-year as we added things like Song Fest and the buddy system. But in listening to an NPR story on what makes for a sustainable, great summer camp, I realized we hit the nail on the head! There’s actual research on this stuff.

Camp songs 2017

Music has a way of getting into people’s hearts.

Music is important and our favorite songs like the “Banana Boat Song” and “Pharoah, Pharoah…let my people go,” get belted out every year by new and old campers alike. Camp wouldn’t be camp without those songs. Of course, we add new songs every year but there are some we can’t let go of because they are simply too much fun.

One of the highlights of Camp Aurora is the buddy system. A high schooler is paired with a middle school or elementary school camper. The idea is that the high school camper can spend time with their younger brother or sister during the activities that all age groups participate in together. Camp Aurora is a multi-age camp, and we divide by age group for presentations and some activities, but there’s also times when everyone plays together.

Forging friendships over ice cream

Our school system tends to keep kids separated by grade but at summer camp you can experience community – a feeling of family with people you never met before. As Unificationists, we are inspired by the vision of one family under God, but at camp that vision can become more real.

It’s amazing to me how friendships develop (sometimes extending over years.) You learn a great deal when you try to care for someone else. This is when the ethic of “living for the sake of others” ceases to be a concept and springs to life.

I remember one year, a high school camper who was hard to reach emotionally, but was really a teddy bear on the inside, always presented himself as way to cool for school. He didn’t want anything to do with his buddy. The real truth was he was just uncertain or insecure and didn’t know how to connect to him. We suggested he take his buddy to the Scoop Shop for ice-cream. A couple of afternoons passed and no progress. On the third evening, this young man who was certainly not known for wearing his heart on his sleeve, teared up while sharing with a counsellor. He said, “My buddy is just like me. I try to reach out to him but he doesn’t want to respond. It’s so hard! I think that’s how I treat other people too.” Ice cream at the Scoop Shop – $2:50; personal insight – priceless!

Kids can be kids and experience God

Another tradition at Camp Aurora is the Camp Playhouse. The various groups interpret a fable, parable or story and act it out with the craziest, most amazing costumes created out of whatever resources are laying around. The renditions are side-splitting and every group is cheered on with boundless appreciation from the audience. There are not many places left where kids can be phone free, use their imaginations and just enjoy being a kid – no pressure.

One high schooler shared at the end of camp, “I don’t usually get in touch with my emotions –it’s like I’m switched off most of the time, but here at camp I felt so much this week.” I know it’s because we created a safe atmosphere in which the kids could be themselves and feel the affirmation of their community. Love was all around and that is special.summer camp

Another high school camper shared that she felt God in a real way. She said that she believes in God but at camp she felt God. That’s a game changer.

I know all of this was possible because of our amazing young adult staff. These 22 special people ranged in age from 19 to 34. They were close enough in age to the campers to be relatable, but had the life experience to be good role models and share wisdom.

David Young held several sessions with high school campers, encouraging them to become clear about the commitments they want to make in life. His sessions were very practical. He coached them on how to make changes step by step; how not to become a victim, and how to overcome mind chatter that gets in the way of relationships and life goals. The campers loved being coached by him because it gave them a sense that they can indeed shape their lives in positive ways.

Our camp staff know what it’s like to be struggling to find yourself in this confusing world. The journey to discover God and your place in the Universe can sometimes be a scary challenge. I can’t thank the staff enough for all they gave and how they cared.

A safe environment for difficult topics

This year we were fortunate to have Andrew Love from Pure Mind Online come and speak to the middle and high school camp. He took on a topic most parents happily shrink from addressing. He started a conversation about porn! Now, no-one in my opinion can carry that off as well as Andrew. He is funny, disarming and won’t let you get away with silence. Before long the campers were opening up, and I realized they are dealing with things that even a few years ago would have been on the fringe.

Smart phones and the internet bring a great deal of good into our lives but open the door for less welcome visitors as well. It takes someone like Andrew to open the conversation. The kids are looking for guidance. One group of middle school girls were very open about how their guy and girlfriends try to persuade them to look at porn or share tips on the best links. I’m thinking “Whoa, when did that culture shift happen?”

It’s good there are safe environments for kids to share what’s going on in their lives, and get good guidance on the choices they are making. You never forget the people you go deep with, which is why Camp Aurora has such a strong alumni group.

The Question Answered

On the last morning as we gathered for an early morning message in the outdoor chapel, with a view of the lake in front of us, one of the counsellors asked if anyone wanted to share their experience. Immediately, a hand shot up. It was one of our youngest campers. This tiny figure stood up in front of the crowd with so much confidence, and in a voice that projected to all 90 people gathered, proclaimed, “The more people, the more fun you have!” He paused and then declared “I’m coming back next year!”

This is why I love camp too! Last night I was looking at photos from prior years. The memories and the people flooded back. I was enveloped by a richness that is rare, and my memories answered the question my Korean friend asked me a few years ago “Why would you have a summer camp?”

A BIG THANK YOU to all our donors and volunteers for making Camp Aurora possible!

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2 Responses to “Summer Camp Memories are the Best at Aurora!”

  1. John King
    August 1, 2017 at 10:44 am #

    Thank you for sharing about Camp Aurora. I was fortunate to be involved with Camp Tongil out on the west coast for about 8 years. It was absolutely awesome and had so many things in common with what you have shared. I’m not sure how this would fit in, but it occurred to me while reading your blog that it might be time to have “grandparents” at camp. Now that younger folk are running the show it might be nice for the campers to have an elderly resource or two to confide in, to turn to in a time of need or … Anyways, its an idea that popped into my head and heart and I thought that I had better share it, just in case it came from a higher source.

    Have a great day and thanks again for sharing.

  2. Heather Thalheimer
    August 10, 2017 at 10:22 pm #

    Thanks for your reflection. I totally agree! There is nothing like grandparent’s love! I think our young adult staff truly appreciate the wisdom and perspective that elders can bring. It’s a lot of fun to support camp in that role.

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