Making A Memory

By Megan McVay

The summer of 2017 was my 25th summer involved in summer day camp. I have worked as a counselor, arts and crafts specialist, nature specialist, unit leader, archery specialist, program director, and even camp director. My favorite role, however, is Spirit Leader. Spirit Leader is a name I made up recently because it explains best what I do. Throughout the years, terms like “relationship building,” “camper engagement,” and “staff buy-in” have been peppered into every training I have been to, whether facilitating it or simply present as a trainee. By declaring myself Spirit Leader, I have tried to incorporate all of the ideas that come with those key phrases. My dear friend, Chris Naspo, a physical-education teacher and anti-bullying training facilitator, made a wonderful point in his recent seminar. He asked a large group of adults if they remembered the final score of the Super Bowl this year. No one could remember. He then asked if they remembered who they watched the Super Bowl with. The majority of the participants in his training, including me, knew exactly who they were with. Chris used this example to show how important relationships are in our lives. The memories we create are not from the “things” we do, but the people we do them with. I don’t care if the campers remember my name 10 years from now, but I do want them to remember the feeling they had when Color Wars broke out, the laughs they had when they performed with their friends at the talent show, and the chants they made up to cheer on their team in the Annual Cardboard Regatta.

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I leave everything at the door when I get to camp. No one will ever know if I’m in a bad mood, that my car is broken again, that I can’t afford new sneakers this summer, or that I don’t feel good. I smile, I greet every camper and every parent with excitement, I high-five everyone I see each morning, I promise the parents that the staff will take good care of their child, I wear silly hats and crazy costumes, I sing as loudly as I can even though I can’t carry a tune, and I make sure that everyone in my presence feels special. I am the Spirit Leader.

Money Doesn’t Matter
I have worked for the YMCA for 19 years. The YMCA, as many people know, is a not-for-profit organization whose motto emphasizes youth development, healthy living, and social responsibility. There is much emphasis on character development, financial assistance, and, of course, budgets. Many of my supply lists have been consolidated or even turned down in the past due to budget concerns. Working in a not-for-profit has taught me to be creative and resourceful, to always recycle everything, and to build anything out of cardboard and duct tape. Making a memory that will last a lifetime does not cost a thing.

Throughout my career, I have attended many trainings, conferences, and expositions and have met other camp professionals from for-profit camps who talked about helicopters landing on their fields for Color War Break-Out, or costumes and sets for talent shows. I’ve walked through expos advertising circus performers or real-live game shows that can come to camp. I would smile and say, “I work at a Y.” They would smile and nod understandingly, then turn to peddle their wares for camps with money. I know that, just because our carnival has homemade games, the campers are having just as much—if not more—fun than a professional carnival company could provide. Our campers work together to build their own carnival games. They brainstorm, come up with creative and resourceful ways to build them, and carry them out like true professionals. They even learn some things through trial and error, develop organizational skills, and work on their self-esteem and teamwork abilities. Most importantly, they create memories through these experiences.

Going For The Gold
Our day camp has a Color War week each summer. We try to out-do ourselves each year with a new “Break Out.” Last summer, Color War week coincided with the Summer Olympic Games. Our colors are red and blue, so we played off of a patriot/Go USA theme. I wanted a torch run to end at our fire pit, where the torch would light the fire and the campers would bask in the excitement. Everything was ready; the homemade torch, which consisted of a broken tree branch with an old camp shirt wrapped around one end and doused in lighter fluid; a hay bale with lighter fluid in the fire pit; golf carts gassed up; a runner dressed in red, white and blue; a fake-out break-out staged in the morning; even staff ready to take pictures and film what I hoped would be the most epic break-out ever. However, so many things went wrong, including the torch not able to be lit. We did manage to pull off a break-out. Campers and staff were cheering, red and blue confetti was flying everywhere, the generals and captains were dressed in all of their flare, and I went along with it all, pretending that everything was all part of the plan. Later that day, when I watched one of the videos of the afternoon’s events, I heard a camper speaking. She must have been sitting close to the staffer who was filming. As the runner ran up the hill towards the fire pit—with an unlit torch—the camper exclaimed, “Oh, my! I did NOT expect them to do THIS! This is awesome!” She had no idea that the torch was supposed to be lit, that our outfits were homemade, or that the music didn’t work right, but she and her friends enjoyed the silliness anyway. A year later, I ran into another camper and his family at a local store. “How are you going to top last year’s break-out?” he asked. “Last summer was awesome. I can’t wait to see what you do this year!”

I created a memory. It wasn’t as extravagant as I wanted. It was probably safer since my torch was NOT on fire! But it was memorable. The counselors, most of whom were campers here once, have all pitched in every year to help make these memories. I have watched friendships form and strengthen over the years. I’ve heard campers cheering for the opposing teams, I’ve seen standing ovations at talent shows, and I’ve witnessed children grow up and become leaders who create memories for the next generation.

Summer camp isn’t a place. It is not a facility, or buildings, or fields, or special events. It’s a state of mind. It is a safe place where everyone belongs, where everyone has fun, where no one is judged or turned away. Summer camp is the people: the campers, the counselors, the staff members, and even the parents. It is full of joy, life, and spirit. I am the Spirit Leader, and I make memories.

Megan McVay is the Spirit Leader at YMCA Camp Topanemus in Millstone, N.J. Reach her at MeganMcVay@gmail.com.