By Ryan Ratty
It was the summer of sixth grade and while I had never really noticed, it was apparent to my mother that camps – and Jewish camps in particular – were vital towards the growth of teenagers who lived near me. My perfect definition of a summer was going to the day camp in town, coming home to watch Yankee games, and going to the beach on weekends with my entire family. But that changed when my mother decided to send me to sleepaway camp.
She told me that I’d only have to stay two weeks. If I didn’t like it after those two weeks, I could come home and continue my ideal summer with my friends and family. But if I did like it, I would be given the opportunity to extend my time at URJ Camp Harlam for another two weeks.
I was immediately immersed into an environment that pushed me to my limits and forced me to make decisions on my feet. The experiences at camp quickly became a major part of my life and each summer I came back, I was truly budding as the person I wanted to become and starting to make my own path. I went on to become a Counselor in Training (CIT) at Harlam, where I prepared for my future role as a staff member.
I spent the past two summers as a Harlam staff member and they were challenging and rewarding in ways I couldn’t have imagined. I truly believe that challenges – from either a camper’s perspective or from the counselor’s – are actually learning experiences if we choose to accept them. In 2016, knowing it could be my last summer at camp, I wanted to work with younger kids. I had been used to older campers and wanted to try a new challenge. Along with my co-counselors, we welcomed home 16 campers between the ages of 10-11, most of whom were at the beginning of their camp journeys in their first year at Harlam.
On the surface, the bunk could have been described as “challenging” or “difficult,” as there were a handful of campers who had special needs and required more thoughtful attention. And yes, it was overwhelming at times, but there was so much joy in our cabin and I gained so many positive things from the experience. For some of our campers, we knew about their challenges ahead of time, while others surprised us, but every single camper had a place in our bunk and our cabin would not have been complete without all of them. I think the session I spent with my bunk, and my summer, can be summed up in three campers.
The first camper who immediately comes to mind was extremely unique. He required a lot of attention, but we enjoyed spending time with him because he was very funny and intelligent for his age. However, he didn’t immediately build bonds with his fellow bunkmates. My co-counselors and I worked with this camper a lot and we were able to gain his respect. He eventually realized that we truly cared and wanted what was best for him.
Another camper in the bunk had a tendency for outbursts and mood swings. It took a while for us to build a rapport with this camper so he could trust us to help him. We found out his interests and were able to develop a variety of techniques that helped take his mind off his mood swings so that he could become a valuable member of the bunk. What amazed us was how the rest of the bunk supported him even when he was down.
The last camper who made an indelible mark on my time at camp was a new camper who has a serious heart condition. Despite his young age, a traumatic experience forced him to have a pacemaker in his chest. Because of his condition and my medical background as an Emergency Medical Technician, I was asked to be one of his counselors. It was easily one of the most satisfying experiences of my life. Here was a kid who was like any boy his age: energetic, adorable, comical, and full of life. However, his condition limited his ability to participate in a variety of activities camp had to offer. Some things like the pools, the climbing tower, many athletic clinics, and the indoor/outdoor climbing walls were off limits. It was hard at times because our young bunk wanted their bunkmate to do everything with them, but we couldn’t take on those risks. Fortunately, he was no ordinary camper. He understood his condition and rather than letting it bring him down, he became a leader, developing friendships with everyone and being the glue that held the bunk together.
These are just three of the hundreds of campers that come through the gates of Camp Harlam each summer, and each and every one brings something unique to contribute to their bunk. The campers all learn from one another and I can certainly say that the counselors learn even more from the kindness, strength, and resiliency of our campers.
I don’t know where my future lies, but I know that any success I have in the future will be accredited to my time at URJ Camp Harlam. I met my closest friends in the world at camp and it was there that we cultivated our lifelong relationships. I learned that by supporting kids and seeing them for who they are – not their diagnoses or reputations – camp can have an overwhelmingly positive effect on young people’s lives. I know it did for me. If you are a parent who is interested in sending their kid to camp and are reading this, I can promise you that this place will do wonders for your child. I don’t say that just because of the effect it had on me. I say this because of the effect it has had on thousands of campers. The Harlam community is strong, both inside our gates and outside in the world. Any child who attends URJ Camp Harlam is going to be given an opportunity to find themselves and know that they are special in the eyes of the counselors, fellow bunkmates, and the community. As you can tell, I have a cathartic feeling when I reminisce about camp. It truly is my home.
Ryan is currently a sophomore at Syracuse University. He spent six years at Harlam as a camper and was a second-year staff member in the summer of 2016.