Summer Sunshine

Thanks to the Corona virus, days, weeks and even seasons have become a jumble. This time-warp effect, I think, is partly due to the lack of seasonal signposts.

This year there was no July 4th parade in my suburban town. Summer concerts are cancelled. Back-to-school shopping has been scaled back. And what about the Kentucky Derby? The family julep cups were polished, chilled, and ready to fill with minty goodness.

But what I find myself missing today is Camp Sunshine, a Girl Scout day camp about a 45-minute drive from our house. The last week of July is always Camp Sunshine week. My daughter Erin went every year from first grade through 12th, except for one year she was at NYU. I also worked there for four summers, including the one Erin missed.

The camp is held in a wooded area owned by a small, nearby church, but it is separated from the church buildings (and cemetery) by a field, usually planted with corn or soybeans. There was a small footbridge by the church, and protocol was that parents stayed on one side and watched their daughters cross the bridge, join other campers and head for the woods, walking on a gravel road. At afternoon pickup, we’d wait in the church parking lot and watch for our daughters to emerge from the corn.

The camp was pretty spartan. There’s a nice amphitheater, and porta-potties brought in for the occasion, but the units are concrete slabs with picnic tables and a large wooden storage box. Shelters are made by hoisting tarps and fastening the ropes around one of the many trees.

But once you got the campers and the staff together, the magic begins. Girls normally glued to their phones and screens discover that they can get by with much simpler gear. And, they learn that it is fun to be outside, that the occasional worm crawling about won’t bite them, and to always take a buddy. They also will learn songs. Morning songs, lunchtime songs, hiking songs, and at least one song intended to annoy adults for months on end. “Stay on the Sunny Side” always seemed to fill that last category. There always is a sober-minded staffer who explains to the girls that Princess Pat did not actually live in a tree.

And, for the record, Girl Scouts have been singing “Baby Shark” for decades.

“Butterfly” and Erin, 2006

In addition to making friends and having fun, Camp Sunshine was a treasured source of continuity for my daughter. Erin was in three different Brownie troops and three different elementary schools, but for the first four years at Camp Sunshine, she had the same leader (called “Butterfly”) and a large group of familiar faces in her unit.

That first year, she met a girl named Laura, and they quickly became friends. Unfortunately, they lived quite far apart. Year after year, the two girls would impatiently wait for Camp Sunshine so they could see each other again. As they became Cadettes, they were thrilled to find they were both going to the same magnet middle school and later the same magnet high school. Finally, the two wound up in the same troop, and they stayed together through high school. They attended college on opposite coasts, graduating in 2019. Both wound up in California for work, and despite being on opposite ends of the state, they have managed to visit back and forth. That is the power of a Girl Scout friendship.

Laura and Erin, 2009

When the camp switched from two weeks to one, I volunteered to lead the Cadette unit. I like working with that age group (middle school) because that’s the time we loose so many girls. They choose other, more time-consuming activities or decide that Girl Scouts isn’t cool. If we keep them through middle school, they can become Program Aides (junior counselors) in high school. At one point, my teen troop provided six Program Aides.

I tried to make the Cadette unit cool. We set up at the farthest edge of the camp, and skip some all-unit activities. The year all units had cute aquatic-themed names (Starfish, Mermaids, etc.), we were The Island–very foreboding and mysterious. I tried to create an atmosphere where the younger girls couldn’t wait to be a Cadette.

So we did cool stuff. I usually had around 15 girls. One year was forestry, origami, and paper-making. Another was Crime Scene Investigations, where the girls created crime scenes for the others to solve. We experimented with different recipes for fake, “movie” blood. That year I uttered one of the strangest sentences in my Girl Scout career:

“No, Susie, you can’t take your bag of severed limbs to the closing flag ceremony.”

The last two years were extra-fun. We did activities that turned into two of my Hunger Games patches. The girls did archery, made bread, and learned how to treat various injuries from the books. They made obstacle courses, makeshift tents, designed uniforms, and interviewed “tributes” competing in the games.

I really wanted to stay on at least another year, enough to finish the Hunger Games trilogy, but I reluctantly had to acknowledge that I could not continue.

About 20 years ago I had a catastrophic leg injury. Doctors saved the leg, but after several surgeries, I lost muscles, tendons and more. I now have a leg brace and cannot stand for long periods of time. I am especially prone to tripping, so the woods are hazardous.

The camp director was very generous about accommodations for me. I could drive out to the campsite, and I had program aides to help, but that still meant keeping the girls close to the unit, and me collapsing in a pool of pain each night.

Nevertheless, I am proud that I took on this challenge. It was really hard, but also fun. I loved working with a difficult age group and keeping them excited about staying Girl Scouts. I loved watching camping return as staff. I loved stopping at 7-11 for a Slurpee fix with a carload of Program Aides from my troop.

But the best part, of course, was working with Erin. Even when we were in different units, we did planning and packing, and setting up together.

Staff, 2011

I guess with all of life’s many changes, girls growing up and leaving for the next phase of their lives, it has been reassuring to know that, year after year, Camp Sunshine would always convene on the last week of July.

Camp Sunshine was cancelled this year, but I hope it will rise again in 2021. We could all use a dose of stability and continuity.

©2020 Ann Robertson, writer, editor, and Girl Scout historian

One thought on “Summer Sunshine

  1. MMMm, I want to linger . . .
    MMmmm, a little longer . . .
    The first week of June is the camp touchstone for me. Throughout my high school and college years, that week was usually spent planning for, packing, training, or imagining camp as camp staff. Even amid the chaos of this summer and 37 years since my last summer at camp, I felt that pull to get ready. Once it is in you, camp never lets you go. That’s a great thing.
    Mmmmm, and as the years go by . . .
    mmmmm, I’ll think of you and sigh . . .

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