When the school year ends a few weeks from now, millions of kids will head off to sleepaway camp for a summer filled with color wars, kayaking and bunk life. Most will have a great time, some will make friends for life, and many will look back on the experience fondly.
But amid these happy campers is another group of veterans who recall sleepaway camp quite differently. These were the kids who cried every day and sent letters home begging to be picked up. They were lonesome, miserable, bullied; hated the bugs, hated the pool. Many refused to ever go back, and decades later, they can recall their suffering in visceral detail — from poison ivy to wretched food.
Russ' mom and dad saved those notes and even read some of them aloud at her wedding shower 10 years ago. "I got another letter from you," reads one of the heart-wrenching lines in Russ' schoolgirl's script. "Every time I get a letter I cry and become very homesick."
What was so bad about camp? Let Russ count the ways: "I'll never forget the first night I had to sleep in a tent. I hated the public showers, I hated sharing a room with several other girls, I hated the anxiety of packing and saying goodbye."
For Kelsey Tomascheski, 48, of Santa Clara, Calif., camp memories center on bad food. "I will admit that I was a picky eater, but the problem was more on quality," said Tomascheski. "I could only handle so many bland spaghetti feeds, too-salty chicken strips, and soggy fries. Usually halfway through the week I gave up and only ate PB&J at all three meals."
Some unhappy campers hated bunk life. "It was dirty," recalled Gerry Cotten, 25, a website developer in Toronto. "I was always into computers, and some sort of computer camp probably would have been fun, but sleeping in an ancient old wooden cabin, with disgusting washrooms a five-minute walk away, wasn't really appealing."
The great outdoors didn't hold much charm either: "Taking a dip in the lake each morning instead of having a shower wasn't really for me. They called it the Polar Dip."
According to the American Camp Association, nearly 9 million kids under the age of 18 attend one of the country's 7,000 overnight camps each summer, with stays ranging from a week to two months. Research on the association's website suggests that going to camp can build confidence, self-esteem, social skills, independence and a sense of adventure.
But for some campers, the experience was more like the funny 1963 hit song performed by Allan Sherman: "Hello Muddah, hello Fadduh, here I am at Camp Granada. Camp is very entertaining. And they say we'll have some fun if it stops raining."
Kim Cooper, 46, hated the structured activities. "They said 'You need to go make lanyards now,'" she recalled. "Why do I need a lanyard?" She preferred "hiking solo in the woods looking for interesting wildlife." But other campers thought that was weird, and Cooper soon found herself "surrounded by a group of scary big kids who were shoving me around and calling me Moses" — because of a stick she carried on her treks.
"I had no alternative but to bite one of them," she said. Not surprisingly, she was soon sent home. But Cooper didn't grow up to be a hermit in the woods. In fact, she makes a living dealing with groups of strangers, running the Esotouric bus tour company in Los Angeles with her husband.
Others also note that being miserable at summer camp is not a sign that someone's going to be meek or fearful as an adult. Ryan K. Croft, 29, of Arlington, Va., was once a "mama's boy" who cried himself to sleep at camp. But he grew up to found an international adventure travel company, leading more than 100 group trips to 20 countries on four continents.
"My family likes to say I was a late bloomer and just needed more time than others to find my way," he said. "I personally just think it's coincidental or irony at its finest."
Sometimes the problem with sleepaway camp was a simple mismatch. One woman was sent to a Bible camp even though her family never went to church. Jason Fischbach, 23, was sent to a Jewish camp in New York, but "I didn't know the prayers. I couldn't tell the same stories as other kids, and I didn't fit in at all. I was bullied for being different."
Some kids hated camp at first but over the course of several summers grew to like it. Kevin Strauss, 43, of Leesburg, Va., cried all the time at his first camp, at age 7. Other kids made fun of him, and he even got into a fight. "I can still remember it 36 years later," he says. His second time away, he got poison ivy. "I spent a lot of time at the infirmary because it felt like someone was there to take care of you, kind of like your mom," he said.
But his third time, as a sixth-grader, was "fantastic," recalled Strauss, founder of a website called FamilyeJournal.com. As an adult, Strauss says, he's loved wilderness expeditions, and even though he hated the camp pool, he's become an Ironman athlete who goes "swimming in the ocean for miles."
Maybe, he observes, some kids just aren't "ready to separate" from mom or dad when they're first sent to camp. "Eventually we do grow up and learn independence but everyone is different and has their own pace," he said.
So what's the take-away for parents, given that some campers never get over being homesick, others grow to enjoy camp, and some who hate the experience as kids became adventurous adults?
Fran Walfish, a family psychotherapist in Hollywood who writes for Parents magazine's "Ask the Expert," doesn't recommend sleepaway camp for kids under 9 unless they are very outgoing and transition easily, or unless an older sibling is at the same camp. Even with older kids, she recommends sending them to camp with a good friend so they have a built-in buddy.
And if you get tearful letters or calls home, "do not ever leap abruptly to rescue," she advises. But do call the camp, and "if the trend is not getting better by day three or four, that is cause for concern." Some kids have more separation anxiety than others, and a depressed child who can't eat or sleep shouldn't be forced to stay away.
But it's also important to make sure kids don't spend the summer watching TV and playing videogames. Fortunately, Walfish notes, there's an alternative: Day camp, where they "can sleep in their own beds at night."