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Three Small Words

by Anna Dickau

Come to camp!

     That was the status I posted on Facebook a little while ago, but I must admit, that simple message hardly conveys the importance that Pilgrim Pines has for me. There is magnitude behind those words, but without context, they seem shallow. So, I have decided to write, in more depth and detail, about my experience at Pilgrim Pines, and perhaps this simple introductory phrase will begin to develop a more profound meaning.

     This summer is my eleventh consecutive year at Pilgrim Pines. I began as a camper in 2001, graduated to CIT-dom six years later, and began spending entire summers here in 2009. Every August, I go home tan and skinny (we are literally situated on the side of a mountain, after all) and bursting with stories. Most are funny or a little scary — there are plenty of bears there — but somehow, it’s impossible to describe exactly how camp feels through mere language. I can’t describe the calm, cool air on dappled grass, the way the sunlight sparkles through the trees, or the profound silence of the labyrinth. Yet despite its gorgeous location, the true essence of camp isn’t even in its outward beauty. It’s the campers that make the camp truly special, and it is their stories — their real stories — that I can never quite bring myself to tell. Although I love all the children, there is one particular group that has always touched my heart: the foster kids.

     Foster kids don’t always have the best reputation, but in many cases, reputation and reality fail to meet; this is one of those cases. Camp is where children, regardless of family background, age, socioeconomic status, ethnicity or ability can come together and simply be children. We can talk for hours or days or years about making the world a better place, but the fact is, we don’t need to create a better place. We need to share the better places that we already have, and we can begin with spreading the spirit of camp. Camp is where campers and staff learn that being themselves is okay, where creativity and friendship and love transcend the difficulties of everyday life, and the world down the mountain, in all its glorious troubles and distractions, ceases to exist.

     That is not to say that the atmosphere of camp is perfect. Since Pilgrim Pines does cater to many foster children, there is always a high chance that some of them are abused in their homes. One of my most memorable nights involved a camper (I’ll call her Rose, not her real name; details of her story have also been changed) who was unable to sleep the first night she was at camp because she didn’t bring pajamas and was uncomfortable sleeping in her jeans. I stayed up with her as the night grew darker, I let my CIT go to sleep along with the rest of the cabin, and stayed up with Rose. Finally, when it was nearly midnight, she whispered to me, “I can’t sleep because my head hurts.”

     “Why does your head hurt?” I asked her. I couldn’t see her face in the dark, but I could tell something was wrong.

     “Cause my foster dad pulls my hair,” she whispered back.

     This was my second year on summer staff, and even though I had heard stories of abuse before, it never got any easier. I closed my eyes and, after a moment, went to my cot and rooted around for my notebook and pen, stashed away for exactly this purpose. Since the lights outside had just shut off, Rose and I turned on the light in the bathroom, leaving the door partway open, and sat together on the cold tile floor.

     “Can you tell me more about your foster dad?” I asked her.

     Imagine her, small for an eight-year-old, thin with brown hair, looking down at the beige floor. And there are the two of us, in a bright lonely room while the rest of the camp is safely enveloped in sleep, discussing one of the worst things imaginable: an abusive parent.

     Rose and her siblings went home with someone else at the end of the week, and with any luck, the family with whom they were staying can no longer host any foster children. Even though she doesn’t know it, Rose’s bravery probably saved dozens of children from staying with her destructive foster parents. Although it was only her first night at camp, Rose had already learned that this was a place where she was finally safe. Rose somehow knew that camp would be able to take care of her. And she was right.

     A lot of foster kids have never had a place like that, but it is up to the staff of Pilgrim Pines to help provide these children, who are just as special and deserving and amazing as our own sons, daughters, sisters, brothers, nieces and nephews, with a place where people will care for them, and love them, and maybe even save them. There are, of course, plenty of ways to save a child. And at camp, there are plenty of opportunities to do so. Children like Rose desperately need a savior, and being their agent to a better life is probably one of the most rewarding experiences that is possible in this meager existence. Teaching a child to trust, even after she has gone to hell and back before she has reached double digits, is the epitome of life, to make something terribly beautiful out of utmost tragedy. Coming to camp for a week might be difficult for many people, but there are children like Rose who need a superhero.

     Just as words are not enough to make you a Christian, words are not enough to truly convey the immense gratitude of the children you have yet to meet. Camp is a unique place that lies beyond the limits of language, art, or even music. Camp, in all its melancholy and splendid, devastating beauty, is an embodiment of the nature of life itself. It induces growing pains, and while some of my memories will never lose their jolt of sadness, I wouldn’t want it any other way. Life without love is no life at all, but neither is life without suffering and growth. And if we must suffer a little, why not do it for a child who has suffered far more than we have? It is painful to hear these types of stories, but ultimately, they result in better care for the kids, a better understanding of the world for the listeners, and someday, a more positive and functional society. So strive, suffer, and bathe in the glory of life.

     Even if I cannot really show you through words alone how incredible camp is, I hope that my anecdotes and beliefs have at least persuaded you that Pilgrim Pines is a vibrant, beautiful, and meaningful place. And perhaps, after reading my story, there is some complexity in those three simple words after all. So here goes, one more time: come to camp!

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