It was summer and I'd spent all school year nurturing my teenage self, slamming doors and pushing back on my parents' rules and listening to Depeche Mode and dying my hair with henna minutes before I had to walk out the door so I could make chemistry class on time. My parents were exasperated, I was in therapy and in conflict. I needed to find my own way and I still wanted to please the people who I rolled my eyes out and who inspired poems of oppression penned in my diary. I was a good kid, vanilla in many ways, the one who was always the designated driver, strategic and safe. But I was the first child and my outbursts, even as tepid as they were, surprised my whole family.
And then my week at camp came. At camp, it was cool to be kind of nerdy and very goofy. At camp, I automatically unlocked a certain cool status by being from Chicago rather than a rural town all my other cabinmates lived in. At camp, nobody knew about the pressure or heartache or things that unraveled at home.
"You are your best self when you come home from camp," my mom told me in an honest moment the day after I got back from a week away. And I understood what she meant. I was happy, free, affirmed and confident in myself there, and it carried over for weeks (or longer?) when I returned to my regular semi-turbulent life.
I was a camper and counselor-in-training and daycamp counselor and finally a summer-long counselor at the same YMCA home-in-the-woods for ten years. You know those orbs of light that sometimes hover over your head in photos, that blind you from noticing that your eyes have red dots or you are doing something weird with your mouth or the whole picture is out of focus? All you can see is that light that should look misplaced but is really perfectly centered and upstaging? That was camp for me in the snapshot of my childhood. It was not a perfect place, but it was where I could rebel by taking a riflery clinic or whispering with the girl in the bunk next to me too late, where I could let down my worries and dress up for Christmas in July, where my wild abandon had a place to run, swim and scream camp songs at flagpole.
I thought of all those experiences gave me, and even made me, when I visited the Muscular Dystrophy Association Summer Camp this week.
This camp is different than the one I went to, but not by much. It's free for the fifty or so kids who attend each year in the location outside of Chicago, and the counselor-to-camper ratio is much higher. But that's where the differences end.
MDA opens cabin doors to nearly 4,000 children with muscular dystrophy or related muscle-debilitating disease at about 75 camps every year. At no cost and with every expectation that any tentativeness would be shed a few hours later when the local fire engines arrived and Harley Davidson volunteers slid them into sidecars for a ride around camp.
While the schedule is packed full of archery, fishing, pool parties, karaoke and s'mores, the intention is loaded up as well. MDA wants each kid with a muscle-debilitating disease to feel the freedom to walk, talk, run, play, hug, eat and breathe. And these camps turn that intention into the best week of the whole year.
That "best week of the year" thing? I related to it, I felt it, I heard it over and over, and I also saw it written in the beaming smiles of kids and counselors on the day I spent with MDA.
I saw kids being kids, teenagers being teenagers, and campers being campers. Do you relate? Do you have your own camp memories that perk up when you hear Boom Chicka Boom Boom or witness Water Wars on the basketball court?
Mine did. Especially when I heard 16-year veteran counselor Alli reading Yes Notes — affirmations, shout outs and clever quips campers write on construction paper squares and tuck into a bucket to be shared publicly at meal times to show You are Extra Special. Alli and another counselor read the dozens of Yes Notes with feeling, making kids laugh at every sentence.
"We heart-shape your hair! It looks sooooooooooo good," Alli's partner shouted out to a room full of applause. I heart-shaped those notes, every single one of them.
Alli has also coordinated a prank of extraordinary Yes Note power. She printed off a thousand photos of camp director Stevie's smiling face, which she passes out on the sly to campers and counselors to stick on ceilings, name tags, archery targets and even the underside of cabin toilet lids. It's all to honor the beloved camp director who is leaving after five years of enthusiasm and care on the job, and it's all in good fun the way this camp is about everything.
It was Olympic theme day, and I was placed with the high-school girls cabin. They wore togas made out of their bedsheets and had fancy headbands, elaborate braids and dirty sneakers. They are full-on girl power, and most of the campers were in their eighth, ninth or tenth year.
They introduced themselves as the Golden Goddesses of Golden Eagle cabin. And they were golden from dollar-store headband to dusty tennis shoes.
The Stevie picture prank? They are super serious about it. They are also serious about tipping canoes, soaking their counselors in Water Wars and dressing up for the themed days. They help each other, and they love camp.
"Starting in January, it's pretty much all I can talk about until I get here in the summer," one 15-year old camper told us.
She's not a typical teenager, she says. And that's not because it took doctors four years to diagnose her. "I'm mot a typical teenager because I'm happy all the time!"
Her counselors confirm.
"She wakes up happier than anyone I've ever met," Dawn shares. Dawn's met a lot of campers in her 19 years as a counselor at MDA Summer Camp. The experience inspired her to be a middle-school teacher, and this very camp is where she met the camper who she became friends with during college and who is now her husband. Dawn is all in on this camp.
She's not the only counselor whose life has been given shape by chanting over Taco Tuesday nachos in the cafeteria or massaging campers' tight muscles or rallying a group of high-schoolers on to an Emergency Dance Party in the middle of lunch. Alli told me that being a part of this camp community revealed her calling to be an occupational therapist.
And then there was Mitch, MDA's executive director of Central Illinois region. A former student athlete and active kid, Mitch thought he knew what to expect his first summer on the grounds.
"I thought I knew what camp was," he says as a smile widens across his face, "until I worked here."
Maybe that's true for me, too. I connected my own experience to MDA Summer Camp. It felt strikingly similar and it uprooted all kinds of memories about Capture the Flag and weaving daisy chains out of beads and thread and the infamous tube steak buffet. And as similar as the feelings and activities are to my own experiences, what happens at MDA camp is elevated to a whole new level of joy.
I send my son to my old camp so he can create his own new memories and have a week to find his way to his best self. And I understand why the parents of kids with muscular dystrophy are willing to set aside routines and control of care and any worries to let their kids feel this free for a week every summer. What a gift to the whole family.
The Muscular Dystrophy Association has turned decades of "I can't" messaging into a powerful camp chant of "I can." Their #LiveUnlimited campaign flies past any words or concerns that any of these kids cannot do something. It is about turning struggle into strength. It's about kids saying, "Watch us!" to any restrictions anyone else sets on them.
When I saw one camper wheel another over to the edge of a pier and cheer him on when he caught his very first fish, I saw the power of #LiveUnlimited in real time. When we laughed as counselors cajoled campers to build boats out of donated, leftover styrofoam, glitter duct tape and cardboard boxes, I felt #LiveUnlimited at work. When kids yelled, "MOMS! COME HERE!" and then got us in on a prank, told us a story about silly stringing another cabin, giggled over an inside joke they had to share, boasted that they just knew they could hit the target this time with an arrow — that was all #LiveUnlimited over and over.
The MDA Summer Camp experience is a lot like the summers many of us shared. But bigger. And...just bigger.
Before I left, the counselors and campers handed me a friendship bracelet they wove out of pink and purple and bright yellow thread. Camp friendship bracelets are meant to last forever, to remind the wearer of all the fun and silliness and unbreakable bonds of too-short times together. I promise that it will remind me of all we have in common and all I witnessed during that magic day of your magic week, campers and counselors. Stay Golden, you goddesses.
What can you do to help a kid with muscular dystrophy live unlimited? Great question.
- It costs MDA $2,000 to send each kid to camp for one week. That may sound like a lot of money, and it is when you multiply it times 4,000 kids — $8 million raised by MDA annually.
But that breaks down to $333.33 a day.
Just $13.88 per hour of swimming, fishing or karaoke.
- You can also connect creatively. Upload a photo here of your own triumphant #LiveUnlimited moment here and $5 will be donated to help kids and adults with ALS and muscular dystrophy.
- You can purchase one of the motivational Live Unlimited Endorphin Warrior bracelets (like mine above) and $6 from each sale will go to the MDA research, care and services. Buy one (or seven) right here.