The impact of the Camp experience is something we talk about and think of often. For those who’ve had a Sea Gull or Seafarer experience, the phrase brings to mind memories of moments that changed the way they viewed themselves or the world around them.
At 13, I was a first-time First Session camper. I knew Camp, but I didn’t know the routine, traditions, and specifics of a 4-week experience. I was welcomed on Opening Day by my counselor, Mary Catherine, who told me that I could and should be 100% me even if that included nerves about what I did and didn’t know.
At 14, on cabin night, we were supposed to go tubing – a very special and exciting opportunity. However, the waves were too rough to go and we were disappointed that we had to change plans. Our counselors Rhett and Elizabeth said, “We make our fun, we don’t wait for fun!”
At 15, my cabin counselor, Catherine encouraged me by saying that I was a natural leader, but more importantly, she challenged me to be the type of leader whose actions and character are worth following. Because I knew she cared, I took the advice deeply to heart.
At 16, my Scot Trainer, Mary had complete confidence that I could do what she was asking. The first time I took the helm of the Flying Scot, on day one of training, she asked me to sail with my eyes closed. Her confidence in me filled the void of confidence that I had in myself.
At 14, I entered Lightning Training and tested twice unsuccessfully for Lightning Skipper before finally earning the rank on the last day of the session. I distinctly remember where I was in the Mess Hall when Frank Martien encouraged me to try again. I learned that summer that positive thinking goes a long way and nothing worth having comes easy.
At 18, I reported for work at Sea Gull as a Junior Counselor in Camp 4, and on the first afternoon met my Head Counselor, Bear Bashford. A year later, as a college student, I would serve as a volunteer Youth Leader at a church in Chapel Hill, NC where Bear served as the Director. Twenty years later, Bear would join our Director Team at Sea Gull. I didn’t realize it at the time, but Camp is a place where lifelong friendships begin and impact the trajectory of your life.
At 23, after a summer as the Head Counselor of Camp II, I remember celebrating a successful season with fellow Head Counselors who had become great friends – our tanks on empty and a sense of deep satisfaction from pouring everything we had into staff and campers - and realizing in that moment that I was merging onto a career path.
When you live in a community of belonging with positive, invested role models and with opportunities for independence, those moments happen frequently. But as those moments became memories, the words of encouragement and challenge and the experiences of belonging and confidence became etched into who we are and now help us navigate the challenges of life and the role of “Captain” John and Mary Laurence.
The challenges of life this past year have been unlike any other year in most of our lifetimes. Our children have carried an undue weight of the burden. They have been forced into living life through a screen, quite the opposite message from previous years of limited screen time and monitored online activities in an effort to ensure proper social and developmental growth.
They are asked to stay distanced from friends at a time in life when a hug or high five from a peer can be one of the most uplifting and confidence-building actions. The nature of children to be friendly and outgoing to strangers, which unfortunately is often lost as we enter adulthood, is now discouraged by mask wearing and confusion about the safety of leaving our homes and bubbles.
We all know this from personal experience, and the flood of news reports and studies confirms it – the mental health of our youth has been negatively impacted. A recent article written by Tom Rosenberg, President/CEO of American Camp Association, acutely describes this negative impact and the research around it. He discusses the increase of anxiety and depression and the trauma of sustained worry, sadness, and fear that impacts physical, social, emotional, and mental health. He points to camp as exactly what young people need this summer.
“Children, youth, and young adults will need immersive and educational camp experiences in summer 2021 more than ever before. Parents, educators, public health officials, and government and camp professionals need to step up this summer and do whatever it takes to provide young people vibrant camp experiences where they can recover from a stunted school year and be part of an emotionally and physically safe in-person peer community. Young people thrive when they experience supportive peer and mentor relationships and have opportunities to contribute and learn while participating in meaningful decision-making. This summer, camp experiences will help young people reset and practice social-emotional learning competencies that will support their academic and mental health readiness when they return to school in the fall.”
The Sea Gull and Seafarer experience has always been designed to create community, build strong relationships, provide time to have fun in the outdoors, and push campers to gain independence through “choice and voice,” all in a safe and supportive environment with positive role models. We are always thrilled to offer that to young people, but especially this year.
The specific ways that “camp serves as a catalyst for growth” is beautifully captured and outlined in American Camp Association’s Camp Counts 2020 Report, which was compiled from one of the annual surveys conducted by the ACA Research Team.
The report states that camp enriches the lives of campers, camp staff, and families in a variety of ways, and we have highlighted those we find specifically applicable to the Seafarer and Sea Gull experience.
Sense of Belonging
A caring community. Better to belong than fit it. All brothers, all the time. These are phrases used at Sea Gull and Seafarer to describe the community we strive to create. It’s the responsibility of each of us as individuals to help create this type of community. Many of our campers and staff say they are the best version of themselves at Camp, likely because they are focused on this community rather than themselves. It’s this setting that allows the rest of the work to happen – trying new things, developing skills, gaining independence, and so much more.
Time Away from Screens
At Sea Gull and Seafarer, campers and staff take a break from screens, video chats, group messaging, and social media. We emphasize face-to-face interactions and conversations. We practice looking people in the eye, sincerely congratulating our friends, and articulating an apology for a mistake we’ve made. Being on the receiving end of these interactions make us feel valued as an individual and having the opportunity to lead these interactions builds our empathy and compassion. We are also committed, particularly with our older campers, to discuss how to transition back home into the world of screens and social media. It can be a great tool to keep up with friends, but it does not define who we are or determine our self-worth.
Opportunities for Challenge
At Camp we face challenges and practice doing hard things. It prepares us for challenges that come up outside of Camp. For some, this looks like going off the zipline. For others, it’s sailing a Flying Scot with eyes closed. Or singing in the camp-wide talent show in front of hundreds of people. We make plans for doing hard things, we celebrate our achievements, and we discuss what we learned from the experience. We make sure to appreciate how even taking the first step helped us grow as an individual.
Camp provides a great window into what life is like around the corner. Younger campers look up to older campers who are a few grades ahead. CILTs show our oldest campers how to give back to the greater community. All campers have counselors who make “the right thing to do the cool thing to do.” The trajectory of a child’s life is greatly impacted with the influence of just one caring adult, and we have a community of those at Sea Gull and Seafarer!
Opportunities for Choice and Voice
The Blue and Green books, unique to the Sea Gull and Seafarer program experience, are built for choice and voice. All campers are empowered to set personal goals and work to achieve them. The Blue and Green book lays out the path for skill development at each activity. Campers plan with their counselor and learn to ask for help. We don’t always achieve our goal on the first try, but we learn to change course and try again, learning from the experience of failure because “failure is not forever.”
Safe and Supportive Environment
Any current or former Sea Gull or Seafarer staff member would, without hesitation, say the highest priority is the safety of campers – physical, mental, social, and emotional. This is the foundation on which all the other positive impact is made. It requires support to be brave enough to try something new. A camper must feel safe to honestly share reflections on their day in the devotion circle. We also know that this is important every minute of every day for every individual at Camp.
We’ve been known to say that kids need camp now more than ever. That has never been truer than it is right now. We view ourselves as a partner with you, our camper’s parents and guardians, and we are honored to help provide this community and environment for your child.
We are passionate and dedicated to a Camp experience that provides children with opportunities for moments of impact that will become memories that shape them for life. We can’t wait to open the gates to all of you this summer!
Devotions at Camp are an opportunity at the end of the day to reflect back on the experiences we’ve had. To make meaning of events, to find the learnings, and to figure out how to do it better the next time.
“Tell me how we worked together,” a counselor may ask her cabin. “When did we take care of each other? Did something unexpected happen that tested our character, caused us to adjust our course? Did we show respect when our cabin won the tournament? Did we hold our heads up when we didn’t? Were the winds strong enough to blow us off course? What was it like to capsize your Sunfish? Why was it important to get back in?”
As we track toward the closing days of 2020, there is certainly no shortage of events for our reflection.
The Start of 2020
The year started as it typically does. January brought a heightened excitement as we prepared for the upcoming spring and summer program seasons and solidified plans for Camp Night travel in cities across the country to see and connect with many of you. We also celebrated the success of surpassing our Camp Annual Campaign goal and the generosity of our Camp Family.
And then things started to change. The wind began to pick up. We canceled an in-person meeting with the Camp Advisory Board. We contacted our Camp Night hosts and told them how sorry we were that we wouldn’t be traveling this spring. Like many of you, we began working from home.
By early March, it was evident that this was no typical year. Expense management and workforce adjustments were our new reality, so we did what we knew how to do: We checked our life jackets. We checked on our crew and got our bearings. We freed the sheet and made sure the daggerboard didn’t float away. We reminded ourselves that you can’t change the wind, but you can adjust your sails.
Arriving at “Scenario Q”
We recognized that this moment called for definitive action. In response, we formed what became known as our “Blue Ribbon Medical Committee”, a collection of experts in the fields of epidemiology, virology, and pediatrics. Professionals who could help us navigate a complex COVID landscape and who also knew our YMCA Association and specifically the unique environment of Sea Gull and Seafarer.
With the leadership of this medical committee and in conjunction with guidance from national, state, and local health agencies, as well as the American Camp Association, our Director Teams began the challenging work of preparing for the summer. Collectively, we refer to this period as “scenario planning,” and you would be proud of the “behind the scenes” efforts of the staff to work through all the options. As Camp Directors, we would ask for options A, B, and C, only to need a revised version of D, E, and F days later based on a shift in the guidance. As a team we now laugh that we ultimately ended up on option Q. “Let’s run that option out,” was a popular phrase during the time. There was permission to create and innovate as we had never seen before.
That innovation certainly comes with challenges, especially under a time crunch, so we made sure to encourage each other along the way. We referenced Brene Brown podcasts often and asked each other to “name it” – to be fully transparent about how we were showing up to a particular conversation or what was on our mind.
We invoked a favorite “Thought for the Day” from the late Seafarer Camp Director Judy Bright, “You can’t walk uphill by thinking downhill thoughts.” Author Tod Bolsinger’s words charged us to take care of each other – “The primary way we prepare for the unknown is to attend to the quality of our relationships.” We talked about being adaptive. Resilient. Resisting the urge to return to normal, but rather re-emerging stronger, better.
And we leaned on our faith. “Be a lamp to my feet and a light to my path,” the Psalm told us. We weren’t asking for the full picture all at once, but guidance on the next step.
A Different Kind of Summer
By late May, the program plan for Summer 2020 had come into focus, and we were ready to communicate with parents of enrolled campers and our broad Camp community. The decision to “tack away” from a traditional summer at Sea Gull and Seafarer was one of the hardest decisions we’ve ever had to make. We know, however, that the right decision is often the difficult one. If we’re about the safety and the well-being of the community – our campers, staff, Camp families, as well as the community in which Camp is located, then the choice becomes obvious.
Despite not being able to deliver our full programs, we did welcome a number of our older campers and CILTs from both Camps to Sea Gull for two, two-week sessions of S.A.I.L., an acronym for Sea Gull and Seafarer Adventures in Leadership. Campers and staff arrived grateful for the opportunity to reconnect with friends and be in a place that felt like home, even though some elements looked a little different. We “buffed” up with our face coverings, ate buffet style in the Mess Hall, learned about leadership, and laughed a lot at the first (and hopefully not the last) annual Sea Gull and Seafarer Lip Sync Competitions.
One of our volunteer physicians who served a week at S.A.I.L. this summer put it best. “It dawned on me that what we have here is as close to the original vision of Sea Gull and Seafarer as I’ve ever seen. When you peel back all the layers, you’re left with the core. Counselors serving as role models for young people, utilizing the activities as a vehicle for character development. Strong friendships, skill development, leadership development, and fun. That’s exactly what these places were meant to be.”
Just up the river at Seafarer, we delivered six five-day experiences called Embark Family Camp. Just like the S.A.I.L. campers, Embark families arrived overjoyed for the opportunity to be at Camp. It was a welcomed break from the routine. A change of scenery. More than that, though, it was an opportunity to do what we were built to do. To be in a relationship with each other. To belong to a caring community. Said best in the words of a happy parent, “Thank you for saving our summer!”
The creative and innovative spirit continued into the fall. Camp Windward provided the opportunity for families to work and do school from Camp in a gorgeous setting, with meals provided, and activities in the afternoon. Coastal Cabin Rentals kicked off soon after as an opportunity to enjoy Camp at a slower pace. The Scholastic Learning Center in Taylor Lodge at Seafarer provided working parents in Pamlico County a reliable, safe, enriching option to make life manageable while virtual school was the reality.
Camp Annual Campaign
By the end of our program season, the financial picture for the year was becoming clear, and we communicated an operational gap of $8.5 million with a goal to raise $3 million by December 31, 2020. We had doggedly managed expenses. We had successfully delivered roughly 20% of our traditional program offerings and innovated to deliver new ones.
Parents were generous with the donation of program fees. Young Alumni kicked off a strong response to the 48 Hour Giving Challenge. And through the continued generosity of our Camp family, we anticipate reaching our goal. With the support of our Y Association, we won’t have to take on any long-term debt. On the heels of recovery from Hurricane Florence two years ago, the priority remains to aggressively replenish reserves and fund deferred maintenance, while focusing on delivering program excellence in all of our seasons.
We will strive to offer as much financial assistance as possible, although there is always more need than resources available. On behalf of the staff, we are truly grateful and feel immense gratitude for the support of our Camp family.
On the Horizon
As we look ahead to the horizon, there is optimism and a continued sense of gratitude. Enrollment for 2021 is strong and preparation for the program season is well underway. We continue to rely on guidance from health agencies, and we have once again convened the “Blue Ribbon Medical Committee” to help us navigate the evolving landscape.
While much is yet to be determined, but here’s what we know:
We remain committed to the safety and well-being of everyone in the camp community.
Children and families need the life-changing impact that a Camp experience provides, whether that’s for one week, two weeks, four weeks, or a weekend.
We know we will continue to follow the guidance and consider every resource available to implement protocols that create a safe, impactful, and fun experience for campers and families this upcoming season.
And we know you should always check your lifejacket and check on the crew. Get back in and keep sailing. Be grateful. We wish you all the blessings of this holiday season and look forward to staying in touch with you in the weeks and months ahead.
In the Sea Gull and Seafarer Spirit,
John Hyde and Mary Laurence Crook