Outdoor Life Summer Travel

Look out Camp Cheerio, here I come

July 17, 2015
group of happy kids roasting marshmallows on campfire

Sending my daughter to her first sleepaway summer camp in the US

When I first offered Camp Cheerio to my then nine-year old daughter, she said, “No way, Mom.” It wasn’t as if she had never been away from home. Since first grade Anna, like most Czech kids her age, had spent at least a week each spring at a “school in nature” camp. She’d been to ski camp with her school in the winter, and she’d also attended a weeklong overnight gymnastics summer camp program.

In the Czech Republic, the land my family calls home, it is typical for children to go away to camp with their classmates and teachers. Even five-year-old Samuel will attend his first overnight “school in nature” this autumn. Although I worried he was too young to spend eight nights without us, his teacher assured me that he was ready and that he would be disappointed to be left out of the collective.

In contrast to the Czech school camps where children generally attend with teachers and students they already know, Camp Cheerio was a YMCA camp located in Glade Valley, North Carolina a few hours from my childhood hometown in Virginia. If Anna Lee went, she’d go alone. It could be the experience of a lifetime. She’d have a chance to interact with English speaking children in a natural camp environment. She’d see what it was like to live in America beyond the confines of her grandparent’s cozy small town. She’d have a break from pesky younger brothers, a nagging mother and a summer vacation that sometimes seemed too filled with the Disney Channel and trips to Walmart. Going to camp in America would be one step toward Anna’s self-professed dream of someday living in the US.

It could also be scary. She wouldn’t know anyone. She wouldn’t have a friend to sit on the bus with when they traveled off-site. She wouldn’t know the camp songs. The kids might laugh at her if she had to spell something in English. She might get homesick. She might not bring the right clothes or say the right things. Camp Cheerio was expensive (this was not a concern of Anna’s, only mine). She decided not to go. I didn’t push.

The following Christmas, I mentioned Cheerio again. Since Anna was 10 years old now, she could attend a special Cheerios Adventure Camp, based in Mouth of Wilson, Virginia. At this location, the campers would take off-site day trips each day and sleep in the wilderness at least one night. I read her the list of high-adrenaline activities again: canoeing, kayaking, spelunking, climbing, hiking on the Appalachian Trail. This time she said, “Okay, I’ll go, but I want to go with a friend.” I told her we could ask my mother to see if any of her friends had 10-year-old grandchildren who might want to go. But I told Anna to be prepared. She might not be able to go with a friend.

A day later, she came to me. “Can you print out the packing list? Can I take my own sleeping bag?” When my mom’s attempts to find a friend for Anna didn’t pan out, Anna was surprisingly calm. During the month of June, she kept the camp packing list on the nightstand beside her bed. She checked it regularly, reminding me of the items we’d have to pack or buy once we got to America. She packed two piles for America. In one, she laid out her beach clothes and sundresses. In the second, her flashlight, Keen water shoes, last year’s swimsuit, old sweatpants and a hand-me-down hiking backpack her dad and I used in Ecuador. She was ready.

Then, I received an email in mid-June informing me that an unexpected tragedy had happened at Camp Cheerio’s first summer session. A 12-year-old veteran camper named Bonnie Sanders Burney had slipped from a zip line harness while tethered above land. Despite CPR attempts, Burney had died as a result of injuries sustained from her fall.

It was the first time in the camp’s 60 year history that such a tragedy had occurred. According to the CEO of the YMCA organization overseeing the camp, the zip line equipment had met necessary safety regulations in the spring check-up; the instructors were properly certified. There was no clear explanation for the tragedy.

My heart stopped. I imagined Burney’s parents receiving the call. I imagined Burney’s fellow campers who were watching as she fell. I imagined the counselors and the staff who were on-site during the accident. I imagined the grief counselors as they tried to comfort the children at the camp. I imagined the camp officials as they tried to manage the media surrounding the tragedy.

I did not imagine what I would have done if Burney had been my daughter.

Still in Prague, 4,000 miles away, I felt enormous sadness descend upon me. For the next two weeks before we flew to the US, I taught my final English classes, attended birthday parties and end-of-year picnics with my children. I packed our bags for America. I put Anna’s camp things in, but despite my initial enthusiasm, I was not ready to send my daughter to camp.

In a follow-up email, the camp asked parents to explain the accident to our children before they arrived at camp. The camp closed all zip lines until further notice and gave us an update on how staff and campers were coping in the week after Burney’s death. They thanked parents for continuing to trust them by sending our children to camp as scheduled.

I wrestled with my own private battle. Should I tell Anna Lee according to camp instructions? Should I even send her? I asked my husband. I asked our pediatrician. I asked a few friends who were kind enough to listen. Everyone said the same thing. Listen to your heart.

This Sunday afternoon, my mother and I will drive Anna to camp. She’s been counting down the days, laying aside camp clothes (not to be dirtied before camp time) and trying not to brag too much to her younger brothers who will be left behind. Anna doesn’t know about Burney’s death yet, although it’s likely she may hear something about it while she’s at camp. I have told the camp director this, and he’s assured me that counselors will be able to reassure Anna of her safety should there be a need. Since the accident didn’t happen at the location where Anna is going, I decided that having her worry about the “what ifs” of the unknown all summer wouldn’t be good for her. I thought that having her mother worry was enough.

What Anna does know is that she’s about to have a special camp experience in America. She knows that it might be a difficult, physically challenging week. She might get homesick and she might feel a bit lonely. She knows that she’ll get to do new, exciting things. She’ll have something to share with her little brothers. She may see a side of herself that she hasn’t seen before. And, it’s likely she’ll have something to talk about with her friends at camps back in the Czech Republic.

Inherent in adventure is danger. I feel confident that Camp Cheerio will return all children home to their parents safely. But when I drive away and leave Anna at camp, it will be a rite of passage for us both.

Honestly, I’m a bit jealous. I’d like to see America anew through the eyes of a 10-year-old at summer camp. Since I can’t, I’ll do the next-best thing and wait for a report from Anna.

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