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Summer Camps Give Kids a Chance to Find Themselves

A band of kids spreading their wings? Maybe Peter Pan and his Lost Boys were on to something.

A child’s life is full of firsts. My son, who turns 10 this summer, is approaching one of these milestones: his first sleep-away camp.

For the occasion, I have chosen Camp Wewa, a YMCA camp in Apopka, near Orlando. My nephew says being there is like being one of the Lost Boys from "Peter Pan." That was the clincher for me; I signed my son up the next day.

That is pretty much my perfect image of what summer camp should be — running around and having fun, in a band of other kids without any overbearing adult in sight. I know there will be excellent supervision at this camp, but I also know that the CITs and counselors will be youngsters themselves, and there will be a lot of freedom for my son. And I am happy about that.

This is how they put it on their website:

“We watch over them as if they were our own children. … Here, campers feel confident enough to spread their wings and try new things; personal growth is inevitable.”

A balance of being watched over and spreading your wings. Sounds like heaven for a 10-year-old. (Get ready, Tootles and Nibs and Slightly, for a kindred spirit to join you!)

I’m jealous. I want to be one of the Lost Boys, too. If anyone hears of a camp like this for adults, let me know. I’ll get my bow and arrows ready.

Really, though, I shouldn’t complain. I did get to be a Lost Girl (though Peter Pan says girls are too smart to fall out of their prams, so there were no Lost Girls) for several summers as a young teenager. And it was heaven.

When I was 13 years old, I left my home in Dunedin for a girls’ wilderness and canoeing camp called Northway Lodge in Ontario, Canada. I had never been that far from home or away from home for so long — three and a half weeks. I loved it. I went there for four summers, until I was 16, when I spent the whole summer there as a counselor.

I loved it because it was a place for girls. The entire place was filled with girls, with the oldest girls and young women in charge under the guidance of just one man, the unassuming, soft-spoken director. There were a few young men on the kitchen staff and some others serving as canoe trip guides, but all in all it felt like we had the place to ourselves.

It was a place where a girl could feel free. Where she could express herself without fear of judgment. Where she could challenge herself without fear of failure. Where she could be silly and no one cared. Where her body was accepted, whatever it looked like. Where her singing voice was accepted, whatever it sounded like. Where strong and powerful girls were good.

It’s not easy to find havens where the “good” girls are the capable, and even powerful, ones. Especially at the age I was when I attended — 13 to 16 years old. When my little boat tossed about on stormy seas, this place was one of the anchors to which I could always return.

We slept in tents set up on wooden platforms, used an outhouse and bathed in the lake. We sang raucous songs at breakfast and learned to be proficient swimmers and paddlers. They let us take out the sailboat alone and try distance swims.

The main event, however, was being chosen to go out on a canoe trip. Two guides, one counselor and three campers would go out in the wilderness for anywhere from three to 10 days, canoeing across the lakes, portaging across the land and setting up camp at night. There were many, many adventures to be had out there and problems to be solved — from torrential rain and lost food packs to broken ankles. We had to work together to get ourselves from one place to the next, and pretty much everyone had to dig deep at some point. But we were there to have fun, so spirits were high. (And yes, they told me the bottom side of the lily pads tasted like mint, and I fell for it.) 

And sometimes transcendent. Like lying on the ground in the middle of nowhere watching the stars at night — the sky lit up like a ballfield — or gliding in a canoe right past a 1,000-pound moose, so close you felt like you could reach out and touch him, while he just stood there without a care in the world, munching. 

If you call me in August and my voicemail says I’ve joined the Lost Girls, you’ll know where to find me. I’ll have my paddle and my bow and arrows with me. Here’s hoping you’ll “lose” yourself this summer, too.

Here are some summer camps in or around Dunedin:

  • : The community center hosts a slew of camps, including bagpipe, Lego and theater. Call or drop by to see everything that's offered; 1920 Pinehurst Road; 727-812-4530.
  • : Known for its new skatepark, the center features basketball, gymnastics and camps (throughout the summer); 550 Laura Lane; 727-738-2920.
  • Dunedin Stirling Links: Previously St. Andrews Links and former home of the PGA of America, the golf course invites budding Arnold Palmers to hone their skills over the summer; 620 Palm Blvd.; 727-733-6728.
  • Suncoast Waldorf School: This school on Curlew Road offers camps for children 3 to 18. For children 3 to 6, there's a morning camp called Simple Summer Smiles. For kids older than that, there's everything under the sun: Shakespeare, poetry writing, improv, furniture painting, mask making, painting, sculpture, jewelry making, beading, creative dramatics, yoga and more. It's a "best kept secret" of summer camps. Camps are going on now and we hear there is still room; 1857 Curlew Road, Palm Harbor; 727-786-8311.
  • and also offer popular summer camps, but registration may be closed. Contact the organizations for details.
  • Bright Beginnings: This early education center and "green" building offers summer camp, which kicked off on June 9 with a water slide party. Call for details; 2811 Belcher Road, Dunedin; 727-799-5437.
  • : The Dunedin Branch of KinderCare offers summer camp for ages 2 through 12. Themes vary from wild west to ancient Egypt, and subjects from sports to science; 1990 Main St.; 727-733-7308.
  • Clearwater Marine Aquarium: The aquarium offers youngsters "Dolphin Camp" and "Animal Encounters." It also has "Junior Kayak Camp" and "Shark Camp." CMA offers a discount to members with different levels, depending on involvement; 249 Windward Passage, Clearwater; 727-441-1790.
Rebecca Broadway June 22, 2011 at 01:23 PM
lovely article! I was at sleep away camp too and still sing the songs sometimes! Now to find a glass of bug juice.... :)
Jennifer Harrington June 22, 2011 at 05:49 PM
I remember my 15 birthday at Northway. I was on a trip and we woke up the morning of my birthday and there was a wind storm on the lake. My counselor and the guides had made me pancakes for breakfast and we just huddled in the tent and waited for the wind to die down. Something about camp stays with you your whole life. Most of the lullabies I sing to Cash are really just our old camp songs.
Chris Sansbury June 23, 2011 at 12:37 AM
If we ever have another child (over my husband's dead body), she will definitely go to Northway.
Wendy June 23, 2011 at 07:19 PM
Wonderful piece!!! Northway is a place to find yourself and just you be "you"! It has been a huge part of my life. Camps like Northway and Wewa are special treasures in one's life. Your memories and feelings take me back to freezing "baths" and stinky trip songs...and everlasting memories! Thank you!
Ken Hannon June 27, 2011 at 03:23 PM
Though we have to agree, that the summer camps at the Dunedin Fine Art Center ARE hugely popular and many weeks fill early, there are still places available for campers from 4.5 to 14 years old in many weeks. Call Jennifer at 727.298.DFAC (3322) ext 221 to check on availability, or visit www.dfac.org for complete information on ALL of our award-winning camps!
Katherine Shirer July 08, 2011 at 01:02 AM
I heard tonight that there is still space in Hammock Day Camp session that starts Monday. My son went this past 2-week session and loved it -- canoeing, fishing, nature walks, fort building, swimming, capture the flag, art projects, for 7- to 13-year-olds. Call the Community Center for info: 812-4530, or http://www.dunedingov.com/docs/recreation/summercamp/camp_brochure.pdf.
Katie Dolac July 08, 2011 at 09:16 AM
Awesome info, Katherine. Sounds fun. Can I go?! Ha!

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