The gratitude we feel for 2021 is an of course sense of gratitude. When we asked our families to participate in new protocols they said, of course. When we were met with challenges that required us to lean into different areas of work, members of our team said, of course. Was this summer the most challenging summer in recent memory? Of course. Was it full of fun, adventure,
and laughs? Of course. Was it the best summer ever? Of course.
This summer, the Coniston Community stepped up more than ever before. Check-in days included testing, social distancing, and staggered check-in times. Thank you parents. Our first check-in day was hard…long and hot. The struggles of the day helped us to grow and learn —enabling us to make improvements for the following check-ins. This was only the beginning of what ended up being our most magical summer yet. The summer we all needed.
A highlight from this summer were the stunning drama shows. In particular, our session 3 drama show, Coco—a story inspired by The Day of the Dead. We had a large number of staff from Mexico this summer who chose the show as a way to share their culture with the rest of Camp. The drama staff also made sure to incorporate authentic Mexican culture into the show, including traditional sugar skull makeup and costumes.
…staff cried, touched by the show. Some were homesick and the show made them feel closer to everybody. For Mexican staff, sharing this tradition was significant and they were proud to be able to share their culture with the Coniston Community. Alma, Drama Director.
Coniston campers weren’t just having fun at Camp, they were also having fun outside of Camp! This summer there were seven adventure trips, where campers went climbing, hiking, whitewater rafting, ziplining, and biking all over New Hampshire, Maine, Vermont, and Massachusetts in stunning surroundings! Some of our older campers also helped the local community on our service trips where they helped with meal preparation, gardening, and trail maintenance. Our CIT Program looked slightly different this year, as both trips stayed on the East Coast, thus creating a new program: North Coast CITs. Both our N-CITs and E-CITs had life changing experiences hiking either Katahdin or Mount Washington.
Our forty LITs who missed their CIT summer in 2020 were pleasantly surprised with the opportunity to bond as a group on an abbreviated CIT experience up Mount Washington during staff training. Additionally, once they summited, each LIT received an inspirational letter from fellow staff members—a tradition for all CITs.
…COVID took a little bit from all of us this past year in so many obvious and some subliminal ways, but if this day showed us anything, the strength and perseverance of the community of Coniston is not going anywhere. Fran, Girls Camp Director.
There may have been a few changes this summer to Coniston because of the pandemic, but Camp was Camp. The traditions were still alive. We still danced at meal times. We still had beautiful Vespers stories shared everyday. We still slept under the stars. We still stepped out of our comfort zones and tried new things. We still saw campers build friendships that will last a lifetime. We still had Camp. And it was truly special. It was what we all needed.
As I sit here from my home-office in Boston in my fall sweater, I find it hard to believe that it has been just over a month since many of us said goodbye to the summer as the allegedly catastrophic hurricane Ida rolled in just in time for Session 5. As I can imagine was the case for many of us on staff who are embarking on new stages in our lives, this past month has been a non-stop transition for me, without a moment to take a step back and reflect on the summer. Now that I can finally take a breath, I feel ready to celebrate the storm that was the summer of 2021, and highlight some of our team’s incredible work. Looking back on the summer, I can confidently say that I have an overwhelming sense of pride in the quality, perseverance, and character of every member of staff for years to come.
When we first arrived at camp in June, however, it was a bit of a different story.
We all wondered how the unprecedented nature of the past year would look at Coniston, a timeless constant for all of us, but a place which hadn’t made any drastic changes (or taken a year off) in any of our lifetimes. As the senior staff began to prepare for the summer, we found ourselves presented with a seemingly endless (and somewhat unanswerable) flood of questions. What extra support would our campers need after a year of isolation? How would homesickness be amplified this summer? Will our staff members who missed their CIT/LIT summers feel prepared to lead a cabin? How will we use the hundreds of benches the maintenance staff built? Is gaga COVID-friendly? (I wish I was kidding) What about Coniston Singers? What will the ice cream social (ICS) look like? What generational knowledge will be lost on staff with two new co-counselors? What would masking look like? What if someone got sick? Two breakfasts? Outdoor dining? The list went on and on.
I wanted to be Girls Camp Director knowing that this summer would present some additional challenges, and because it would be many of my former campers’ first year on staff, but when we sat down for our first morning meeting in the corner office with this fat list of unknowns, I gotta admit I was nervous.
This summer was tough for many of us. While the pictures on Instagram and Facebook showed so many of the genuinely great little moments, (thank you Margaret & Lorraine) they did not always capture the true challenge for staff that was running Coniston amidst a pandemic after a summer away. Outdoor dining wasn’t always fun. We missed some of our international friends who couldn’t make it overseas. The majority of staff were first year staff members. More campers than I had ever seen before were in need of mental health support and older campers were homesick. Check-in day Session 1 was… long.
If Coniston has taught me anything over the past 11 years, it is that if you present a team of strong-willed, passionate, hard-working young adults with any challenge, they will rise to the occasion. And they sure did. Staff gave us constant feedback about what their campers were struggling with, and we made adjustments each day to try and meet their needs. Every challenge faced this summer was met with resilience, competency, and boldness of staff and campers alike to find creative solutions. A third period land sports class readily helped staff move dozens of benches to the clearing behind the dining hall for what might have been the most epic talent show of all of my years on staff. Our new international staff members from Mexico, Columbia, and Switzerland brought an incredible and needed vibrant energy to camp. Meg Davis and Katie Bosco used their fellowship which focused on mental health to become a fundamental support and line in the chain-of-command for staff and campers to talk to and work with. For campers who needed additional help and worked with therapists at home, we connected them with their therapists over the phone who reminded them of their existing coping strategies and how to apply them to camp, to ensure that they could make it through their two weeks.
Outside of the challenges, this summer was one of progress and one I am so proud to have been a part of. It is hard to explain, but the culture at camp this summer felt different, not because of the pandemic changes, but perhaps because of the new generation of staff setting the tone and leading the way for all of us. Staff was vibrant and excited, representative of the years and years of enthusiastic counselors who came before us, but there was also an added level of social consciousness indicative of 2021. For the first time, staff and campers actively and enthusiastically introduced themselves using their pronouns, which made it known that all Conistonians were welcomed. Without question, we called campers by the names they identified with, and opened ourselves up to learning and growing as a culture.
I sent a feedback form to staff a few days ago to ensure I was representing the recap of the summer properly, and I was overwhelmed by the depth of their responses. I am excited to share a few of them here.
When asked “What are some positive changes camp made this summer?” one staff member shared, “I cannot discern the cause of the change, but the staff atmosphere was more kind and welcoming, especially among Boy’s Staff.”
Another staff member shared this intangible feeling of inclusion, stating, “We created a space for everyone to express themselves in any way they chose and added pronouns when introducing ourselves!”
While missing a summer of camp impacted the confidence of our staff initially, having fresh staff members in the majority allowed for a somewhat of a reset and rethinking of our culture. A Co-Ed Vespers that I had started during my own fellowship in 2019 became a cemented tradition, boy’s staff made special shirts for their ICS song, and we had open conversations about identity and respect. Coniston continued to be the place we all know and love, while adapting to the latest understandings of how to be welcoming and inclusive. We even added equity and inclusion into our core values!
Another question I asked staff to reflect on was, “What were some of the most rewarding moments of your summer?” One staff member wrote about a wonderful moment with her camper that I thought was worth sharing:
Watching my campers go from being homesick and insecure to sad about wanting to leave camp on the last day was so rewarding—this one camper, in particular, brought tears to my eyes the most. I had a camper who very much wanted to leave on the first day of the session. After talking with her one-on-one and giving her coping strategies to deal with her homesickness (one of which was journaling!), she soon started a camp journal of everything that she loved about Camp. She wrote down every detail of each day and was never seen without her notebook. One day, when we were walking back from Vespers, she grabbed my hand and hugged me from behind, whispering, “I love camp. I never want to leave.” It brought tears to my eyes to see how far she had come.
This is just one anecdote of the hundreds of stories each camper and staff member holds in their hearts, and the perseverance and strength of each camper and staff member this summer will carry with them to prepare them for future challenges and hardships, just like it always has. On the last few days of camp, when everyone always tries to see who will be back next summer, I was pleasantly surprised that every single person I spoke with answered with an unequivocal, resounding yes. While of course we always have a high staff return rate, there was something about overcoming the challenges of this summer that brought staff closer together than I ever had seen before, and created something truly special.
Summer 2021 will go down in the books. For all of us who were on staff this summer, we know that this quick recap does not capture the lowest of the lows and the highest of the highs of those few months; but it was my best attempt. For families who sent your children to camp this summer for the first time, thank you for taking the leap of faith and trusting us with your most treasured loved-ones. Looking back on this summer reminds me that Coniston is not just a camp, it is the most indescribable feeling of joy, love and support that we all need a little more of in our lives. Coniston Community, let’s take that with us this year and give out a little extra love and camp spirit, because we are so lucky to be a part of something so beautiful.
“There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered” —Nelson Mandela
This quote played repeatedly in my head as I returned to Mount Washington and visited Lakes in the Clouds last week. It was my first time back since I hiked the 6,288 foot mountain as a counselor-in-training (CIT) in 2015. I was accompanied by 40 first-year-counselors (LITs, as they are known) who were robbed of their own CIT experience last year because of the pandemic, along with three other seasoned counselors. Michael, Maya and I were all East Coast CIT’s in 2015, and Will, a former West Coaster, was set to be one of the CIT Directors last summer.
The 40 supposed-to-be CITs who returned this year came back to Coniston ready for staff, but we all knew that they lacked the important buffer a CIT summer provided. The last time these seventeen-year-olds were at Coniston, they were campers (most of them our campers, in fact) and now they were leading cabins of their own. While they were fully capable of taking on that challenge, Will and I thought they deserved even an abbreviated CIT experience before the summer began.
As we were talking about how unfair all of these losses were for these kids, we brainstormed ways that we could recreate some of our most magical traditions for the LITs during staff week; we settled on a surprise cog-up-hike-down Mt. Washington on the Friday before our first campers arrived. We told the LITs to be at the camp busses at 6:00 am sharp, and they were under the impression that the remainder of staff would be meeting them at Mt. Kearsarge in their own vehicles. After almost two hours of driving, many of the sleepy LITs began to catch on, wondering if we had gotten lost on our way to Kearsarge. We spent the day simulating a real-CIT experience, keeping them on their toes without letting them know what was around the corner. When we arrived at the Mt. Washington Cog railway station, we distributed the trail mix we had made, and handed them their tickets for the 45 minute train ride up the mountain. Since we had stored all of their cellphones on the bus, the LITs passed around my phone to take a few group selfies while they took in the view. “We should all hike down!” one of them suggested…be careful what you wish for!
The climate at top of Mt. Washington was true to its reputation. It was frigid, windy, and foggy. Luckily, the weather did not stop each would-be 2020 group from getting together with their group and smiling for photos on our communal phone. We divided everyone into the four hiking groups and allowed each bunch to pick out matching Mt. Washington t-shirts. One group at a time, we began the hike down to Lakes in the Clouds—an ancient CIT tradition spot. When we re-grouped at Lakes, the sky had cleared up and the weather was warm. We handed each of the 40 counselors their individual envelopes stuffed full of letters from fellow staff members and let them find a quiet spot with a view to soak it all in. Michael, Will, Maya and I enjoyed a nice moment on a rock at Lakes, reflecting on our own CIT experience and noting the significance of this moment for these kids. As we looked around at the future of Girls and Boys staff reading letters from their former counselors and new co-workers, many of them crying—we knew all the work that we put into fitting this day into an already jam packed staff week was worth it.
A nice hiker walking through made note of the dispersed 17-year-olds reading their staff letters asking, “Who gave all these kids so much homework?” Although he did not directly comment on the fact that each of them was silently sobbing to themselves, he definitely seemed a bit concerned. One LIT came up to me afterwards, trying to act casual, and asked how his older brother (who was previously on staff) knew to write him a letter—clearly touched by his brother’s well-wishes. Many LITs commented on how meaningful their letters were, and the mood post-letter became much more sentimental. Our hike down the steep Ammonoosuc trail was filled with questions about being on staff and general getting-to-know each other conversations, as we shared our hopes and wishes for the upcoming summer. The line-leaders of each hiking group shifted, as each counselor took their turns making us all count off as well as practicing camp cheers and songs they would use on their own campers this summer. The four hour hike down seemed to fly by, and before we knew it, we were all together again at the base of the mountain.
After some group hugs and pictures, we gave the LITs the opportunity to “ask us anything” about the realities of being on staff, our own CIT experiences, and their own personal questions. After inhaling a bit of pizza, (14 pies, to be exact) we were ready to make the trek back to camp. Ignoring any requests for them to check their cellphones, or their unconfirmed questions about whether or not they were going to run in the lake when they returned, we blasted music and sang all the way back to Main Camp Road. It was only when all three buses arrived on the A-field that we let everyone know that they were, in fact, running in the lake just like the CIT years before them. To the tune of Eye of the Tiger, we drove to the top of Main Lawn, where current and former staff members, many of whom were siblings of unsuspecting LITs, lined the path to the lake in their own CIT shirts. After a tight group huddle, we sprinted and dove into the lake. It seemed like everything happened in slow motion, just as I remembered it in 2015. As I took a step back to look around at the forty LITs hugging each other tightly as all of staff roared, a few tears came to my eyes, it was truly a magical moment.
After our tears dried and everyone changed out of their soaking clothes, there was a deep sense of gratitude—and closure. Will shared this sentiment as well, telling me, “Something I heard everyone saying tonight was how much closure they got today…I didn’t realize how it was the closure I needed too.”
COVID took a little bit from all of us this past year in so many obvious and some subliminal ways, but if this day showed us anything, the strength and perseverance of the community of Coniston is not going anywhere. No pandemic is too strong to break the bonds that we have spent generations creating here, and I am excited to move into the future with a strong and united Coniston staff. And so the tradition continues…as we move into the summer, I hope that we all remind ourselves of the strong sense of community that day brought to us all. When the summer gets tough for us at camp and in the real world, I hope everyone reading this takes a little magic from the unwavering spirit of camp with them to their own trials and tribulations.
Summer is finally here! This Monday, we warmly welcomed all of our program area directors to camp and couldn’t wait to kick the summer off—the best news however, was that every single director who arrived was fully vaccinated!
Although we had been at camp for about two weeks, we didn’t realize how much we needed the smiling faces of our old friends to finally let us take a deep breath and enjoy a sense of normalcy. It felt like Coniston again. There were hugs, laughs, recaps of our years of memories—it was camp.
The deep breaths did not last for long, as there was much work to be done the next morning. We started the first day of training with a meeting in the Pavilion, which gave us the perfect opportunity to christen a few of our brand new benches! Our wonderful maintenance staff, Aaron, James, and Dave, have been spending a large chunk of their time building over a hundred new benches for camp this summer. As Session 1 suddenly seems not so far away, we are happy to say that we now have enough benches to seat every camper and staff member in a safe and socially-distanced manner. We plan on using these benches for events and traditions such as the Talent Show, Vespers, Campfire, or really any large group activity. Middler Division Leaders Annie Gallivan and Cami Auger shared their thoughts on the new seating after their meeting with us, “They are very versatile, we are actually using them in the S’mores Social this evening” Annie shared. “We really feel like they could bring us together even if we have to be six feet apart,” noted Cami.
After our first meeting it was off to the races. We sent the directors to their program areas to take inventory, do some house cleaning, and get in any last minute purchase requests. “I’m really excited about them, actually! We’ve had some issues with durability in recent years but I think these ones are going to make it through the summer, and hopefully longer.” remarked Leadership Director Noah Glenshaw upon the delivery of his newest shipment of dozens of outdoor basketballs. Noah also shared how proud he was of the hard work done today, noting two first-time directors in particular. Ecology director Hayley Horton did such a thorough job taking inventory she actually needed to print out two more inventory forms! Basketball director Ryan Doebele spent his day grinding on the courts, rake in hand, sweeping two-years-worth of leaves into heaping piles.
After a few more meetings with our CIT Directors, Lifeguard aficionado Izzy Caruso, and John Tilley, we are wrapping up our first day and heading to dinner where Chef Mike has prepared some chicken and veggies. Tomorrow we are back at it again, preparing program areas and writing lesson plans. We absolutely cannot wait for the rest of our staff to arrive tonight! Let the games begin.