It’s a small world, and this is a phrase that we are not lacking here at Camp O-AT-KA. With such a rich history and an ever-growing community, camp connections are happening every day both inside and outside of the camp environment. There is something truly special and important about these connections made that come in many different styles and occasions. We are excited to begin sharing more of those small world stories with you here.
It was a beautiful, summer day in August (just after the 2019 camp season had ended). Situated in the Village of Cotuit, MA on Cape Cod, Cotuit resident and O-AT-KA alum Larry Mariner (camper in the 1950s) happened to share a table with Liz Haenle, mother of current junior unit camper Thomas Haenle at the Cotuit Market, or better known as ‘The Coop.’ After introductions, Mariner and Haenle quickly and pleasantly made the connection that that they were both part of the Camp O-AT-KA family.
Haenle and her family were just days away from traveling back to their winter and work-based home in Beijing, Japan. Given that Thomas had just left camp and was suffering from what we in the camp community call “camp-sickness,” Haenle was keen to ask Mariner if he would be willing to meet with Thomas again so that they could share and compare their camp experiences.
“Saying ‘yes’ was one of the easiest responses I’ve ever had the opportunity to express…I treasure the opportunities to meet the younger generation of current or recent campers and to engage in sharing our past and present perspectives,” said Mariner.
On the day that Mariner and Thomas met back at the Coop, they shared a table spread full of old and new photos from camp as well as Mariner’s old song sheet. Mariner wanted to give Thomas a chance to elaborate on his personal camp experiences first.
“As Thomas talked about the life and routine of modern day campers, what he said simply gave me points to indicate comparisons, such as how we earned chevrons, the dining hall routine, the camp store, how laundry was done, what a great baseball program and teams we had, the woodshop and other crafts (many more now than then), chapel, learning to dive, whaleboats, the great sailing fleet we had, Big Ben, the legend of the Safety Pin. For 45 minutes, Thomas gained confidence, poise, expression and enthusiasm getting to tell me what he liked and loved,” said Mariner.
When asked about his meeting with Larry, Thomas was eager to share the following:
“I felt very happy to meet Mr. Larry. I especially liked reviewing the old O-AT-KA song sheet with him and talking about songs he sang in the early 1950s and about the songs we sing now. I showed him a video of us singing on our last day at camp this summer, and I think he really liked it.”
When it was Larry’s turn to share his experiences, all he had to do was take Thomas’ stories and elaborate on them while weaving in a couple of extra details that were unique to his time.
“The key for me was Thomas’ interest and enthusiasm in hearing what camp was like during my few years there,” said Mariner.
In more recent years, Mariner has been happy to come back to Maine and get a chance to visit camp during the annual Friends Weekend after the close of the camp season. In addition to hopefully attending the annual Green and Grey event in November this year, Mariner hopes to make a visit to camp during the 2020 summer season.
“Looking ahead, and assuming Thomas will be back for a few weeks [next summer], I now have an added incentive to return while camp is in session. Maybe even to participate or lead the campers in singing ‘Great Big Lake Sebago is a lake way down in Maine, to describe it you could never try…’ or something reasonably close to those words,” said Mariner.
You’ll be seeing and hearing that saying a lot at camp this summer because Camp O-AT-KA is celebrating its 114th summer! We are the oldest continually run boys camp in the United States and know that our founder, EJ Dennen, is smiling down and very pleased with the ongoing success.
It has been a crazy “off season” with travels taking us all over this great country to visit with campers and alumni; and to recruit new families. This year had us visiting ME, MA, NY, MO, OH, VA, TX; and phone calls and video chats all over the world!
With 1 month until camp opens, we have 62 new campers signed up and are excited to be welcoming them all to the shores of Sebago. Campers for 2019 are coming from 25 different states and 6 countries!
When I first started at O-AT-KA, I heard it referred to as a “hidden gem.” We all love and value our little slice of heaven on the lake, but we are no longer hidden. And that’s a great thing! With a place as special as O-AT-KA, we want to ensure that as many deserving boys can experience the magic and wonder of all our camp has to offer. Memories that last a lifetime, a place to call home, and friendships with stories that span generations. This is what 114 years means to all of us and what we will continue to gift families for the next 114+.
Best wishes and I can’t wait to see everyone at Camp!
PS. In case you missed it – unless you are traveling by boat, there really is only one way to get to O-AT-KA and that is on (you guessed it) …. Route 114 🙂[Top]
Camp O-AT-KA’s 113th season is in the books, and with last season being described as an “upward trend,” the word for summer 2018 was definitely “momentum”!
On a single day in late June, O-AT-KA was the focus of an evening feature on NewsCenter Maine, campers and staff were interviewed to help launch our largest capital campaign to-date, and we received a copy of the American Camp Association national magazine … with O-AT-KA as the cover photo! The buzz started early and lasted throughout the summer.
Enrollment was up both in terms of number of campers and number of camper weeks. We recognized our largest class of seven-weekers in ten years at the final awards ceremony, and fifteen boys received their five-year jackets. Seven boys were inducted into the new half-year club (26 total weeks as a camper) and one was inducted into the three-quarters club (39 weeks).
The program continued to shine thanks to the careful planning and creative talents of our veteran leadership team, and the energy and dedication of our cabin staff. Campers reported excellent experiences in their crafts and in their activities, with very positive overall rankings on surveys administered throughout the season. Program highlights this year included: two campers taking first and third place in the camper division of the 4-on-the-4th road race in Bridgton, a staff member winning Casco Days, archers taking 2nd place overall at the New England Summer Camp Archery Championship, swimmers winning the Micah swim meet, seven boys attending JMG test camp, over 70 campers attending wilderness trips throughout Maine and New Hampshire, and 300 chevrons being awarded. Riflery returned to its usual place as the top-enrolled craft this year. The most-popular non-craft activity was Bob Courtney’s first-session fireworks show, which was so well-received that we had an encore during Friends Weekend!
The best example of the contagious enthusiasm at camp this summer came on two special theme days, planned by cabin staff, when O-AT-KA gave popular holidays a summer spin. In the first session, Halloween arrived in Sebago, complete with trick-or-treating, costume contests, spooky stories around the campfire, and a haunted Bungalow. In August, Santa paid camp a visit, and we decorated cookies, gave gifts, and went caroling. The atmosphere was electric, and fun was most definitely had by all!
Overall it was an outstanding season, and if you’re anything like me you’re already thinking about summer 2019! We do hope that you will be able to join us. We also hope that you can help us spread the word about O-AT-KA so that as many boys as possible can experience this transformative place. After this summer’s momentum, we’re no longer a “best kept secret,” and the best is yet to come. I can’t wait!
By: Dylan Kornberg
I’d like to take you back, if you’ll join me, to around mid-July of 2009, on Lake Sebago in Southern Maine. I was sixteen years old, and was about halfway through my third summer at Camp O-AT-KA, working as a Counselor-in-Training (CIT). CIT’s are something in between campers and counselors; to clarify, they are in every way campers, they are not on staff and cannot look after campers on their own, but they take on some of the responsibilities of staff and learn the ropes as it were when it comes to what it takes to be a summer camp counselor. It is also, unlike my first two years at camp, an 8-week long experience, whereas previously I had only stayed for a month or so. This can be a somewhat jarring experience for young teenagers, but I had begun to get used to being away from home for a long stretch of time.
It had been a rough few years. The transition from middle school to high school is often difficult, and to be honest, middle school had been no better. I was overweight, near-sighted, and not athletic (correction: I am overweight, near-sighted, and not athletic), growing up in a town that prized its sports teams practically above all else. I was lonely, largely friendless, and adrift in a town that should have felt like home to me but never had. I was, in a word, miserable.
O-AT-KA had become something of a refuge for me. I was still painfully shy, but camp had become a place where I could come out of my shell a bit, if for only moments at a time. I was still clumsy on the ball field and still often preferred being alone reading than running around and playing, but I felt much less ashamed about these personal attributes. Nevertheless, I was still relatively new at camp and so had not yet formed strong bonds with any of the people there.
This summer was different. Famously in the world of O-AT-KA, CITs often become incredibly close with each other, and my summer as a CIT could serve as the benchmark for this famous closeness. This is because of the perfect balance of togetherness and apartness that O-AT-KA builds among its CITs. They are kept somewhat separate from the other campers and also from most of the staff as well (save of course for the CIT Program Directors), and thus they spend nearly all of their time with one another. My CIT class spent all of our time together playing, doing work projects, and preparing evening activities for the rest of camp; even in our downtime we were inseparable. I am an only child, and so have never known the bond that can be formed with siblings, yet I have never felt so close with a group of people my age, nor do I feel I will ever be that close again, than I did with my fellow CITs.
Yet this bond of brotherhood I kindled, important though it is, is not the story I want to tell you today. I want to tell you about a specific evening about halfway through the summer that changed my life. It was our mid-summer review, a time where we could both evaluate our own progress in the CIT program and also reflect on how well the program was working for us. We were given the night off so we could fill out a review sheet and be interviewed individually by the Program Directors. Being sixteen-year-olds, most of us filled out our little sheets in just a few minutes so we could enjoy the rest of our precious night off, but I spent nearly forty-five minutes carefully considering each category presented and rating myself on a scale of one to five.
Finally, it was my turn to be interviewed. I was a bit nervous, but believed I had been as honest with myself as I could have been and did not feel I really had anything to worry about. I went in and gave my sheet to the Director of the Program, who sat next to the Assistant Director. The Assistant Director was only eighteen himself, so pretty close to myself in age, while the Program Director was in his early thirties. I had known the Director for the entire time I had been at camp; he not only ran the rifle program that was the one real sport I did at camp, but moreover he was a quiet and introverted person very similar to myself. I looked up to him more so than anyone else at camp, and naturally I hoped that he would approve of my evaluation.
He spent a few seconds glancing over the sheet I had given him, then set it aside and looked me in the eye. He said, and I’m quoting from memory here, “Dylan, you should have given yourself a five out of five in all categories. You are great with the staff, the campers, and the other CITs. You are a model for everyone else to look up to, and I believe you are going to make a fantastic counselor.” With that, the meeting was over.
I feel no shame in telling you that after that meeting I went into the nearest bathroom and wept for a good five or ten minutes. Never in my life had I ever felt such a sense of validation. My entire life I had viewed myself as a weak, purposeless, useless person, without friends and without meaning in life. Now, for the first time in my life I felt strong, I felt I had a purpose, I felt useful; in short, I felt self-worth. This is such a powerful feeling for a young person to have, that I truly believe it can make someone capable of anything. And indeed, I believe that every accomplishment I have achieved after that meeting is directly attributable to that moment of self-worth I felt then.
I often tell people that the best decision I ever made in my life was going to camp as a Counselor-in-Training in 2009, but in truth had I not gone to camp in the first place as a lonely, scared, friendless fourteen-year-old two years earlier in 2007, I probably never would have become a CIT. So really, it was that first decision, in many ways that much braver decision to go away to a place I had never been before where I did not know anyone, that was the more important one. Whichever way you look at it though, that summer was the most life-changing experience I ever had. I am still an introvert, still quiet and prone to solitude from time to time, but that lonely, self-hating boy who went into that summer returned as a self-confident young man. The effects of that transformation on me are too numerous to calculate.
I am not here to tell you that summer camp is a panacea for all the problems a young boy might have; much as I’d like to believe it is, it is not. Camp is not a place where all life’s problems are solved, nor even where one is given the tools to conquer all that life throws at you. What camp is, and what O-AT-KA is, is a place where children can learn what it means to grow up. It’s a place where you can learn responsibility, independence, and above all self-worth, all while having the time of your life. O-AT-KA has a motto, a quote from its founder the Reverend E.J. Dennen: “it is better to build boys than to mend men.” Perhaps the first thing I learned after that moment of self-worth I achieved as a CIT was the true meaning of that phrase. I shudder to think at the years of therapy it would have taken me as an adult to learn that simple lesson I learned as a sixteen-year-old: that I am important and that I matter. To learn such a lesson as a young person opens up so many opportunities for you as an adult; to learn so while having fun at the same time is something that is only possible at summer camp. And for me, it was something that was only possible at Camp O-AT-KA.
If you are thinking of sending your son to camp, or if you are thinking you yourself would like to go to camp, I would like to recommend to you Camp O-AT-KA. I can tell you, from personal experience, that it is a place where dreams can come true.
Dylan Kornberg is a former counselor and CIT Program Director of Camp O-AT-KA. He went to camp for nine summers, three summers as a camper and six summers as a staff member. He now lives in New York City with his girlfriend and their dog.[Top]
Why should I send my child away to an overnight camp? Whether you have asked this question or not, it’s certainly a natural thought that may cross your mind as you begin to explore all of the different options for your children throughout the summer.
Sending your children away to camp is a big (and sometimes scary) decision, but it’s also a very exciting one too! The idea requires a lot of thought and discussion amongst the entire family. Whether or not everyone is on board with the idea, it’s a question that we hope families are asking and continue to ask for generations to come.
With another summer season just around the corner and many new families getting ready to join the O-AT-KA family, we wanted to share some of our biggest reasons why families should consider this big decision. While some reasons are more obvious than others, it never hurts to remind ourselves of the importance and value that an overnight camp experience can offer our youth.
Our biggest and probably most obvious reason why is to gain independence. Many of our new (and even returning) campers deal with feelings of homesickness in their first couple of days at camp. It is a natural reaction that we recognize and acknowledge amongst our campers. We specifically at O-AT-KA are proud to say that our staff is highly trained and prepared to deal with homesickness even before it hits. The experience of going away to camp is invaluable in terms of gaining independence from home and also building confidence in oneself.
Subsequent to becoming more independent, overnight camps offer kids the chance to take risks, try new things, and learn new skills all within a safe space. Most traditional, overnight camps offer a long list of activities for campers to choose from (from land sports to water sports, the arts, and wilderness trips etc.). Staff members are trained in their program areas, and they are excited and eager to teach and share those skills with their campers!
Overnight camp offers the chance to build relationships and make new friends. This is another obvious reason but a good reminder that camp is a place where kids form strong, lasting relationships and even make life-long friends from all over the world. These bonds can be formed at any camp but may be even stronger when kids are living together at camp.
Lastly, overnight camp offers a change in pace from the busy academic year and — perhaps even more obvious than that — a change of scenery. There is something to be said for time spent not only away from home, but also within nature where a new perspective can hopefully be found.
“May the lake, the trees, the wide spaces of the fields and all the nature sights and sounds of earth and air be unto us as gates whereby we may enter – and think quiet compelling thoughts.”
-Excerpts of the O-AT-KA Prayer[Top]