Happy Campers
How to get your young camper ready for the best summer ever with the experts from South Mountain YMCA
by Leigh Stuart

Ah, summer! A time of balmy evenings and lightning bugs, campouts and cookouts, open spaces and a return to the great outdoors—and, for some lucky young people, long-awaited stays at sleepaway camp.

Such a time is more than an enjoyable way to pass the weeks between one school year’s ending and another’s beginning; it’s a rite of passage, a ritual, an annual event wherein children have the chance to meet and socialize away from their parents in a world all their own.

For Kathy Salameda of Avondale, whose two sons Eric, 14, and Alec, 10, have been attending South Mountain YMCA Camps for years, such an experience is irreplaceable.

Alec, inspired by his older brother (already a seasoned camper), began attending camps at age 7. The first camp Alec attended was an overnight holiday camp where he enjoyed all the snowy delights that the South Mountain YMCA’s Cushion Peak had to offer for four days and three nights. This went so well that Alec next attended a week-long summer session. Since then, he’s been hooked.

Speaking as a parent, Salameda says, “It’s the best experience, for kids to get away from you for a week, for them to understand that they can do it, that they can be on their own. [Camp] gives kids a sense of accomplishment, a sense of independence. For the parents, it’s good to see that kids really can do all that on their own.”

Nathan Brant, CEO of the South Mountain YMCA Camps, says, “I don’t believe there is a more profound experience than a child going away for the first time without their family.”

The camp experience offers a child chances to grow and develop their independence in a manner unlike any other available to young people, according to Brant. Beyond the fun of canoeing, rock climbing, mountain biking, archery, crafts, music, equestrian activities and more offered at the South Mountain YMCA Camps, young people are in for a truly formative experience.

“A child gets to redefine who they are, separate from family or school,” he says. “A child has the opportunity to reinvent themselves. Camp also provides kids with the opportunity to think and act independently.”

Camp also teaches children how to coexist in a cabin setting. Brant adds, “It certainly allows a young person to learn about people who are different from themselves.”

The South Mountain YMCA Camps, for example, attract children and counselors from across the globe. “Campers come from South Korea, China, Japan, Italy, Russia—kids come from all over the world to go to summer camp right here in PA,” Brant says.

In fact, the South Mountain YMCA also participates in what’s known as the International Camper Exchange Program, wherein American youth have the opportunity to go abroad to countries including Germany, Russia and Spain for four weeks to travel and experience a YMCA camp abroad.

Such opportunities do not come without a fair share of preparation, however. Parents and children alike should do the requisite research before committing to a summer with a certain camp.

Unlike some parents, who may be more nervous than their children at the prospect of going off to sleepaway camp, Salameda says she was “not nervous at all” about sending her children to the South Mountain YMCA Camps. As a former YMCA employee herself, Salameda says her fears were allayed because she knew the extensive training and rigorous background checks the YMCA staffers are required to pass before getting hired. Brant says checking into such credentials is another important step in choosing the best camp for a child.

Another good question to ask, when looking into staff credentials, is the age of the supervisors. At the South Mountain YMCA Camps, for example, most counselors range in age from 18 to 22, making them responsible, college-age role models for young campers.

When selecting a camp, distance, too, is a factor. Many parents are leery about sending their children too far from home in case any sort of emergency arises. Brant notes that statistically, most parents are comfortable sending their child to a camp in the range of 90 miles from home. (The South Mountain YMCA, for reference, is approximately 60 miles west of Philadelphia.)

Legacy and national backing are two more factors to consider when choosing a camp. The South Mountain YMCA’s Conrad Weiser camp location, for example, has been in existence since 1948, and this is relatively new considering YMCA camps in the United States date back to the 1880s. The Conrad Weiser camp is located on 600 scenic mountaintop acres overlooking Berks County on land that, until the mid-20th century, was home to a luxurious resort.

Kam Kobiessi, YMCA camp director, explains that one of the biggest things that separates the YMCA camps from other private or academic camps is the fact that the camps operate by four core values—honesty, caring, respect and responsibility. This goes throughout all the YMCA camps, from the traditional sleepaway and day camps through to the literary camps, wherein children live in a wholly separate world based on books such as the Harry Potter and Percy Jackson series.

Once the all-important decision is made regarding which camp a child should attend, a parent must be ready to prepare their child for the once-in-a-lifetime experience of going to camp for the first time.

“I think, in part, it’s like making art,” Brant says, noting that preparing a child for camp is a balance between expressing the profound impact camp can have on that child’s life but without causing the child undue stress or anxiety.

“Sleepovers at friends’ houses oftentimes will help prepare a camper for success, especially if they have never done a residential camp experience before,” says Kobiessi. He adds that in his 10 years as a camp director, he’s found that the most successful campers are those whose guardians have had frank discussions with them. Kobiessi also encourages parents to resist the urge to say that they’ll come pick a child up at any point—“oftentimes, this gives campers permission not to integrate into the camp culture,” he notes. “Talk your camper through the process, do a camp tour with them, and tell them how much you believe in them.”

A winning experience at camp can also directly translate to benefits throughout a child’s life.

“Success here at camp really sets [children] for success later on, when it comes to leaving the house and going to things like college for the first time or taking that first international trip,” Kobiessi says. “Everybody wants their kids to be more independent, and this is a great introduction to that.”

Brant, Kobiessi and Salameda agree that an onsite visit to a camp is vital in the selection process. South Mountain YMCA will be offering such opportunities, known around camp as “Family Fun Days,” on April 3 and 17, as well as May 1 and 22.

In fact, it was one such visit that sold Alec Salameda on attending camp—just like his brother, according to his mother, Kathy.

“I highly recommend the first thing any parent do is visit,” she says. “See the camp, see the staff; once you go, you and your kid will both be in love with the camp, I’m sure.”

The South Mountain YMCA Camps
201 Cushion Peak Road
Wernersville, PA 19565

Photograph courtesy of South Mountain YMCA