DON’T SHOOT THE MESSENGER: Camp Super Kids
When I was 4 years old—about the same time I was forming my first lasting memories—my dad oddly dragged the entire family to a summer camp where he was volunteering as the camp physician.
I don’t remember the details precisely, or even the location—it felt like somewhere remote in the Midwest birch forests, but really could easily have been just a 20-minute bike ride from Minneapolis. But I do remember the camp’s name, Camp Super Kids.
Like naming an inhospitable chunk of remote land Greenland, Camp Super Kids was nothing like it sounded—it was not a special place for large-brained 8-year-old math prodigies or a training camp for future Olympians; it was a camp strictly for asthmatics.
A few years ago, when my mom demanded that I finally clean out my childhood room and closet, I found my one souvenir from that camp—a yellow shirt with stick figure kids brightly declaring “Camp Super Kids,” like some desperate attempts to front-load self-esteem for these kids who would face years of sucks-to-your-ass-mar grade school mockery. But really, like a leper colony hosting a fashion show, a camp for asthmatic kids has certain limitations: Again, I don’t remember the details, but I do remember that common camp pastimes like woodworking were not allowed (dust particles irritate lungs), and vigorous outdoor activities were somewhat curbed so as not to set off one of the campers’ oxygen-sucking attacks.
In fact, I only have two distinct memories from Camp Super Kids, but each was enough to strike an early-childhood distrust of summer camp: First, perhaps because my parents didn’t want me to consider myself above or separate from the other kids or because their parenting style can best be described as Norwegian self-reliance, they decided that I should lodge with the other kids; mind you, most of these kids were double my 4-year-old, pre-kindergarten age, including my upper bunk mate who still wet his bed—a fact I learned because his mattress was thin and as absorbent as a gallstone.
My second memory is the dining hall. It wouldn’t be until decades later that I learned the German word “schadenfreude,” but I learned the concept that summer from this “special” pack of children, a group that collectively had been sidelined from the normal reindeer games and chosen last for gym class dodgeball teams for years and was ready to pay forward those social snubs.
During the first evening, when I finished my beans-and-weenies, I set down my fork and leaned forward onto the dining room table. Quicker than a mosquito bite, I heard a chant raise from the mess hall: “Elbows, elbows on the table, this is not a horses’ stable.” The chant continued, growing more frenzied with each repetition. A camp counselor stepped over and informed me of my penance: I needed to walk twice around the entire perimeter of the mess hall carrying my tray while the manners lesson continued.
No, my first summer camp experience wasn’t fireflies and ‘smores.
Fortunately, though, others have had rewarding experiences—and, are paying them forward: Located about 45 minutes southeast of Ashland, on Lake of the Wood, Camp Low Echo had been a Girl Scout retreat since 1946, hosting thousands of young women. But it was slowly moldering and fading into dis-use when, two years ago, the DeBoer Foundation purchased the buildings and, in turn, donated the camp to the Ashland Family YMCA, which will operate traditional youth camps, leadership retreats, bird watching and snowshoe outings there.
“Many friends and relatives went to the Girl Scout camp there over the years and we couldn’t just let it just disappear,” said Karen DeBoer in a press release, whose family foundation has committed $3 million to transforming Camp Low Echo into an outdoor recreation site for people of all ages. As well, Jed and Celia Meese of Ashland, close friends of the DeBoers, have pledged $2 million as a permanent fund in their estate dedicated to maintenance of the camp.
Thanks for the memories and generosity of a few local families, so many more memories and important life lessons will be learned from and enjoyed at Camp Low Echo into future generations.
And, perhaps that is the greatest lesson of summer camp: Helping out your fellow campers!