The day was only a few hours old when a horde of exuberant young girls climbed the winding wooded trail that leads to the dining hall at Concord’s Camp Spaulding on Wednesday morning, having been displaced from the arts and crafts building because of an unexpected power outage, the suspected result of a prank gone wrong by the boy campers during the previous night. Counselors hefted milk crates full of art supplies to the dining hall’s deck in order to continue the morning activities while others went to investigate the problem.
Turns out someone had simply failed to hit the light switch with enough force, and the power had likely been on all along.
There is perhaps no better illustration of life at Camp Spaulding – from tenuously controlled chaos comes unfiltered laughter, seemingly at the flip of a switch.
It would require pretty sophisticated, perhaps yet uninvented, scientific equipment to determine whether or not Camp Spaulding actually has some sort of magnetic force field hovering around it. But there certainly seems to be something of an unseen spell at work. Just ask Bennett Nugba, a former counselor who has climbed the ranks to assistant director and is – somewhat inexplicably, by his own account – in his fifth summer at the camp.
“It’s crazy, but I just keep coming back,” Nugba said.
So just how powerful is the draw of the camp, particularly to the children between the ages of 8 and 14 who call it their home away from home during the break from school each year? Perhaps it’s best if we let Jaydean Chagnon, a veteran of several years at the camp, explain.
There was mention of her mother potentially moving to Virginia in the near future, which would seem to limit her opportunity to return for another year. Wouldn’t it?
“Ah, it’s only 12 hours,” Chagnon said of the potential commute.
Such is the pull at one of Concord’s hidden gems, an overnight summer camp run by Child and Family Services with a sliding-scale payment option to assist those with lower incomes. The camp’s motto – Every Kid Deserves Camp – is truly an adage the staffers try to live by. A handful of those staffers were once campers themselves, graduating to counselors-in-training at age 15 before securing official positions years later.
The camp has long provided an outlet many children otherwise wouldn’t have, offering four different two-week sessions each summer. Campers – who can take part in as many as two sessions each year – get to enjoy the camp’s 56-acre campus and all its amenities while building relationships and, in many cases, lasting friendships, regardless of what’s going on at home.
“The biggest thing you get from it is seeing these kids every day, telling you how much fun they’re having,” Kevin McKenney, the camp’s director, said. “For some of these kids, this is the best two weeks of their whole year.”
There’s certainly never a break in the action. Campers take part in five activity blocks per day; the fifth involves all of the campers and takes place in the evening. Energy is high all morning and afternoon – some campers play soccer or volleyball, maybe capture the flag, while others take a supervised dip in the on-site pool. Others learn trust and discover self-confidence while being instructed on the low or high ropes course. A handful work on arts and crafts while one cabin moves inside the dining hall to set up the food stations and bring utensils to the tables for lunch time.
Variety is most often found in the evening activities. There is a talent show during one evening of each session, and each session wraps up with a Thursday night dance.
“The girls show up with a dress, and the rest of the 11 days are spent trying to find a date to the dance,” Nugba said.
The camp has welcomed up to 90 children during its busiest summers in the past, and this year has had between 60 and 70 per session, McKenney said. Campers are separated into cabins based on gender and age, with each cabin housing as many as 10 campers and two counselors.
The idea is to create an atmosphere of acceptance. Campers set their own rules for each cabin and are responsible for enforcing them – a popular punishment in the boys cabins appeared to be push-ups – and each morning features mandatory clean-up time, which is followed by an evaluation from a counselor and a cleanliness grade on a scale of 1-to-5 stars. The cabins with the best scores at the end of the week receive a pizza party.
The cabin activities are designed to foster an atmosphere of unity. Although the camp is accessible to those with low income, it’s equally accessible to everyone else. Once you arrive on campus, all campers are created equal.
“We want to make sure it’s not us and them, rich kids and poor kids, one side of the tracks or the other,” Kat Strange of Child and Family Services said. “It all just blends together; they’re all just kids. That’s the beauty of Camp Spaulding.”
That beauty isn’t lost on the campers, some of whom know they might not be able to take part if it weren’t for the sliding scale based on household income.
“I used to go to a camp that cost about $1,500, but we could only get about $200 in scholarships,” Kylee Warren said. “But then we found this.”
A family from Manchester with four students at Henry Wilson Elementary School also found it, thanks in large part to a fundraising push from the Wilson School teaching staff. One member of the family came back “a changed kid” after attending camp last summer, said Nicole Duclos, a social worker at the Wilson School, and several teachers kicked their fundraising drive into high gear and came up with enough to not only send all four students to camp this year, but send them with all the supplies they would need – from clothes to sleeping bags to swimsuits to shoes to disposable cameras to capture the memories.
“It’s just a life-changing experience for them to be out of Manchester for two weeks and just be kids,” Duclos said. “They could imagine two weeks living in the woods and playing and doing everything.”
“Everything” includes a lot more than just fun and games, too. The camp takes part in several programs with educational benefits, including Girls at Work, an organization that makes weekly visits and teaches girls how to use items like power tools and work on projects most often associated with boys.
Many items like sheds and bookcases throughout the camp have been built by the girls who go through the program. Elaine Hamel of Girls at Work referred to Camp Spaulding as one of her favorite stops, particularly because she knows many of the campers she works with come from difficult backgrounds.
“There are so many ways to heal those wounds, and showing them they are capable is one,” Hamel said.
Campers also get to visit Dawn-Mar Ranch in Hopkinton, where Marcia Evans uses horses to work with those with life challenges or disabilities, helping them to “gain confidence, find acceptance and experience the joys of life through the love.”
“The kids love this,” Evans said of the visits to Dawn-Mar. “They just love getting on the horses.”
What would summer camp be without some hijinks, though? Camp Spaulding has that covered, too, be it camper or counselor initiated.
One of the camp’s unused buildings, which was most recently a staff lounge, has become known as the haunted house, and it’s where counselors bring campers at night while describing the tale of fabricated (?) camp haunt Three-Fingered Willie. Counselors hide under the building and under tables, grabbing unsuspecting ankles and feet as Nugba tells Willie’s tale. Some old televisions in the corners of the creaky building have been known to flick on to creepy static, while mysterious faces will sometimes flash in front of a window before disappearing.
When not running screaming from haunted buildings, the campers get in on the act themselves. Christian Barr listed kitchen raids among his favorite pranks, which he described as when “you go in the kitchen and steal all the good stuff.”
The staff certainly helps foster that casual atmosphere to make the campers comfortable. Counselors often return for more than one summer – McKenney said about six or seven of the 20 staff members will come back in any given year – and are shifted from building to building between sessions, giving everyone the opportunity to work with different age groups. They go through a mandatory 10-day training program prior to the camp, with lifeguards and those instructing on the ropes course coming three days earlier than that, before the focus shifts to simply making sure to provide the campers the best possible experience.
“The big thing I talk to the staff when they work with the kids is just kind of helping them be comfortable,” McKenney said. “The first night we have a staff non-talent show, where we do ridiculous things and make fools of ourselves. That kind of sets the tone, that they’re here to have a good time. There’s no reason to be nervous about anything or what people think.”
The presence alone of certain counselors can provide an educational experience, as the camp welcomes a handful of international additions each year. Counselors have hailed from South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, Germany, Hungary, the Netherlands and “all over the UK,” McKenney said, among others.
“Our counselor is from the Netherlands, and he shows us all pictures of his childhood and his life,” Barr said. “It’s so cool.”
Abby Mulholland is from Scotland, and is in her first year as a counselor after taking part in an exchange program. Though she does get one query repeatedly – “my favorite question is, what language do you speak? I say, I speak the same language you do, I just have an accent,” she said – she has already turned the camp into a familiar summer home.
“I love it. It’s the best kind of summer job you can have,” Mulholland said. “It’s just the general atmosphere; they do so much. It’s so rewarding. It’s an amazing feeling, giving them so much opportunity. It gives them a lot of new chances.”
The only downside to that close relationship between counselor and camper is that four times a summer, they have to endure tearful goodbyes.
“You do get attached,” Mulholland said. “You get really close with your cabin.”
Added Andre Neumann Pratte, another first-year counselor: “You get very close to your kids. I try to make sure I know each kid on a personal basis. It’s heartbreaking (when they leave).”
Most, though, come back, succumbing to the enchanting call of Camp Spaulding that seems to make lifers out of attendees and staffers alike.
“It definitely makes a big difference for a lot of these kids,” McKenney said. “They’re just here to have a good time. They don’t have to worry about whatever they have to worry about at home.”