Wednesday, August 19, 2015


Fantasyland is real. Perhaps you experienced it on a vacation to an exotic location, dreading the return to reality shrouded as work or school. I know I experienced it during college - I couldn't wait to go back year after year, yet I was still ready move on once it ended. Overnight summer camp is Fantasyland on methamphetamine. It's where time stops every hour, day, and week for childhood carnival games and rides, yet it accelerates to an impossibly abrupt end for which nobody is ready. Every year camp provides new and exciting adventures: the eight year old thrilled to receive a candy bar or soda before bed every night morphs into the fifteen year old that throws a mattress on the Senior Cabin as a prank. The first year, homesick little girl no longer pines for home; in fact, as a junior counselor she begs to go out with her friends just one more night in lieu of reuniting with boring old Mom, Dad and Brother.
The end of summer sadness hangs like a dark cloud overhead and and it only gets stronger with each passing year as the kids mature and realize that "the best summer yet" will be hard to beat the following year. That the amazing experience they just had will never be repeated. Perhaps seconded by another good summer next year, but it won't ever be the same.
Swim lesson: Rich teaches Nicole to swim in deep water without a life vest.
While I look forward to picking the kids up from camp, we all return home feeling blue. I too want to hang onto summer for just a few more weeks. And I want my kids to have just a few more moments with newfound, quirky friends from other countries. Nobody wants summer to end.

Not silly Joel.
Nor funny Richard.
OK...maybe some of the counselors do. Because they've got some traveling to do, man. They've got some America to see.
Watching my daughter say goodbye to the INATS - her international friends - proved the most gut wrenching moment of the summer.
Upon our arrival to pack Kahley's things in the car and head back to the cabin, her friends embraced me in sweaty sunny campy hugs. Those are the best kind ever. They smell of fresh air, backbreaking work, hard play and good memories. They surprised me with a heartfelt card and bundle of flowers - a beautiful bouquet representing their colorful yet unique personalities, the colors of the flags they represent, and their gratitude for finding a summer home away from home.
These girls might have been homesick early on, but knowing that they had a mom close who loved them upon meeting them eased that. Words like these melted my heart and started the waterworks:

" made my time at Chippewa amazing and felt like a home from home..."
"...the many memories I have made with your family are everlasting..."
"...immersing us in American culture is the best part of my summer..."
"...we all love you so much you'll forever be our mom..."

Come back, girls. Come back.

This sweet lacrosse player?
His mum sent him a care package from Scotland so he could have a little taste of home and included some "proper Scottish cookies" for me. My first reaction: "THANK YOU!" Then: "Do I have to share?" I joke.
Kind of. Thank you, Mrs. Weir. Your kindness provides lovely afternoon respite in the form of tea and cookie breaks that I'm thoroughly enjoying. And your son is a true, kind, thoughtful gem. Seeing his face as we left...the sadness and disappointment evident as I listened to my daughter sobbing in the backseat...tugged at my heart and welled tears in my eyes as we pulled out of camp, calling an end to the summer of 2015.
This group of people contributed to the best summer Kahley ever had.
Remember that one? Maybe you were twelve. Perhaps eighteen. Maybe twenty-five. We all had a summer to beat them all. Maybe a future summer will trump this one, but I can tell you this: Based on the stories she shared with me (of which I know I didn't hear it all), it's going to be a hard one to beat.

I would love to see them one more time. We intended to host them all again at the cabin, but some of the boys came down with the vicious Stomach Virus of 2015 that rocked Chippewa - it was a nasty one - and they couldn't make it on the final Sunday before the dreaded goodbye. Bittersweet is an understatement. These kids are wise enough to realize that they'll never have the same summer experience again - they'll never all come into camp for the first time ever, not knowing what to expect or how things will go, with the experience exceeding their expectations. Some of them may come back next year, but it will be with preconceived notions and an understanding of what to expect. They'll never again have all the firsts.
I just hope they return so I can cook for them again.
Safe travels, good kids. The world is not Fantasyland, so know that you always have good food, a warm bed, a hot, proper shower and soft carpet underfoot waiting for you at the Czupek home.


Monday, August 17, 2015

An Ode to the Power of Summer Camp

You would think that after an eight week separation from our kids there'd be a grand, festive reunion upon their return home. We'd all revile in one another's company, thrilled to be reunited as a family. As parents, we'd hang on every word our kids say, so grateful to have them back with us, dying to learn everything about their summer. And the kids would spill their guts out, boring us with every minute detail of their action-packed stay at camp.

This happened when they were younger, in addition to filth I can't even describe requiring hours of laundry and a solid "decamp" on the deck: "KIDS! Soak your nasty feet for an hour before you enter the house!" I fondly smile recalling these moments, wishing they'd have blackened feet now so they would be forced sit still and tell me everything they could remember over the past several weeks.

That bitch Mother Time doesn't grant unrealistic wishes. Instead, we get melancholy kids back after their eight week stay. Now they actually grieve the end of summer. Jake wandered around aimlessly like a deflated balloon for days, wondering what to do with himself. And Kahley marched into the house, walked straight back to the guest bedroom and promptly fell asleep for fifteen hours.

Every year it gets harder for them to say goodbye to summer camp.
Menominee / Chippewa Social, Second Session 2015
Even I feel it. When I picked up Jake last Thursday, Pam Adler, the assistant director at his camp (and former owner of Kahley's camp) greeted me with a huge, warm hug. Tears welled in both of our eyes as she thanked me for sharing our kids with them summer after summer. And I thanked her for all she does, working so hard to provide a safe and nurturing environment where our kids can grow, explore, and expand their ways of thinking, doing, acting and being. "Thank you for all you do" feels inadequate, but it's 100% heartfelt to her, her husband, the previous and new owners of Jake's camp and the owners of Kahley's camp.
Jake, Pam Adler, and Kahley at a Menominee / Chippewa Social in 2013
Jake and I sadly walked out to the Senior Cabin, tucked back in the woods away from the younger boys' cabins, to gather his things. He told me a funny story or two, but the overwhelming sadness of greatness ending squeezed us both. Once we arrived to his cabin, he pulled out an 8x10 wooden frame, announcing the 2015 Nate Wasserman award winner, with his name printed on the certificate.
I completely lost it.
Jake and Jason Feldgreber, Director/Owner of Camp Menominee.
For years, Jake came home every summer and told us about the Nate Wasserman award winner. Who he was, what he was like, why he won, and how his jersey would hang in the mess hall forever. The admiration in his voice matched the magical light in his eyes, clearly motivated and influenced year after year by the boys who guided him, led him, and taught him through their own words and actions. Jake drank the "Menominee Way" like kool-aid early on as a camper, fully grasping the benefits of good Sportsmanship. Attitude. Heart. Spirit. Determination, and finally Leadership.
These character traits can't be taught. They have to be learned and practiced until they become innate. A parent can't teach these things alone. We can do our best to explain what they are while working to model them ourselves, but the best way our kids will learn and adopt them as natural behavior is to see them practiced in action by people they admire. Tony and I do our best as parents to raise good kids, but they are not perfect. In fact, they are far from perfect. But they have a willingness to learn from mistakes and try their best to be decent individuals with God and their parents as their guides. And gratefully, there's another powerful force in their lives, propelling them on to reach their full potential.
A favorite Menominee activity: 16 inch softball.
It's their summer families. Their camp families. Their homes away from home, and people who love them like brothers and sisters.
Receiving his five year jacket, a Menominee tradition.
It's the former counselors who high-fived them when they mastered a new activity or hugged them when they were sick. It's also the same nurturing counselors who called bull schnitzel and told them to shape up when they acted like numbskulls. It's the directors who watched from afar, stepping in for conversations on the dock when homesickness overwhelmed them at bedtime. It's the other campers who befriended them even though the Czupeks hail from a strange, farm-sounding town that surely lacks all elements of civilization because corn and cows and horses surround us. And it's the current Australian counselor who tolerated ridiculous pranks while continuing to inspire and encourage, by simply throwing a key log into a fire, announcing: "Jake Czupek is a natural-born leader." Those are words that inspire and encourage a young, impressionable kid for the rest of his life.
Jake and Corey, his counselor in Senior Cabin.
If you're reading this and were ever at Camp Menominee or Chippewa Ranch Camp, thank you. Regardless of your role or whether you know my kids or not, you influenced them just by being part of camp communities whose legacies and traditions continue. Their dad and I are forever grateful for anyone who has ever been involved in their camps because you've played an instrumental role in helping us to shape young adults we are proud to call our kids.
Supersocial, 2014
Keep those campfires burning...