Looking Back On Laurel: Despite COVID, A “Celebratory” Camp Summer

It was a different summer this year at Camp Laurel.

There were no games against other camps. No overnight trips. Even Visiting Day was canceled.

Yet the summer of 2021 was joyful, wonderful, beautiful — everything camp should be.

Campers come from across the country to the Belgrade Lakes region of Maine. They enjoyed athletics, aquatics, arts and adventures. It’s been that way for 72 years — except last summer. That’s when COVID knocked the summer camp industry — along with much of the nation — for a sad, lonely loop.

Camp Laurel’s off-season headquarters are downtown, in Brooks Corner. Jem Sollinger and his wife Debbie are directors and partners.

Jem Sollinger (2nd from left) with Laurel campers and a staff member.

The other day, Jem — a 1988 Staples High School graduate — reflected on this summer, and last. He was still on a high from the success of this year.

It’s a far cry from 2020.

The decision not to open then was “challenging, but the right one,” Jem says.

He never second-guessed himself. The unknowns were too great at the time. Considering the downside versus the upside, it was a fairly easy call.

This year’s decision too was “not tough.”

He and his senior staff had not anticipated that, a year later, the world would still be dealing with COVID. But, he notes, “we had 15 months to educate ourselves, to learn and develop new systems to be safe.”

Those included 2 negative tests for campers before arrival, a negative test on Day 1, and another one 5 days later. All campers were masked, and in pods the first 6 days.

Once the masks came off, campers could hug.

“There was a desire for camp, by families and children. Even more, there was a need for it,” Jem says.

The need was for “kids to be kids. They’d had 15 months of being stagnant, restricted and masked. They needed to be active, interact with each other, be appropriately challenged — to get all the benefits of camp.”

Some of the new systems were easy to implement.

Others, such as dealing with 2 “senior classes” — this year’s oldest campers, and last year’s, who were invited back after missing a year — were harder. “They worked wonderfully together,” Jem says with relief.

There were also twice the amount of new campers this year. It was a challenge to integrate so many new faces into the camp culture — but also a chance to shape that culture positively.

And they’re off! Newcomers quickly acclimated into the Camp Laurel culture — which itself evolved this summer.

COVID also provided an opportunity to “tweak and evolve.” Traditions are great — and every camp has plenty of them — but the ability to pivot is important too.

With Visiting Day out, for example, each camper had a FaceTime session with parents and siblings.

Officials had to devise activities for staff, who usually use days off to “rest, refuel and have fun.” They were restricted this summer to camp.

Staff orientation was also lengthened from 8 to 12 days, to allow for quarantines.

Jem praised the “amazing team effort” of counselors and senior staff. “People had to step up — and they did. These are teachers, coaches, educators and artists — adults who had missed camp too. Laurel is part of their lives.”

But some college-age staff saw their friends leading less restrictive lives elsewhere. There was, Jem notes, “a bit of FOMO” (fear of missing out).

Some counselors expressed a need to prioritize their own mental health. “It’s like parenting, or Simone Biles,” he says. “Sometimes you do need to put yourself first. I understand that. Everyone is coming out of a strange time.”

After a sad summer in 2020, camp provided a welcome respite.

Camp Laurel had no COVID cases the entire summer. Jem attributes that to careful planning — and luck.

Despite — or perhaps because of — being tethered to home for 15 months, the director found there was less “home-missing” this year than usual.

Jem senses that more campers “pushed themselves, tried new things, and extended themselves to others.”

In addition, there was “more appreciation for the beauty of Maine, and just being there.”

He describes “a certain simplicity” to this summer. In the absence of trips and inter-camp competitions, everyone — adults and children alike — felt a “reinforcement of the power of the camp experience.”

Camp has been over for just a month. Already, Jem and his staff are deep in planning for 2022. There were no tours for prospective campers this summer — usually he greets 50 to 75 families — but he did 40 tours as soon as the season ended. He’ll do another 15 soon.

“Lots of questions remain,” he notes. “But next summer will happen. We’re looking forward to another celebratory year, with energy, enthusiasm and joy.”

3 responses to “Looking Back On Laurel: Despite COVID, A “Celebratory” Camp Summer

  1. Great post! Wish Camp Mahackno still existed in its 50’s form. I guess you can never really go home again. Keep up the great work Dan, your The Very Fiber of all the Good in Westport!

  2. Great post! And while my child hasn’t (yet) experienced Camp Laurel, a HUGE thanks to Jem and Debbie, and many others at camps who went the extra mile, who navigated this COVID insanity making both hard and smart changes. This extra effort allowed our kids and the staff to have a safe and incredibly FUN summer! Even if it looked a bit different… We all needed this. @Jem, would you be up to doing the next ’88 reunion as a weekend at Laurel? Sounds awesome! Post-season, of course 😉

  3. My Children went to Camp Laurel and now my Grandchildren will be going there next summer!!!! My son Max is married to a Camp Laurel Alum ! Where did the time go?????!!!!!! Hi Jem!!!!

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