Tag Archives: Jem Sollinger

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.”

Summer Camp: COVID Causes Closings

As a summer camp director, Jem Sollinger’s biggest concern is always safety: that of his 500 boys and girls from 2nd through 10th grade, and 300 staff members from around the world.

That usually means preventing accidents, patrolling the waterfront, and stifling colds and impetigo.

This year it meant confronting a global pandemic. And addressing scenarios, questions and fears he’d never considered in his lifelong association with Camp Laurel.

Sollinger — a 1988 Staples High School graduate and varsity soccer player at Union College — was a Laurel camper himself.

Now he and his wife Debbie run the Maine camp. It has a strong local presence. A few dozen Westport and Weston youngsters attend Laurel each year. The office in Brooks Corner has a staff of 6.

Jem and Debbie Sollinger

Sollinger is a staunch believer in the power of summer camp. It’s a place where “kids can be kids. They develop independence, try new things, take safe risks, learn to succeed, and build a sense of self.”

With its balance of athletics, arts, activities and travel opportunities, Laurel — and many other camps like it — offer young people a chance to grow, and a respite from the academic and social pressures they face the other 10 months of the year.

As idyllic as it is for campers, it’s a whirlwind for a director. After spending the off-season meeting new families, hiring staff, developing programs and dealing with issues like insurance and regulations, Sollinger and his staff spend 7 weeks entrusted with the care and safety of hundreds of campers (and young counselors).

“Even on the most wonderful, sunny summer day, there’s incredible pressure,” Sollinger says. “We plan as much as we can, all year long, for every kind of emergency and contingency. Our biggest concern is the physical and emotional safety of everyone at camp. Until we get every last kid on the bus, and home to their parents, everything else is secondary to that.”

On Thursday, March 12 — the day after Westport schools closed — Sollinger looked out his Brooks Corner window. The parking lot was empty. Main Street was abandoned. Still, he admits, he did not yet grasp the magnitude of the coronavirus crisis.

But as the rest of America shut down too — including Broadway, the NCAA basketball tournament and more — he realized there might be an impact on camp.

Sollinger’s brother and father-in-law are both pediatricians. They’re “non-alarmists,” the director says. But both told him: “This is serious.”

New York governor Andrew Cuomo said, “density is not our friend.” Summer camp, Sollinger knows, epitomizes communal living.

Safety is always a high priority. But camp, by nature, brings people close together.

As he spoke with his leadership team, directors of other camps, and officials with the American Camping Association, Sollinger understood how much was unknown about COVID-19.

And he wondered what those unknowns meant for this coming summer.

The CDC, ACA and state of Maine all had different interpretations of social distancing. But how could that happen at camp?

One suggestion was keeping campers in separate “pods,” with no intermingling. But Laurel thrives on all-camp traditions like campfires, theater productions and barbecues.

Campers from one bunk mix with others at electives. They take out-of-camp trips, and have sports competitions with other camps. Staff leave camp on days off; parents, grandparents and siblings arrive on Visiting Day.

Electives are an important part of a camp like Laurel.

There were perils all around.

“Kids can be less impacted than adults,” Sollinger says. “But what if there was an outbreak? We’d have to quarantine, with everyone having separate bathrooms. If we had to evacuate, how could we do that?”

He even considered his own social distancing. “I high-five kids when they come off the bus. I give hugs and fist bumps. We wouldn’t even be able to do that.”

Like many camp directors, Jem Sollinger is a hugger.

There were intangible issues too.

“We’ve developed wonderful relationships with families. It’s all built on trust,” the director notes.

“If we opened, they’d trust us. They’d say, ‘It’s okay. Laurel’s got it.’ But we didn’t have it. They would follow us, but I wasn’t sure where we were going.”

Sollinger and his team explored a variety of options, including a delayed opening, shortened season and “bubbles,” all accompanied by efficient, accurate testing. Nothing seemed realistic.

As spring wore on, “quarantine fever” kicked in across the country. “Everyone loves camp, wherever they and their kids go to camp,” Sollinger says. “As more and more programs and things got canceled, camp became the one thing everyone hung on to. Everyone wanted camp to continue.”

But, he adds, “wanting, hoping and needing is not a strategic plan. Camp needs to be safe.”

Camp Laurel is in rural Maine. But it’s not isolated from the real world.

On May 18, Sollinger and his wife sent an email to Laurel families. It began:

The decision whether to operate Camp Laurel this summer has been driven by finding a clear and realistic path to safety for our entire camp community. With the many unknowns related to COVID-19 and the operational restrictions established by the American Camp Association, we are unable to find this safe path.

With great sadness, we have decided to cancel the 2020 season.

We value tremendously the trust you have placed in us and our decision was dictated by a deep sense of responsibility. It’s the most difficult decision we’ve had to make as camp directors, and the idea of upsetting our camp family has been heart-wrenching.

The Sollingers gave families the option of rolling over their payment to 2021, or a full refund.

The reaction was very supportive. Sollinger calls it “a combination of disappointment, understanding, and compassion for Debbie and me.”

It’s been a strange spring for everyone. But the months ahead will feel especially strange to Sollinger. In his long camping career, he has never been in Westport in June.

He won’t be here long. Soon he, Debbie and their 3 daughters head north. They’ll spend the summer at Camp Laurel in Maine, with their leadership team.

Jem and Debbie Sollinger, and their daughters.

There’s a facility to take care of. There are social media photos and posts to send to families.

And a summer camp season — next year’s — to look forward to.

“We’ll weather the storm,” Sollinger promises. “And we’ll come back, stronger than ever.”

For Jem Sollinger, Summer Camp Is A Year-Long Job (And Joy)

It’s May. For a substantial population of Westport kids, that means one thing: Camp is around the corner.

Every summer, tweens and teens head to the woodsier parts of New England, New York and (less often) other states. They spend a few weeks doing all the traditional camp stuff, and plenty of modern-day activities that keep kids coming (and coming back).

Camp Laurel, in Maine.

But campfires, counselors — and campers — don’t fall from the sky. Camping is a year-round business.

And for much of the year, some of that business is conducted not in the wilds of Maine, but a pair of 2nd-floor offices on Main Street. Both Camp Manitou and Camp Laurel have space in Brooks Corner.

Jem Sollinger is the director of (and a partner in) Laurel. The 7-week sleepaway camp serves boys and girls ages 7 to 15, with a wide array of programs and experiences.

It’s a great career for the Westport native. An All-New England soccer pick and captain, 4-time All-State skier, and member of the choir in Staples High School’s Class of 1988, he too is a Laurel alum.

His camp experience also includes Mahackeno and the Intercommunity Camp in Westport, and the Soccer Farm at Pomfret School.

Jem first realized he could make camping a career as a senior in high school. The owner of Packer Soccer Camps in New Canaan gave him a job — and plenty of autonomy. He learned personnel management on the fly (including the challenges of bossing 2 of his best friends).

Laurel was his 3rd “real” job. After graduating from Union College he was a teacher and coach, then had a stint with an advertising and event management agency.

Then Laurel hired him as assistant director. He’s been there ever since. Laurel is now a family affair. His wife Debbie also serves as director and partner. Their oldest daughter was a Laurel camper; their youngest 2 still are.

For Jem and Debbie Sollinger, and their 3 girls, summer camp is a family affair.

“Director” is a catch-all title. Jem’s responsibilities include managing logistics, anticipating and solving problems, and setting every camper up for success. “We keep them safe, while encouraging them to take risks, learn new skills, and build a sense of self,” he says. He collaborates and partners with parents too.

Jem is also in charge of counselors, administrators and behind-the-scenes operations staff. He empowers, supervises and coaches all of them.

Much of his autumn-through-spring work in Westport — where he has a full-time staff of 6 — involves staffing. Some come back every year. But many are college students, so he is often in hiring mode.

Jem and his Westport staff recruit at colleges across the country. They use social media. They encourage current and former staffers to tell friends and teammates about their own growth experiences as counselors.

It’s not easy finding “warm, genuine, enthusiastic” college-age counselors — and in today’s market, it can be especially difficult.

“The pressure to get an internship is great,” Jem acknowledges. “There is definitely value to that experience.”

But, he says, “the life skills, relationships and memories gained from a summer working as a camp counselor are incomparable.”

Some of the Camp Laurel staff.

Westport has been fertile ground. Jem has hired a number of Staples grads.

Right now, he’s finalizing his summer staff. He’s talking to people who just graduated from college, or whose internships fell through, or who realize that a couple of months helping kids grow in the woods is a lot more intriguing than commuting to New York.

He’s doing plenty more, of course. Moving the entire operation from Westport to Maine — and getting the 50-acre property ready — is in itself a full-time job.

But if any energetic, self-motivated, hard-working, outdoors-oriented, kid-loving college-age people want to join him, Jem is happy to chat.

Click here for the Camp Laurel website. Email: staff@camplaurel.com.

FUN FACT: Jem Sollinger is not the only Staples High School alum with a full-time job in camping. Corey Frimmer of the Class of ’92 is director of Camp Wicosuta in New Hampshire.

Remembering Jon Walker

Jon Walker died last week, of complications from ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) and frontotemporal degeneration, a rare brain disease. He was 46 years old.

Jon Walker

Jon Walker

Jon was part of the very tight-knit Staples High School Class of 1988 — a group that’s remained loyal and true ever since graduation.

Jon was a 3-sport athlete, with a sly wit and tremendous “people skills.” I was fortunate to coach him in youth soccer, and was overwhelmed to see how many friends, teammates and admirers attended his memorial service on Sunday. 

Jem Sollinger was among those who delivered warm, eloquent eulogies. He said:

Westport in the 1970s was classic suburbia. On any given weekend the fields and courts at Coleytown, Long Lots, Rogers, Kowalsky, Gault and Bedford buzzed with activity. We competed in Little League baseball, rec and travel soccer, and YMCA basketball.

In a town filled with many outstanding adolescent athletes, it was Jonathan Walker who truly stood out.

His uncanny athleticism bordered on artistry. To watch Jon swing a baseball bat was an experience. It was effortless, and so smooth. He had unrivaled hand-eye coordination.

Jon was also a master strategist. He understood and executed gamesmanship before it was even part of athletic nomenclature. If his brother Sam was (and still is) the Luke Skywalker of “gamesmanship,” Jon was Obi Wan. He knew how to exploit others’ weaknesses, and maximize his strengths.

Jon was as clutch as they came. His heroics under pressure cooker atmospheres are still talked about with great admiration and awe.

Slotting the deciding penalty kick side panel in the U-16 state cup soccer quarterfinal against Wallingford; draining a fadeaway buzzer-beater for Staples basketball his senior year, or scoring the winning goal in sudden death overtime in the 1987 FCIAC soccer championship before 2,000 fans under the lights at Wilton High School — Jon was clutch. With the game on the line, he was your man.

Jon Walker (raised hand) celebrates with Staples High School teammates, after scoring an overtime goal to win the 1987 FCIAC championship.

Jon Walker (raised hand) celebrates with Staples High School teammates, after scoring an overtime goal to win the 1987 FCIAC championship.

He played 3 years of varsity basketball and 2 years of varsity soccer at Staples. Late winter of his senior year, sitting at lunch, Jon and Rob Capria got into heated banter about baseball. Rob was adamant that Jon did not have the ability to make the team — especially after 4 years away from the sport.

On a dare — having not picked up a bat or glove for that long — Jon went out for the team. Five games into the season, he was the starting 3rd baseman. He was a natural.

After high school Jon ventured to George Washington University for a year, before transferring. At Skidmore he played varsity basketball for 1 year, and varsity soccer his junior and senior years.

Coupled with his athleticism was Jon’s love of competition. This past October, we played 9 holes of golf at Longshore. His ALS limited his mobility to the point where it took him 45 seconds to tee up the ball at each hole. He had no ability to speak.

His longtime friend Andrew Udell — whose support and commitment to Jon over the past year has known no bounds — shot a 46. I shot a 57.

Jon shot a 43.

Last fall, Jon Walker was a popular presence at Staples High School soccer games. He'd lost the ability to speak, but he was embraced by the team, and responded with thumb's-up signs of encouragement. Here he is flanked by captains Josh Berman, Spencer Daniels and Daniel Reid.

Last fall, Jon Walker was a popular presence at Staples High School soccer games. He had lost the ability to speak, but he was embraced by the team, and responded with thumb’s-up signs of encouragement. Here he is flanked by captains Josh Berman, Spencer Daniels and Daniel Reid.

Jon held those closest to him to very high standards. The closer you were to him, the tougher he was on you. He loved his mother Sandra, his father Howard, and his brother Sam very much. But as the first-born he could push boundaries. He was tough on Sam and would sometimes lose his patience. It was Howard, who Jon resembled on so many levels, who often reeled him in. “Jonathan: You keep talking to Samuel that way, you won’t be sleeping under this roof tonight.”

Usually at this point Jon would say, “Lets go to your house and get a BSIT” — an acronym he made up for the “Best Sandwiches in Town.” Off we would go to 102 Bayberry, where we plowed through Gold’s cold cuts, and he would play with my parents’ dog Willy.

With a tight circle of friends — many of whom rarely shied away from the spotlight — Jon kept a lower profile. But he was always present. A quiet leader, he knew how to motivate and push buttons.

Jon was a dichotomy. In many ways he was very simple. He didn’t embrace the urban setting of DC his first year in college. But he flourished in the intimate community setting of Saratoga and Skidmore. He never had the desire to move to New York or any other city. He loved Fairfield County.

He didn’t like change. He worked for the same company for over 20 years. (He did leave for a brief stint as a trader. His New York commute lasted 3 weeks.) Jon could have thrived in that scene, but it wasn’t for him. He loved the simplicity of the suburbs, and playing basketball, soccer, and softball through his 40s.

As much of a “country boy” as he was, Jon’s street smarts were off the charts. When we were 16 Jon, George Llorens, Ryan Burke and I took a trip to New York to see a Knicks game.

As we exited the Garden, a hustler looking to capitalize on 4 sheltered suburbanites said, “I get you a cab.” Unbeknownst to us, this wasn’t a free service.

After hailing a taxi, the man looked at us and said “1 dollar each.” I handed him a dollar and got in the cab. George and Ryan did the same. Jon looked the guy in the eye, shook his hand and said, “Thank you very much.”

That was JW. He was street savvy, skeptical, and took great pride in not being manipulated or taken advantage of.

The 1986 Connecticut state soccer champion Westport Warriors team. Jon Walker is in the back row, 2nd from left.

The 1986 Connecticut state soccer champion Westport Warriors team. Jon Walker is in the back row, 2nd from left.

Jon’s competitive drive and relentlessness served him well when he met Bridget. He pursued her with abandon, and knew he had found his soulmate. Wildly loyal to each other, they navigated the challenges that can come with marriage with sensitivity, fearlessness and passion. They were true college sweethearts.

Jon loved being a dad. If there was anyone he loved as much as Bridget, it was Ellery. She lit up his face. And his adoration for William knew no bounds. He loved sending video clips of William playing indoor soccer. He was a proud soccer dad.

Jon battled his ALS and FTP with courage and a smile. As his neurological diseases progressed, he became much simpler. He smiled more. He said “I love you” often. The grace he displayed as an athlete came to the forefront of his persona at the end.

How lucky we all were to have had him as a friend, and to have been on his “team.”