Tag Archives: Jem Sollinger

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.”