My heart is never fully with me during the month of July. It hasn’t been, at least not since the summer of 1983. That was the summer I walked through the gates of Camp Kiwanilong as a 19 year old counselor and under the shadow of the majestic fir trees of the northern Oregon coast and with the deep echoing serenade of bullfrogs across Long Lake I became Smurf.
First of all, for the permanent record, let me state this loud and clear, I did not choose the name Smurf. I never liked the little blue creatures but when you have the last name Murphy that is shortened to Murph the inevitable nicknames, whether you like them or not, will happen. So on my first day of camp orientation, when the camp director asked me what my camp name was, I said something like, “Well some people call me Smurf, but….” but before I could go on to say I hated the name she energetically called out across Boyington Lodge in her robust tenor, “Smurf is in the house!” and my fate was sealed.
Smurf was born.
My very first night as a camp counselor I stood in front of an entire camp and with my cabin group of ninth grade young ladies performed a medley of 50’s rock n roll songs that lyrics had been changed to fit the camp setting. Jabber Jaws. Melody. Frick. Frack. Harmony….my cabin group. In my humble opinion, we brought the lodge down. We were rock stars among the banana slugs. Diva’s among the crows. Idols among the lily pads.
I laughed and sang my way through that first summer. I stuffed bandanas in my mouth and shoved bananas in my back pocket for a laugh at campfires. I swam in a murky cold lake without pause. I sang the Crawdad Song through trails of padded pine needles as our camp of 100 marched in single file to Coffinbury Lake. I paddled a canoe across a moonlit lake while belting out Thelma Houston’s greatest hits. I held a snake named Solomon, and liked it. I made lifelong friends. It was magical. It truly was.
But I also grew up that July. Fast.
The one thing I haven’t mentioned about Camp Kiwanilong is that from the first note of Reveille on the first day it opened in the early 80’s it funneled into its cabins many children on the northern Oregon coast who suffered from disruptive, desperate, and often time abusive homes. It was my first exposure to life situations I had no concrete idea existed. I learned about night terrors brought on by sexual abuse. I learned about multiple personalities coming to life in an eight year old to cope with horrific abuse. I learned about fear. Neglect. Injustice. I learned how crappy human beings who call themselves mom and dad can be. I witnessed vulnerable and it shook me to my core.
But I kept coming back. Summer after summer.
Sparky, our camp director, was a gift. She educated me in ways those summers that no college course could ever teach. Rarely did she find fault in the child. She looked beyond the behavior and found the reason why in their homelife. And then she embraced that child all the more and made sure when they were within the boundaries of our camp they were safe from whatever demons lurked on the other side of the gate. She gave the most vulnerable children a schedule, a bed time, a wake up time, face time, three meals a day with lively conversation mixed in, home cooking, song, dance, laughter, fresh air, discipline, hygiene, patriotism, Gods grace, respect and love all under the guise of a summer camp. She gave those children family.
Those who had. Those who had not. Every child thrived.
After our final campfire each week, on Friday night, we would launch Wish Boats into the lake. The flat piece of wood about the size of a kitchen cutting board came to life during the day as each cabin decorated their own with ferns and lilies and whatever Mother Nature felt like providing during the month of July on the northern Oregon coast. Counselors would sit down with their cabin group during the day and make a list of wishes. These wishes would be read aloud by flashlight from the swim dock to the campers as they sat quietly along the elevated bank of Long Lake’s swim hole. A candle was lit on top of the boat and the boats were gently pushed from the swim dock into the calm obsidian water of Long Lake. It was a time for reflection. A time for tears. The wishes, for the most part, were innocent. I wish for no more broccoli. I wish my dog had puppies. I wish I could go to Disneyland. But it was the other wishes, the anonymous wishes, that broke my heart every Friday night because I knew the following morning we were releasing those children back into that world where it would be a battle to survive, let alone have their wishes come true.
The wishes of a vulnerable child don’t change over the decades. This I know is true.
I didn’t get it as I was living it but I look back at my years at Camp Kiwanilong and realize how much I have based my parenting off of the ideals that were imprinted in me during my camp years. I learned what it takes to make a child, my child, thrive. It’s not trophies or awards or recognitions. It’s not iPhones, headphones, or other technology. It’s not what other people hand out to my kids. Its what I give to my kids. It’s schedules, bed times, wake up times, face time, three meals a day with lively conversation, home cooking, song, dance, laughter, fresh air, discipline, hygiene, patriotism, God’s grace.
But above all else it is love.