YMCA Camp Kitaki

Rekindling Campfire - A Story in Four Envelopes

Rekindling Campfire - A Story in Four Envelopes

The first envelope looked much like any other piece of mail that comes across my desk, and it arrived on a day at the Kitaki office that felt much like any other. It is strange, how so simple a thing as an envelope can carry such an impact. Like many of the defining moments in camp’s history, it was hard to appreciate the scope of the impact of that envelope in that moment. But over the next several years, I would come to realize that the nondescript envelope, and the others that would follow, was the starting point on a journey that would change Kitaki forever.

To tell the story of those envelopes, I should start from the beginning.

It’s lunch time and I sit in the Engine House Café awaiting Bob Furman, former director of Kitaki, to join me. I am eager to see him and to catch up, and to speak with someone who helped inspire my own career. The din of a favorite lunch time spot lumbers around me as Bob walks through the door and settles at our table. We exchange greetings and pleasantries as the waitress takes down the order. As our food is prepared we sit back, easing into a conversation that touches on camp, music, fundraising, guitar playing and horses. Our food arrives and we dig in, words continuing to weave their way from topic to topic until Bob leans forward and asks a question. “Have you ever thought about doing something different down at Campfire?” It is a question that I am not prepared for. “I would love to be able to fix Campfire up” I respond as Bob and I near the end of our lunch. He grins, our conversation continues, and a story finds its origin.

It was not hard to see why Bob asked about Campfire on that day several years ago. The Campfire Amphitheater, a central part of the camp history and tradition, had certainly seen better days. Originally built to accommodate a smaller camp population, the area had been expanded over the years, adding rows that left the audience further and further from the stage, and in some cases, level with the preceding row, forcing the audience to try to look through the heads of the people in front of them. The railroad tie benches were slowly rotting, sagging forward with the weight of years. Despite annual maintenance, the entire area was in need of a facelift, and something major needed to be done to better meet the needs of camp.

As many of you may know, upon his retirement in 2000, the Campfire Amphitheater was dedicated and named in honor of Bob Furman, in recognition of his 28 year career at YMCA Camp Kitaki. It is probably fair to say that nearly every single person reading this story has met Bob; whether as a kid at camp, as one of his staff members, or (more recently) when he would attend our staff training as a guest speaker. It is one thing to discuss Bob’s career on paper, and another entirely to discuss camp with him face to face. The light in his eyes dance with passion as he recounts stories of the history and the impact of camps programs. Despite having been retired from Kitaki for nearly 17 years, he does everything he can to support the place he still calls “my camp”, and Campfire has always been one of the places and programs that he has held most dear.

Campfire would weave its way through several lunches, coffees, and chance meetings over the next few months, as Bob and I would chat about what could be different, how the traditions of the program interacted with the reality of the physical space, and dreaming about what could be. To hear Bob talk about camp and how it can be improved is not an uncommon experience. It’s who he is. Then one day something else happened that wasn’t uncommon, though the outcome was surprising – I opened the mail.

It’s what would otherwise be a forgettable weekday in the office, roughly half a year after Bob first asked me about Campfire. Summer is approaching and my mind is full of the lists of details that still need to be accomplished in order for us to play host to the nearly 2,500 summer campers who will arrive uncomfortably soon for the volume of work still needed to be done. I step to my mail tray rifling through the junk catalogues and invoices, to find a non-descript envelope, its arrival unannounced and unheralded, awaiting me. I open it, beginning to assess the contents; recognition of its meaning slowly washing over me. I notice the letter is from Bob. As I read on I see that it indicates his intention to provide a generous gift to Kitaki to help refurbish the Campfire Amphitheater. Further the letter challenges us to raise matching funds to complete the project. My mind races as the full implication of what the piece of paper lightly held in my fingers contains, and what it means for camp, settles into clarity. My hand clasps the letter more firmly, as slowly I am able to push the surprise to the back of my mind. We are going to actually do this. Our hopes and dreams, previously disconnected from reality and relegated to the insubstantial “future”, have just come roaring unexpectedly into the present full of substance, meaning and reality.

In hind sight it shouldn’t have been surprising, because again, it’s who Bob is. However, it was unexpected, it was generous, and it was exactly what we needed to kick start the project that would come to be called “Rekindling Campfire”. Bob would spend the next few years helping shape the project, fundraising with alumni, and getting the word out about what we were attempting to accomplish. That is a story in and of itself, which I will save for another time. For now, the stage is set for a different envelope.

It is summer 2016, and I stand in my usual spot on Main Street as families eagerly arrive to pick up their campers. We are working on a plan for Campfire, and have announced a campaign to raise the matching funds, but I am not thinking about that because it is check out morning. Saturday mornings are some of my favorite times at camp because the impact that camp has had over the course of the week is physically visible on the faces of our campers as they reconnect with their families. Watching it happen is an amazing and awe-inspiring experience for me, even after all these years.

As I dodge a kid sprinting toward his family for the end-of-week-reconnection hug, a camper parent, Sarah White, approaches me. Sarah attended camp herself. Her three kids and long time campers Kane, Raven, and Taryn, trail just behind her, their faces full of the tired contentment from a week of camp. Her husband, Bill, stands just to the side, watching with a smile on his face as Sarah silently extends her hand, offering to me an unmarked envelope. My finger slides under the flap and I pull forth a check with the funds to sponsor the Campfire Area of the project. I am speechless. I embrace Sarah with tears in my eyes as we both quietly fight for words. Around us swirls the hub-bub of checkout; campers laughing and crying as they say goodbye to camp friends, parents excitedly trying to make sense of the jumble of information that spills from their kids, their mouths a non-stop volcano of words spewing a week’s worth of stories. The music of John Denver plays in the background. Suddenly the project is very real, having grown wings beyond two conspirators conversing in a café, flying forth only to nest in the hearts and minds of the families that make camp so special.

Looking back now, I don’t know if I did an adequate job of thanking Sarah and her family in that moment. I have certainly tried since, however, I don’t know if I will ever to communicate adequately through words my appreciation for a family that has helped camp in so many ways, not the least of which is just sharing their belief in camp and it’s outcomes.

It is Friday at camp, the last full day of a session towards the end of Summer 2016. Because it’s camp, of course, we can’t actually call it Friday. So HEY! IT’S SUPER DAY! I am standing downstairs in the Dining Hall surrounded by staff and SKs as they franticly find costumes to participate as characters in this week’s Super Day Game. I am dressed head to toe in red, wig on my head, fake tail trailing behind me, doing my best to look as much like a fox as our prop-shop and 5 minutes of improvisation will allow. My radio crackles with Nat’s voice, “Jason could you come to the upper DH?” I walk upstairs to find 4 adults I don’t recognize taking in the sights of the Dining Hall and speaking with Natalie, the Associate Director of camp. One steps forward and Natalie introduces her LeAvis Sullivan. The introduction continues. Her son Kyle, was a camper and SK at Kitaki for many years. The sound of his name makes my heart skip a beat. I don’t remember every kid who comes to camp. There are just too many, thousands a year, they rattle around in a blur of names and faces that is sometimes impossible to resolve. But I remember Kyle. He was one of my campers back in 2000 when I was counseling Leadership Camp as a summer staff member, and I worked with him when he was an SK as well. I welcome LeAvis, sharing that I remember Kyle, that he was my camper back in the day. She looks me in the eye, her hand reaching out to touch my arm, as she speaks “I’m so sorry and I don’t know if you know, but Kyle is dead.”

I knew. It’s why my heart did what it did, why the absurdity of having that conversation while dressed as a fox leaped to the fore of my thoughts. Although I hadn’t spoken to Kyle since his last time at camp, social media had ensured that his name would pop up from time to time, providing small updates on his journey from one chapter to the next. Social media had also the broken the news of the end of that journey just two months before. Kyle was living in Colorado Springs when his home was broken into. When the intruders realized that someone was home an altercation occurred. Kyle was murdered.

I don’t know what to say. There is nothing to say. No words that could possibly dull the ache that the woman in front of me is feeling. I ditch the costume and do my best to share with LeAvis the only things that come to mind, my memories of her departed son, desperately hoping to give more context to the words I know that I wrote about Kyle on his counselor report 17 years before. Words and stories that share Kyle’s easy going nature, his humor, how he positively impacted those in our group, how he looked for the best, and thus found it, in everyone around him.

LeAvis asks if we have any projects going on because she is looking for something to do in Kyle’s name. I mention Campfire and she asks if we could go look at it, so we set out. We walk down the road through the chaos and noise of the all camp game, staff dressed as all different members of the animal kingdom shoot past us pursued by kids fully committed to the absurdity of the game. The shouts and laughter fade slowly into the background as our little group approaches the relative quiet of the campfire trail. As we pass the trail entrance, down the stairs and across the bridge we are greeted with sun dappled woods, revealing Kitaki’s unique ability to never be more than a few minutes’ walk from peaceful serenity, today providing a welcome sense of calm from the turbulence of thought of a lost loved one. The forest trail opens to unveil the amphitheater, the hushed sounds of nature protesting our intrusion. As we stand surveying the amphitheater and talking about the plan for its future, I feel the tug of memories insisting to be recognized. Seventeen summers before, sitting in this amphitheater watching Bob Furman wrap up Campfire, a few spots away from me on the bench sit Kyle and Nat (also a camper on that Leadership), Kyle smiling as he sang a silly camp song, Chris Klingenberg, who would become Kitaki’s director after Bob, just a bench behind me. LeAvis turns, surrounded by the whispers of the past, and says this feels right. It’s what Kyle would want. She tells me that she wants to do something for the project, to support camp and build a more peaceful world, to remember Kyle.

Several weeks later, another envelope arrives at the Camp Kitaki office. This one, while not unexpected, carries the sponsorship of the Stage Area, a mother’s memories of her son, and the continuation of his efforts to make a better, brighter, and more peaceful world.

As we kept in touch, LeAvis would go on to tell me that she was in Nebraska that day, handling some end of life business for Kyle that took her back and forth between Lincoln and Omaha. Every time she passed the Kitaki exit she would remember Kyle’s tie to camp, and feel something pulling her towards us. Kyle, she said, was leading her to camp. On that summer day she listened. With no plan and no forethought she pulled off the interstate, turned towards camp, and showed up unexpectedly only to be greeted, not by strangers, but by two who had also known and loved Kyle.

It’s summer 2017 and a Wednesday night. Like every year since I started coming to camp in 1988 we are holding a camp dance. Current members of the Senior Kitaki Kids program are allowed to attend the dances if they wish, to connect with friends, see camp, and of course dance. As I set up the speakers, I hear cars start pulling into the parking lot, the hum of their engines breaking the drone of cicadas in the trees above me. Vehicle after vehicle slows down, disturbing rocks as they settle into stillness. The occupants hop out, but instead of coming in to say hi, they congregate in the parking lot. More cars show up. It feels a little strange that no one has yet actually walked into camp. I haul the last speaker up onto its stand and begin connecting all of the cords that will allow us to teach kids the Amos Moses, the Popcorn, and the Electric Slide, tools we use to help kids rise above their insecurities to find fun and memories in movement and social connection. As I begin testing the sound, I glance towards the parking as a huddled mass of movement detaches itself form the line of cars headed towards me. I see faces lit with smiles, I can feel their excitement to be at camp, but there is something else too, an eagerness to their movements, an impatience to their banter. I greet the group as one SK steps forward to hand me a bundle held together by a piece of paper folded into a makeshift envelope. I glance from face to face, confusion apparently evident, giving rise to a tide of giggles. Looking to the bundle in my hand I peel back a corner of the paper to reveal a giant wade of cash, just over $1,000, the sponsorship of a bench donated by a group of 14 teenagers who had worked over the last month to collect and save up the funds. They have made plans to make the donation tonight, having met just moments ago to feverishly count out the contributions on the hood of a car.

It is strange, how so simple a thing as an envelope can carry such an impact.

Camp Kitaki is a fortunate place. Each envelope we have received has a story. Individual stories, only a few of which I was able to share here, of camp friends whose contributions of money, time and labor together, make up the Rekindling Campfire project. The project that culminated in a completely refurbished Bob Furman Campfire Amphitheater, and the biggest Alumni Event, First Campfire, that Kitaki has ever hosted. The past leaders who have guided camp are ones whose impact has been long lasting, whose dedication has been long term, and whose support has been unwavering. On June 3rd of 2017, I was humbled to share the stage with Chris Klingenberg and Bob Furman as we kicked off the First Campfire event at our new campfire area, collectively representing the last 42 years of leadership of Camp Kitaki. To stand with such visionary leaders and look out at a crowd of people who all hold camp dear was unforgettable, and a fitting celebration to a project with so many worthy stories. It was the first of many campfires to come, the start to a summer full of magical moments, some thunderous in their quiet, and others somehow peaceful despite their riotous energy, that would come to etch life changing affect onto the trajectory of the lives of 2,470 youth.

It is staff closing campfire, the last day of summer camp 2017, and the last night of the new amphitheater’s first summer. The dark night surrounds a group of counselors as they share, through skits, songs, stories and speeches, the memories that collectively sum up the laughter, tears, jokes, challenges, rewards and growth of a summer spent as a camp family. As the night progresses the family moves onto stage, encircled, swaying gently to the strums of a guitar, faces lit by the flickering light of dying embers, the lyrics of “Linger” swelling towards the stars. Facing the circle of staff sit the arc of new campfire benches, the stone facades rising evenly, huddled around the stage, currently empty, having served their purpose of giving campers closer and better views. The contrast of their emptiness is stark compared to the memories of the prior campfires experienced by the thousands of kids still present in the collective conscience of our assembled nostalgia for a summer not yet gone. Overhead the new sign glows warmly, a beacon that draws the eye as heads are lifted upwards in song, fighting the tears of a summer’s farewell. How many future campers will sit on those benches, experiencing the tinge of excitement as Uhari’s magic lights the campfire? How many future staff will look up to that sign and feel a swelling of pride at the accomplishments of a life changing summer?

The final words to Linger ring out, bouncing against the walls and benches that etch the boundaries of the new amphitheater, an envelope done in wood, tree and stone in which we deliver the truest and most lasting memories of a summer at camp.

It is strange, how so simple a thing as an envelope can carry such an impact.

Until we meet again in the land of the high hills,

Jason

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