Growing up, for most of my youth, I couldn’t wait for our family camp at Lake Koronis in Paynesville, Minn. It was an opportunity through our church and focused on character, faith and relationship development. There was a strong emphasis on the family, yet my sisters and I also had time to engage within our own age groups.  While some portion of every day was hosted in a classroom setting, the best parts were playing and creating games, finding your way through the woods, spending time at the lake and around a campfire.

One of my favorite activities was canoeing to an island that was about 20 minutes from the beach, though it seemed like hours. You felt like you were on a daring adventure and the occasional summer storm heightened the sense of danger.  

I want to find similar experiences for my family now, and I think it’s even more important because my kids and their friends have a hard time unplugging.  Frankly, so do I. It’s tough to create an experience that’s as captivating as the media that they hold in their hands.

Fortunately, we found what we were looking for at YMCA Camp du Nord last summer. There’s something absolutely magical about Camp du Nord. You’re in pristine nature, on one of the most beautiful lakes in the state of Minnesota – and that’s saying something.  You spend concentrated time with your family and close friends.  An all too rare occurrence these days.

Camp du Nord strongly urges families to unplug, which we did. No technology. No phones. In fact, you’d have a tough time getting your phone to work there.  A natural barrier of sorts from the ‘real world.’

The spirit of community was really powerful there. The whole camp comes together for meals, and you do campy stuff that you might not otherwise do.

You have opportunities to just be with your spouse, while the kids do their own thing. The camp counselors make the camp experience fly. They bring a ton of energy and connect with the kids at their level. They pour lots and lots of confidence in these kids, in just the span of a week. They get the kids out of their comfort zone, trying silly things. I saw my own kids shed the stress of fitting in or being cool.

Everyone, young and old, gets to be a kid again.

Camp du Nord is so popular, it largely fills on one day in November, through a lottery.  Demand is so high, we were not able to get in this year.  I think this speaks to our hunger as a culture for such experiences.  For some sense of normalcy.  To slow the world down.

YMCA camps are very special to many people.

First, think about our lives today. They center in urban environments and we run at a break neck pace. We’re dependent on technology, and we don’t really have unstructured time outdoors.  Can you think of the last time you had a full day outdoors with little to no structure?

Second, the camping experience is critically important for our children because some experience summer learning loss. That means the academic standing they arrived at in the spring, without some intentional process and effort, will fall away or stay static during the summer.

Oftentimes, camping experiences can generate summer learning gains. It’s an experience. There is socialization, and character development, and there may be, through programming, other learning opportunities. If you think about our underserved populations in the Twin Cities – or anywhere in this country – many kids don't have the chance to go to a museum or library, to a camp, or participate on a sports team, during the summer. So those kids are going to fall behind.

The aggregate loss, over three, four or five summers, can be multiple grade levels. So eventually, the gap becomes nearly impossible for a child to close, resulting in higher drop-out rates or squandered potential.

I see the Y camping experience – from day camp, to overnight experiences – being an important part of the summer learning game. How to thrive through the summer, so students are that much more capable of excelling in the next school year.

We make a concerted effort so camp is accessible to everyone. We believe in a continuum of leadership development, so if a child from the urban core gets bit by the camping experience (no doubt they’ll be bit by a mosquito or two), they can benefit from a leadership trajectory that includes counselor-in-training and camp counseling opportunities.  Ways for them to serve and bring others along.  And this trajectory has only just begun once they move through college and beyond.  They’ll come back to these confidence-building experiences.  They’ll appreciate the physical world around them.  They’ll be more apt to create a lifetime of adventure for themselves and those they care for most deeply.  I want this for my family.  And I know I’m not alone.