Act 2/Retirement

Back to Camp

Reconnecting with the magic of those sleep-away summers

Special to Newsday

July 8, 2006

And like the original camp experience, a reunion after so many years can have a positive impact on people that goes beyond bonding with old friends, according to Christopher Thurber, a clinical psychologist who created "The Secret Ingredients of Summer Camp Success," a DVD and CD set produced by the American Camp Association.

Reunion-goers, said Thurber, can use the event to reflect on what they were like during their camp days and whether they have changed for the better. The reunion also can provide former campers with "a renewed sense of the direction that their own life has taken and with an idea about how they would like their lives to grow in the future."

Reunions rarely disappoint the graying, former campers who attend them. As participants tell it, that's because they tend to attract individuals who had positive camp experiences and are enthusiastic about reuniting with one another. Campers who were teased or didn't make close friends aren't apt to want to see people they didn't like in the first place.

T-shirts and tears

In general, camp gatherings tend to be laid-back affairs. In contrast to high school and college reunions, which are often showcases "to bring your spouse, show them off and talk about accomplishments," camp get-togethers "are down-to-earth, with people walking around in T-shirts and Tevas," said Thurber. "They are about who you are," he said, not what you have become.

Ambience aside, attendees say they often are caught off-guard by their reactions to seeing friends from the past. In many instances, camp reminiscences and updates about their current lives are intermixed with laughter and tears.

"I didn't anticipate the strong emotions that made me cry," said Trail's End's Goldberg. "We kept saying, 'Where did the years go?'"

Chuck Debrovner, 71, attended the recent Trail's End reunion with his wife, Pat. Debrovner, who owns a home in Lido Beach and is a semi-retired gynecologist, had gone to the camp for a decade, beginning in 1947. Although many of his peers did not show up, he was not disappointed. The property, he said, evoked fond memories, including "trying to sing in South Pacific," and "winning in Olympic races."

In anticipation of a reunion next month for Camp Chicopee in Galilee, Penn., Karen Sandell-Stern, 54, invited its beloved former music and drama director, George Blouin, and more than two dozen former campmates to her Woodbury home. Their purpose was to create a DVD of the songs they performed in camp shows.

"I started to cry when everyone came in," said

Sandell-Stern, who had gone to Chicopee from 1960 to 1969, the camp's last year. "We've all gone so many separate ways, but to be able to come together and recreate the feeling and closeness of what we had at Chicopee, which was such a special time for us, was very surreal."

And just as in the past, "We all wanted to please Uncle George [Blouin]," said Sandell-Stern who, surrounded by her camp friends, said she felt like an adolescent again.

"I was singing notes that I had no right to sing," said Sandell-Stern, who is married and has two sons in their 20s. "But, who cared? I was with people who smiled and laughed with me."

'Boys of summer'

Last year, Floral Park resident Chris Schneider, 62, planned a weekend reunion after his longtime friend and former Camp St. Joseph's bunkmate, Albie Milanesi, suffered two heart attacks and underwent a successful heart transplant. Schneider, a retired teacher and a part-time volunteer coordinator for Catholic Charities, said the mini-reunion brought together eight former bunkmates, including Milanesi, a retired orthopedic surgeon in New Jersey.

During their get-together, the "boys of summer" - as they called themselves - explored the grounds of the long-gone camp that had brought them together ages ago in Monticello, N.Y.

"We toasted our many years of friendship and also the new life of our leader, Albie," said Schneider, noting that the reunion "was a step back in time. Nothing had changed, except we were older. Our personalities were the same." Delighted to be together again, the group is planning a visit in October to a camp friend who lives near the Canadian border, a cruise to Bermuda next year and a boat trip to Bear Mountain a year or two later.

"Life is fleeting, the clock is ticking, and it's important to get together as much as possible," said Schneider.

Despite the uplifting experiences that camp reunions offer, they are not without their downside, namely having to say goodbye again.

Two years ago, Marion Henken, 64, of Jericho, helped organize a reunion for the no-longer-in-operation Camp Ferosdel in West Copake, N.Y. She last attended Ferosdel as a 17-year-old. The get-together took place at a Manhattan restaurant and drew more than 100 people, some of whom Henken hadn't seen for half a century.

"The reunion made me feel like life is a blink of the eye," said Henken. "I was disappointed that it had to end."

Green said the last day of Camp Impala's reunion reminded her of the last day of camp, with "so many hugs, kisses and tears." But, this time around, she said, efforts are under way to keep her fellow campmates connected. Besides planning another reunion for 2009, the organizers have set up an Internet chat room for former campmates to stay in touch on a monthly basis.

"We're keeping the momentum going," Green said.

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