It was 2001. I had just turned 18 and was off on my first big adventure. I was nervous – it felt like my first day of school all over again. This wasn’t just the regular trip across the ditch. I was about to embark on a journey to one of the largest countries in the world – the good old USA!
My only experience with American summer camps was in the movies – they looked like heaps of fun but I had always got the impression that the kids were spoilt and expected to receive everything for nothing (my fellow Go Girls – please forgive me!) yet here I was now, about to spend an entire summer surrounded by them!
There was a large group of us at the airport, all flying to JFK on the same flight, staying overnight at the Ramada Inn New Jersey for orientation and then going to our individual camps from there.
Once on the bus to camp, I was thankful to be amongst all of the international staff who were headed to the same camp as me – URJ Camp Harlam, a Jewish camp hidden away in the Pocono Mountains in rural Pennsylvania, on the East Coast of USA. Camp Harlam was absolutely stunning. Situated on 300 acres of land, it boasted first class facilities including three swimming pools, 8 tennis courts, 3 soccer fields, an art, photography and radio shack, adventure activities, a chapel and its very own lake.
There was also an on-site medical centre – which is where I worked. Although not Jewish myself, I was hired to be the housekeeper / nurse side for the 9 weeks of summer camp. It was my job to keep the patient areas clean, stock up on medical supplies and collect meals from the Chadar Ochel (that’s Hebrew for dining hall) for the children who were not well enough to go themselves. It wasn’t the best job on camp – the other international staff spent their days in the pools giving swimming lessons, balancing on beams and springs teaching gymnastics or heading out on their roller blades, amongst other things – but I would much rather be a housekeeper in America than in Scotland.
On what felt like one of the hottest days at camp, we headed out to spend the day at Dorney Park in Allentown. Our transport for the day was the big yellow school buses that again, I had only ever seen in the movies. Seeing them all lined up at camp, waiting to drive us to the park was incredible – I quickly got onto the bus and started waving out of the windows (also in the movies!). I felt like a camper half the time rather than a staff member. With over 200 staff and 900 campers, we needed a lot of buses which created a very large convoy! Wearing my denim jeans, boots and my staff tee shirt I was clearly overdressed (so typical of me, you would think I would learn!) Nevertheless, I had an amazing time going on all of the rides, stopping for water breaks every so often.
Our time at camp wasn’t all work and no play – we had a few days off over the 9 week period. Myself and a few others went to Philadelphia for the 4th July celebrations which was absolutely extraordinary. I always thought the Brits knew how to party but the locals really put on a good show. We spent our day touring the city (as you do), visiting the renowned ‘Love’ statue and the Liberty Bell. At night we relaxed, enjoying our time away from the ever-busy camp. On our next break from camp we went to Atlantic City!
My time with Camp America, and particularly Camp Harlam, is the most amazing thing I have ever experienced. My memories are plentiful and even today, 10 years later, I still find myself talking about it. I made so many friends from all over the world, with invites to visit their countries.
After spending time with the American kids, I realised that they are not at all spoilt like I first thought. They were so polite, had the utmost respect for their elders and always enjoyed a chat with the international staff (it is always fun to try speaking with an accent apparently). When it came to learning activities that were new to them, they dove right in without complaint. Every day without fail letters and large parcels would arrive for the campers, from family and friends. The expressions on their faces made it clear that those parcels made their day.
Leaving camp nine weeks later was a sad occasion. It was awful saying goodbye to the people who had become a huge part of my daily life. We were all bussed back to New York City and many had planned to do some independent travelling around the States. As I was due to start my 3rd year of study, I was flying home the next day but enjoyed my time exploring the Big Apple that night. Times Square is ridiculously crazy, so vibrant and full of life! I loved the hustle and bustle. The city was fabulous and I even hailed a yellow cab – just because!
Unfortunately the UK doesn’t have such a thing as summer camps (but maybe that is in part, due to the fact that ‘summer’ in the UK comes and goes in a matter of days) so I would recommend the Camp America programme to anyone – it really is the opportunity of a lifetime, a great way to meet new friends and experience living and working in a new environment.
Who knows, maybe one day we will be reading about your own camp adventures right here at Go Girl!