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Stephen Colbert and Sleepaway Camp

Imparting life lessons to Evanstonians young and old.

If you haven't heard, Stephen Colbert spoke at Northwestern’s commencement.  Colbert and his alter ego (also named Stephen Colbert) can be summed up by this quote:

"I’m the frosting on America’s cake, and tonight I’m willing to let you lick the bowl."

I requested an interview with Mr. Colbert but was informed he wasn't talking to the media.  That's okay; there was so much else to do this weekend in and around Evanston, like the 12th annual Ricky Birdsong Race Against Hate and the 40th annual Custer Street Fair.

Seems the Evanston/Skokie area’s the place to be…unless you’re a McGaw YMCA Camp Echo Session 2 camper…in which case, you boarded a bus Sunday at the corner of Maple and Grove and headed to Fremont, Michigan.

Camp Echo, as I’ve been told by so many residents over the years, is an Evanston institution. 

When my kids were much younger, I’d occasionally see crowds and buses in front of the Y in the summertime and wonder what all the fuss was about. Stealing glimpses of duffel bags, hugs, and plumes of exhaust, I figured someday, my kids will be old enough to do whatever all those big kids are doing.

My kids are all old enough now; this was my 5th Camp Echo “sendoff.”  I've become one of those parents on that corner, marking the duffel bag with a Sharpie, hugging the child, and waiting for the plume of smoke as a convoy of buses pulls away from the curb and out of town with some of Evanston’s youngest and bravest souls.

I’ve done my share of crying as my kids have pulled away…but this year felt different.  My daughter was more ready than ever.  She’s going for two weeks (a first for any of our kids) and she’s been counting down the days for months. 

Last year, on her last night of camp, she was packing up with her cabin mates when she accidentally fell backwards into the metal leg of a bunk bed (ah, so now you know why we’re required to get tetanus shots).  The Camp Echo nurse called us at 9:30 p.m. to inform us of the accident.  We’d been watching a movie with our boys and didn’t grab the phone in time.  She left a voicemail, then called back again, informing us our daughter was doing well but was on her way to the local emergency room.  When the E.R. doctor called us to say she’d need stitches and staples, I thought, this is a nightmare.  She’s by herself, five hours away, and I can’t get to her in time to hold her hand.  I wanted desperately to jump in my car and drive immediately to Fremont…but my rational husband pointed out I’d arrive in the middle of the night when she’d be asleep in the infirmary; better to wait a few hours and arrive as she woke up.  The Camp Echo nurse echoed that sentiment (echo echo echo) so I waited, without sleep, for three hours, only to create my own plume of exhaust as I hightailed it to Fremont.

I prepared myself for a tearful reunion with my daughter: All her friends were boarding buses back to Evanston, but she’d be riding home in the family truckster… with her mom.  O.M.G. I also prepared myself to hear a declaration that she’d never want to return after such a horrible experience.  I gripped the steering wheel so hard on that drive that I had calluses on my hands.

When I arrived at the camp, I was nervous for so many reasons.  I wanted to get to my daughter, but I also didn’t want to upset any potentially homesick campers.  The sight of a mom on the premises was sure to stir up some emotions the counselors worked hard to keep in check. 

The atmosphere at the camp immediately put me at ease.  It is absolutely gorgeous.  Clean. Organized. Surrounded by water.  Filled with relaxed and happy kids.  There’s a gentle Golden Retriever napping on a cabin porch. Horses whinnying from the stables.  Leafy trees everywhere. After one look around, I understood exactly why kids love to go back. Every single worry and stress just melts away.

And, my daughter was smiling

The counselors and staff had done everything right.  Her cabin counselor even accompanied her to the emergency room and held her hand through the whole procedure, saying she wanted to go into medicine and that the accident was a cool way for her to get to see how staples are actually put into a head. Whether that was the truth or good training, I appreciated that young lady more than words can say.  That whole experience left our daughter even MORE excited than ever to return to Camp Echo.

Yesterday, waiting for the buses to depart, I watched one little girl stand in the doorway of her bus, weeping for her parents.  It was her first time going to Camp Echo.  I watched her tentative mother, wanting to take her in her arms but not wanting to make things worse.  The counselors snapped to attention and rallied around the girl, eager to use their training.  Good thing, too:  another little boy on the same bus was getting sick to his stomach. His parents had already left, so the counselors and Y Staff helped the little guy pull himself together and re-board the bus.  One observant father hopped on the bus and asked his own son (who’d had terrible homesickness his first year at Echo) to sit with the sick little boy and look out for him.  I hadn’t cried at the sendoff until that moment.  I knew that every kid on that bus would be alright...taken care of...looked after...loved.  What I’d forgotten was that Camp Echo isn't just a magical place for the kids.  It brings our entire community together.

Katie Trippi June 20, 2011 at 04:00 PM
Thanks for this great article about Camp Echo and the positive impact summer camp has on kids and parents. I would love to hear from any Camp Echo alums with your stories and memories of Camp Echo. I am the Camp Echo Alumni Director and I am trying to gather current contact information for all Camp Echo alums. Send me your stories and I'll keep you updated with all the great things that are still happening everyday at Camp Echo. I look forward to hearing from you. Sincerely, Katie Tucker Trippi, katiet@mcgawymca.org
Christine Wolf June 21, 2011 at 04:40 PM
I just posted a youtube video I received showing Camp Echo's Session 1 campers having a great start to the summer. (see above).
Christine Wolf June 21, 2011 at 05:31 PM
Today's Chicago Tribune story about summer camps and going tech-free: http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/ct-x-0622-camp-20110621,0,1366744.story
Tom Fischl June 21, 2011 at 09:57 PM
Christine - thank you so much for this great article. I started going to Camp Echo when I was 2 years old for family camp and I have been going back ever since. My father went as a camper when he was 8 (for the whole summer!) and each of my five brothers and sisters worked on staff over the years. I volunteer at Echo when I get the chance as I love everything about the camp - especially people like Katie Tucker Trippi and the rest of the staff. Camp Echo is a special place where all the good things in life come together - especially for the kids.

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