What’s your speed? A one-hour “Mommy and Me” art class involving repurposed popsicle sticks, a day camp requiring your child’s first school bus ride, or a full week away from home, camping lakeside? 

Whichever you choose, our community offers a staggering number of options for summer camp.

And whether you choose to send your child and your cash — and for residential camps, we’re talking about a sizable amount of cash — to Selkirk, Cocolalla, Eureka, Reed, Spalding, Lutherhaven, Shoshone, Four Echoes, Easton or Sweyolakan, former campers can all but guarantee there will be huge, lasting social returns.

“I can’t think of anything more powerful that shaped me as a person,” asserts former Camp Reed counselor Ed Reese. 

As much as he wanted to attend a residential summer camp as a kid, his family couldn’t afford it, so Reese attended various day camps and waited until high school to enroll in the CIT (counselor in training) program. 

“I literally can’t imagine how different my life would be if camp hadn’t part of it,” says Reese. “But if I were to guess, I would have become a mechanical engineer; I would have hung out with other engineers. I would have been the guy who maybe said something funny a couple times a year.” 

As it turns out, Reese, who described himself as a “painfully shy” student who “never fit in and was never confident,” transformed in all of these areas after the summer of 1987, his first as camp counselor.

Reese now runs his own online marketing company and is known in professional circles for being both confident and funny. 

“I am successful in front of directors of really large companies because I did skits at Camp Reed,” he declares. And at 6-foot-4, with a bellowing but kind voice, you believe what this guy says. “I know how to get in front of people now, because I led 10 campers in a cabin.” 

And while Reese has a more corporate position these days, he’s worked several jobs reflective of his time as a camp counselor, including teaching English to teenagers in Korea and driving a tour bus through Alaska. 

Dan Ward, recently promoted to captain on the Spokane Valley Fire Department, says his time as both camper and counselor have had a great deal to do with who he is as a father and a professional. 

“When you’re a little kid, [camp] is magical because there’s so many caring people that take an interest in you,” Ward recalls. “And when you work as a staff member, your faith in mankind gets reset.

“Every day was fun and exciting,” he explains. “It made me realize I couldn’t do a desk job for the rest of my life. And it probably helped steer me towards being a firefighter.” 

She doesn’t remember which summer she won for, but former “Camper of the Week” Katie Yarno knows the award is still in her childhood bedroom. 

Now a 35-year-old wife and mother, Yarno was a four-time camper. In fact, one summer she went to two sessions. 

After experiencing her 9-year-old stepson’s breakthrough over swimming in open water (among other things) last year, she has registered him in a second year of camp this summer, and already is planning her younger sons’ camps. 

“I will do a mini-camp for my [almost 4-year-old] son, and maybe next summer when my baby is a little bigger, we’ll do a family camp,” she says. 

Luckily, her husband is a summer camp alum as well, so he and both sets of grandparents know the week away is a worthy expense.

“We mentioned camp to my husband’s folks, and they were willing to help,” says Yarno. 

Now that their son Ben has been once, “It would crush him to not be able to go again. So, it was either the grandparents, or it was going on the credit card,” she says. “I would do anything to put money aside for camp. It’s worth the investment.”

Neither Yarno, nor her predecessors, Ward and Reese, can exactly pinpoint what’s universally formative about summer camp, but they try to explain. 

“They do a wonderful job making every child feel special, and included,” says Yarno. “There’s such a sense of community... There’s something magical about it.”

To Dr. Leni Cramer, the profundity of summer camp is grounded in psychology and human design.

“Our focus in standard classrooms is on what kids can’t do, and trying to improve it,“ explains Cramer, who, after teaching in Spokane elementary classrooms for 30 years, has opened her own project-based preschool.

“Summer camp may be one of the few opportunities children get to experience what they are innately good at. They get to explore all their intelligence strengths.”

Cramer is referring to educational theorist Howard Gardner’s “Nine Intelligences.” The theory proposes that there are different domains of cognitive abilities — logical, spatial, linguistic, bodily-kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal (connect with others), intrapersonal (connection to self), naturalistic and existential. 

Summer camp may help kids connect to innate abilities they don’t get to explore in school. “Obviously, bodily-kinesthetic intelligence is a huge piece at summer camps. There is a lot of athletics, horse riding, swimming. And interpersonal intelligence is strengthened by playing and working with other kids,” Cramer says. “Spatial intelligence gets attention in arts and crafts. If you have high environmental intelligence, you’re going to love being in the wilderness. If you don’t, then you’ll develop some,” she says. 

And perhaps most important, says Cramer, “the kids will be challenged to get in there, not hang back.”

“As a kid, I don’t think you ever get that sense of acceptance” anywhere else, says Yarno. “All the adults at camp believe in you. They want to see you shine. They work to bring out the best in each kid.” 

And in that case, Cramer invokes the choice theory of William Glasser, which states that humans “are driven by our genes to satisfy five basic needs: survival, love and belonging, power, freedom and fun.” 

“Camp provides that freedom to make choices, it creates love and belonging, and you get confidence because you find out you’re good at something, or you improve,” concludes Cramer. “It meets all of our basic human needs.”

Follow the River: Portraits of the Columbia Plateau @ Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art WSU

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About The Author

Lisa Fairbanks-Rossi

A former TV news producer and teacher, Lisa Fairbanks-Rossi has been a freelance writer for The Inlander since 1994.