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Keeping it real: YMCA summer camps still emphasize the basics after more than a century

02/03/2015 07:47 EST | Updated 04/05/2015 05:59 EDT
BOISE, Idaho - There are many firsts to be discovered on a trip to the new YMCA summer camp at Horsethief Reservoir in the mountains of central Idaho.

A first encounter with a campfire, perhaps. A first night in bunk beds with cabin-mates, telling ghost stories in the dark. That first plunge off the dock into the cool waters of the reservoir.

And for many kids, the first day without any electronic devices, because they all had to be handed over to the counsellors when campers boarded the bus to the mountains.

YMCA summer camps have been around for more than a century, and they still provide the basics — the archery, canoeing, crafts and obstacle courses — that the organization believes kids need to grow into adults who appreciate and love the outdoors.

"What we are here for is to get kids into an outdoor setting that can help them develop the skills and tools they need to live," said Laura Mahan, executive director of the Boise YMCA's summer camp at Horsethief Reservoir.

She doesn't mean wilderness survival skills, although those are also taught here.

"We are really focused on relationships and character development, and we use the outdoor setting for that," Mahan said.

The 400-acre Horsethief, which opened in 2010 about 100 miles northeast of Boise, is one of more than 300 overnight YMCA camps around the country, and the first new one west of the Mississippi in 50 years. Boise has had other YMCA camps since 1905.

Nearly 200,000 American children and teenagers attend YMCA camps each summer, said John Duntley, senior camping specialist at the YMCA of the USA in Chicago. Most YMCA camps are in the Northeast. The average cost is about $600 per week, Duntley said, and financial aid is available. (Horsethief Reservoir is $500 a week.)

Many YMCAs also offer day camps.

All YMCA camps, Duntley said, are built around the values of caring, honesty, respect and responsibility.

"Those values cross all religions and ethnicities and are universal to all people," said Jim Everett, CEO of the Treasure Valley Family YMCA and a force behind the creation of the Horsethief camp. "It's about, 'What is my responsibility to the greater good?'"

The YMCA's Camp Dudley in Massachusetts lays claim to being the oldest continuously operating summer camp in the United States. It started in 1885, said Tom Holland, a spokesman for the American Camp Association, which accredits more than 2,400 camps around the country.

Everett said he enjoys seeing children from different backgrounds meet on equal ground at Horsethief Reservoir.

"You have children from migrant worker families and kids who live in a mansion," he said.

"It gives kids an appreciation for what others do have. It's the most level playing field on the planet."

Another valued lesson is self-sufficiency.

"One of the first things we do is dismantle a bike, so if your chain pops off on the trail, you know how to put it on. You're not like, 'My dad's not here, what do I do?'" said counsellor Travis Miller, Horsethief's adventure camp co-ordinator.

Although many camps offer the simple, traditional and electronics-free activities offered by Y camps, the YMCA name helps parents know what they're going to get.

"They all have a curriculum they adhere to," said Jill Tipograph, a Manhattan-based summer-camp consultant who works with parents. "So there's an understanding for parents that if they send their child to a Y camp they're going to have kind of a classic experience. It's a brand, so they can feel confident that their child will get that experience."

Electronics-free summer camps are "very much in vogue right now," Tipograph said.

"I get calls from parents saying to me, 'I need to get my child unplugged, I need him to learn how to communicate.'"

At Horsethief, electronic devices are returned to kids at the end of the stay, which is usually a week.

"We do not usually have parents who object, although a parent has been known to hide a cellphone in a camper's luggage 'just in case' they need to call home," said Mahan. "Most parents see it as a great thing....

"The teens, on the other hand, are pretty crafty at trying to sneak them in," she said. "We confiscate them as quickly as we find them."

To help develop co-operation and character, kids at Y camps share small cabins where they can learn to resolve personality differences.

"When you're living in a small group setting and you have a disagreement with another kid, you have to talk about it. We help you with the tools for resolving it," Mahan said.

For Everett, Idaho's wilderness also plays a key role. He likes to take groups hiking at night to a place where they can turn off their headlamps and lie on huge rocks, gazing at the stars.

"The kids are a little nervous at first," he said. "Nobody is saying anything; nobody wants to break that silence.

"How often do you get to just sit and look at the magnificent sky and think, 'Wow'? To me, that's part of counting your blessings, which we do a lot at camp."

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To find a YMCA camp:

http://www.ymca.net/find-a-y-camp

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