On Friday night, a friend of mine passed away in a car accident. These are my thoughts in this time of mourning
I have lived in Neverland.
I have lived where the evergreen trees rest beside cacti, where the lakes reflect the bright, blue sky, where the weather changes in a moment.
I have walked through magical patches of forest, climbed up a mountainside, explored traces of ancient Native American life worn into stone.
And in this wondrous land of open sky, separated from civilization, I have lived and worked with the best of compatriots.
My Neverland lies in the mountains within Riverside County in California, tucked behind miles of open land and forest, hidden in a small valley.
It is a home away from home, a separate place from the “Real World,” where duct tape is both a tool and essential craft supply, where a Nalgene water bottle is a status symbol, where silliness is mandatory.
Over the course of 10 years, I spent every summer working at various Girl Scout resident camps. After four years at one camp, it closed. A year later, a good friend gave me a lead to this Neverland, this hidden wonder. Upon being hired as a camp counselor, I traveled across 8 freeway junctures to arrive in this haven.
I was first struck by this small valley surrounded by a ring of mountains, the camp itself vast in comparison to others. At the end of four consecutive summers, as I was drawn away by ‘real world’ responsibilities, I knew I would miss the people more than the land itself.
Resident camp is not for the weak-hearted. The life of a camp counselor is well described by this piece by Phyllis M. Ford. As a camp counselor, I worked a 22-hour day for 7-10 days straight, with a 20 hour ‘night-out’ somewhere in between. The night-out was a needed break that usually consisted of driving 45 miles to the nearest city, replenishing socks, deodorant, and shampoo, running around the toy section pushing buttons with fellow staff on their day off, and then buying inexpensive but satisfying fast food.
Then, we would return, reinvigorated and ready to play.
We were part of units consisting of 3-8 staff and 6-35 campers. Living in close quarters, staying up late prepping the next day’s activity, uniting together in the face of emergencies, children squabbling, and an army of homesick campers, some 7, others 17, we couldn’t help but bond. There is little space for personal differences, and such things must be worked out quickly. Most days are bright, quick, and fun, most campers intelligent, imaginative, and there to relax and be themselves.
During my second summer, I was promoted from the front lines to an administrator. I traded in miles upon miles of walking up and down hills, through trails, and draining several inches of dirt in my shoes to driving a van or golf cart around camp and carrying a radio. I worked with a small team of 7 to make sure the 75 staff and 300 campers were safe and supported. There is an overall vision and understanding which comes with this position.
Part of the Girl Scout Law is to be a sister to every Girl Scout. In camp’s world of sisterhood (and brotherhood with the few male staff members), the Administrators are the older sisters looking out for those they supervise, including those who are older in years. Even outside of camp, I find myself wanting to make sure those I supervised are all right. I know they are adults, many graduated from college, some married and having children, and yet, I still feel responsible for them.
These are my good friends, my band of ‘lost girls’, who play and laugh and are incredibly silly, but will buckle down and be the strongest sisterhood you can imagine in times of crisis.
For example, during my first summer we were headed out of camp to a much needed 4-day break. On the side of the 2-lane road, a line of at least five cars were stopped, all individuals wearing the same matching polo shirts. One of us had run off the road. They were safe, but our band of sisters rallied together to make sure everyone arrived home safely.
This past year, two haven’t arrived home safely.
Within 8 months, we have lost two of our band.
One was a role-model for many of those I worked with. I met her several times, and always admired her bright spirit and good humor. Her mother is a fixture of camp, a retired school teacher on a pair of crutches who spends every spare, possible moment working with children in the wilderness, leading backpacking trips and kayaking journeys. Her daughter had the same vigor for life, and her loss was hard on all of us.
Then, Friday night, we lost another.
Her camp name was Boba, as in Boba Fett from Star Wars, so we were meant to be friends. She was capable of being an outdoors woman in one moment, and then dressing up as a lady in a tutu and tiara the next. She knew how to have fun, how to hold a crying child on her lap and heal their heart.
She had her own set of physical challenges, and sometimes would need assistance as her arthritis would creep in, and yet she would persevere with brightness and enthusiasm.
She was part of my first unit I working at the camp. While I had grown up in girl Scouts and had four years of summer camp experience, I felt like a guppy jumping into the ocean for the first time. i had to learn a whole new lexicon and culture, a new set of traditions that go back decades.
Boba, and a few other staff in the unit, had grown up attending the camp and had grown from campers to Counselors-In-Training, and now worked together as Staff. In short, she had roughly 10 years of experience at this camp.
What could have been a lonely, cliqueish experience was made warm and easy by the bridges built by staff I had worked with before, and by long-time people like Boba.
It is Boba who explained the tradition for opening campfire: The staff changing the lyrics of a commonly known song, sometimes pop, often Disney, to match the unit and camp. That first night was British Invasion, and together we sang a version of Natasha Bedingfield’s Unwritten. Our version included, “Reaching for shampoo the shower, / So close you can almost reach it.”
My true bonding with Boba occurred a few years later when I was an administrator (Ad Staff), and she was the Administrative Assistant (Ark Potato, Ark being the name of the camp office.) Her title hardly encompasses the endless hours she spent collecting and distributing mail across the over 500 acres of the camp, counting and sorting t-shirts and patches for all 300 or so campers, organizing Ad Staff paperwork, and working in general to keep us sane.
A line of blue painter’s tape divided my desk from hers so my general messiness wouldn’t encroach on her area. In the oft-chaos of an Adstaff’s day, my desk became a depot and drop-off area rather than work space.
On a rare, quiet night, I would return to the office to find Boba and other staff on break yet again watching Enchanted and repeating all the words. Other times, she would be strategically hiding the movie of the week that had played endlessly for staff on break.
Her mother, North, worked in the kitchen, and would instigate various shenanigans alone. With the power of a mother and daughter team, much giggling ensued. Many times, during closing campfire, I’d turn to see Boba with her head on her mom’s shoulder as the soft voices of girls filled the air.
And now, at 25, she has passed on.
This is the trouble with this Neverland resting in the mortal world. We age, move on, and sometimes, the unthinkable happens.
However, we have our sisterhood. I only see my camp friends once every year or so, but each time, it is as if no time has passed. While I have many close friends who I see often, and are a vital part of my life and my family, there is something special and rare about the bond between a sisterhood of camp counselors.
This is my sisterhood of Neverland.
Today we mourn together.
And together, we will heal, and we will be strong.