Passing The Torch

Melissa Donovan
Chief Operating Officer, Health and Wellness + Membership, JCC Manhattan

It was no ordinary morning. After her oatmeal, sunscreen and Shake It Off dance ritual, I delivered my orange-shirted, pigtailed 3-year-old daughter into the smiling and capable staff hands at the JCC Day Camp where she will be a “Bunny” for the summer. She doesn't yet know the significance of this moment for me but, thankfully, my lifelong camp friend who also happens to be the JCC Camp Director does. After I blew one last kiss and peeled myself away from the cubbies neatly filled with lunch packs and water shoes, Director Genna caught my eye and reached out to give my hand a squeeze. Parenthood offers you the chance to return face-to-face with defining moments from your own childhood all the time. This one almost swallowed me whole. My daughter's camp journey had begun.

In the summer of 1991, my final summer as a true camper, color war at CTT broke out in the middle of the night. Zealous campers had slept with shoes on for days in anticipation of such excitement. Next morning in the chill of the Pocono air, I stood next to my Senior comrades with my eyes closed and back-turned to the bevy of girls waving red bandanas. Hands silently raised and fell behind me in the annual captain voting ritual required to mobilize each team. I slightly dreaded popular votes like this during the school year. During those other 10 months, the outcome was more often tied to social hierarchy than spirited democracy. Not so in the summer. Different things were rewarded in the glorious summer. Like how well you treated others, creativity, teamwork, resourcefulness or, say, how quickly you could choreograph a lip sync using only a tennis racket and a feather boa brought from someone’s bat mitzvah. For an only child from suburban Philly, the giggling sisterhood I formed with 13 other girls every summer from June to August carried me through the rest of the year. But this particular day at camp was transformative. The vote finished and the Unit Head boomed, "Red Team, your captain is... Melissa D!" And on the steps of Bunk Spruce, I became a camp color war captain. Responsible for all of those eager faces, and their sense of inclusion and sportsmanship for four whole days? Yikes! My hands trembled as I took the big red CTT clipboard and, that day, started thinking of myself as someone who could help organize and motivate others. Someone who could maybe, just maybe... lead.

Powerful self-esteem and confidence-building opportunities were present at every turn in camp. It's where I took the theatrical stage for the first time (Jan in "Grease"), hiked my first big mountain (the Gunks) and where, for four of those miles, I figured out all the lyrics to my first crush’s favorite Def Leppard song. But it was only recently that I began fully recognizing the role camp also played in my own leadership development. Color war captainship meant recruiting participation, directing resources, and helping people of all different ages and abilities work together towards a common goal. There was consensus building and strategy, if only to decide who would do the overnight campsite challenge or swim anchor in the relay. I played champion, peace-maker, and problem-solver in the summer of '91 and learned what it meant to ensure everyone got over the finish line in one piece, and smiling. The responsibility was scary and exhilarating. The torch and lessons I carried out of camp that summer—every summer—helped shape my desire to influence and enable others based on core values, which is the foundation of my professional identity to this day.

Summer camp was an ultimate identity builder for me. Sacred ground where I could stretch every muscle of both the physical and emotional kind within a safe and supportive community. My daughter's fledgling camp day is just 4 hours long for now, but I hope it's the start of an eternal longing for those eight special weeks of summer fever which inspires kids to "live 10 for 2”. This is no ordinary summer. This summer, with gratitude, wonder and nostalgia, I pass the summer camp torch to my daughter.