Summer Camp: We Want to Go to There
“And then they’re going to take a helicopter up to the tippy-top of the eastern Canadian coast and get dropped off in literal polar bear country, all in order to canoe back down to New York State over the course of seven weeks, living just off, like, their wits.”
Or: “There’s bonfires and dance parties and a camp radio station and the kids get to make art and ride horses and go swimming and they spend eleven months of the year looking forward to the food they’re going to get to eat once they get back to camp. They come home raving about their counselors and the plays they were in and the games they learned and the friends they made. And did I mention how much they love the food?”
I’ve never had a more rapt audience than when describing the summer camp experiences of my children and their friends. And I’m not talking about an audience of like-minded young people, or even their parents; the people who are most invested in these stories of summertime revelry, of color wars and first kisses, of s’mores and sleepy nights under the stars, tend to be childless adults, all of whom are more than willing to relive the sleepaway camp experiences they had—or even only coveted—as children.
And it’s no wonder once you realize what it is that camps today are offering. Even many places with long and storied traditions, the type of spots that have been open for decades (or even more than a century, in some cases), have lately been transformed and adapted to the 21st-century kid’s desire for more sophisticated adventures, or even, in some cases, more sophisticated palates. Case in point is the Ballibay Camps, a fine- and performance art-focused sleepaway camp located in Camptown, Pennsylvania, and tucked away in the Endless Mountain range. (No, I am not making up the town or the mountain range names. Some things are just perfect like that.) Ballibay Camps were established in 1964 and are currently under the leadership of John A. Jannone, a professor at Brooklyn College and the son of the camp’s founders. The camp’s ethos is immediately familiar to anyone who has spent much time around progressive Brooklyn parents; there’s a commitment to being process-oriented, the idea that the journey is more important to the destination; there’s a focus on engagement rather than competition; and there’s also a vibrant camp garden, which the children help tend to, and from which the camp’s cook utilizes many of the plants for some of Ballibay’s estimable meals. (The camp was profiled in the New York Times in 2012 for not serving “grub,” but rather “cuisine.”)
A day at Ballibay is emblematic of exactly the type of “unstructured-structure” that most of the adults I know try to find in their own lives, though they often have trouble figuring out. It’s no wonder that summer camps seem less like something just for kids and more like some kind of Edenic escape, a chance to leave all the problems of their normal world behind. It’s no wonder, when I’ve told people about the weeks-long treks my boyfriend’s teenage son took with a few other campers at Camp Pathfinder, a 103-year-old boys-only institution, I’ve had grown men ask seriously if there’s an age limit on this type of experience.
And while, alas, these specific camps are very much for the eighteen-and-under set, adults who have an interest in having their very own formative (or, rather, reformative) camping experiences can rest easy: There are summer camps designed especially for adults. There’s Camp No Counselors, which takes place at rotating campsites across America (and Canada), and offers as close to an in-real-life Wet Hot American Summer scenario as you can find; it’s an all-inclusive experience featuring arts and crafts, a color war, and plenty nostalgia-inducing activities. Or, if you want a more grown-up, introspective situation, try Soul Camp, which has all the yoga and meditation that you can handle, but also includes a traditional reveille-bugle wake-up call in the morning, with all meals served in an honest-to-goodness mess hall.
So, you know, rather than wistfully pine after the experiences of a bunch of Brooklyn kids as they head off to kayak and canoe, craft and make camp friends for life, figure out how to find your own singalong-induced bliss this summer. At the very least, it’s a good way to get out of the city.
Talking with John Jannone about the Ballibay Camps
What is your history with the camp?
My parents Dottie and Jerry left public school teaching to found the camp in 1964. I was born 5 years later, so I grew up there. My parents wanted to build more than just a camp—they wanted to create an alternative educational environment: non-competitive, process-oriented, personal, and self-directed. So this was the environment I grew up in: arts and alternative education. I had no idea it was radical! I totally embraced their ideas, and the camp still adheres to their fundamental vision (but with better food ;). They were children of the 1930s, and were responding to being educated as educators in the 1950s, so their radicalism was pre-1960s: They were inspired by Summerhill, Waldorf, Montessori. To me, this is still the interesting stuff.
I was a camper from ages 6-15 (the camp started at age 6 at the time), then a counselor-in-training, and went on to work as a counselor in nearly every camp program: music, video, radio, theater, art. But I expressed my rebellion against growing up in an arts environment by becoming a hacker in high school (I got into college on my computer programming portfolio), and majoring in philosophy. I fairly quickly turned back to the arts, and by the time I graduated I’d amassed more credits in music than in philosophy, and had scored many of the college’s theater productions and student films.
I took my first break from camp to work as a chef; food was the one area I disagreed with my parents on (and I’ve since turned the camp’s foodservice to my own vision: local, sustainable, scratch cooking with great ingredients). Working as a chef I earned money to travel to India, where I studied South Indian music and dance.
In 1991 I returned to camp a director, alongside my parents. I directed the camp for the next 21 summers while working in music, television, and theater during the year. In 2000 I began teaching full-time at Brooklyn College, where I founded the M.F.A. program in Performance and Interactive Media Arts. My parents passed away a few years later, and I decided to continue their vision with my dear friend and business partner Kristin Alexander. Kristin has much the same trajectory as I did: Camper to C.I.T. to counselor; then time off for graduate school in dance, a career as an artist and academic, and a return to camp to co-direct with me.
In 2011 my son Cairo became a camper, and was joined in 2013 my younger son Marcel.
I took another break from camp—my second “sabbatical,”—in 2012-14 to work in video projection design for theater, teach a course on contemporary theater at Osaka University, and study dance.
In 2015 I came back to camp to teach guitar, coach rock bands, and work half the day in the kitchen. It was a great opportunity to experience the camp as a camp parent working at camp.
I’m excited to return as a camp director in 2016 with renewed creative energy.
What are your earliest memories at the camp?
I remember my first electric bass guitar lesson vividly. It was a complete moment of revelation—one of those ‘door opening’ moments, when I finally understood something very simple, deep, and fundamental about how music *worked.* It was a brilliant moment.
Being in musicals as a young child also made a lasting impression. Although I sang many songs, and appeared in many scenes, I only ever had one or two lines. Some of my lines were even part of a crowd hubbub, so never actually head by the audience! But I still remember those lines. And I always had lots of “business” — being a castle guard, being a vendor on the street, being a wall with a picture on it, being at a fancy dress ball. These were all extremely exciting moments for me to play, to do my part to totally create the scene. When I became a theater director I always made sure to give the kids in my casts the same kind of opportunities.
Also I remember the many happy hours in the art studios; particularly the cool ceramics studio, where I loved to do hand-building. I particularly enjoyed making caverns, and I still have some of them in my office at camp.
What are the things that you think make Ballibay such a singular place for campers?
It’s in large part the agency—the choice—that the kids have. Young people have the ability to pursue their interests, make arrangements and meet their commitments, keep a schedule and show up on time; they just don’t get the opportunity to do it very much during the “school year.” And at Ballibay they do it through face to face communication with adults, which is another layer of the experience they get at camp. They don’t “sign up,” or “look at a posted schedule.” They walk up to adults and talk with them about their interests, how to best pursue them, and how to arrange a time to have adult support for their work. It’s new to some kids when they arrive at camp, but they get the hang of it very quickly, and they love it: the more they engage, the more they get what they want out of their time. It’s an awesome feedback loop.
It’s also the lack of pressure to be “busy all the time.” Different kids crave different levels of activity and “down-time.” A camper is never questioned for sitting and reading a book, or just taking a break between things. Nor is a camper questioned who fills every minute of every day with back to back activities; nor the camper who sits and draws all day, or practices guitar, or writes songs. Each of them are making camp their own, and we love to see that.
Of course, if a camper seems not to be doing anything, we’ll intervene with suggestions, encouragement, and even an offer to walk them to an activity and help them get started. We’re a very small environment: Everyone knows everyone, and so we’re all very tuned-in to the kids. If there’s a camper who is not engaging, they will get a lot of positive adult support to help them become engaged with the program in the way, and at the level, that the want to and are able to.
Finally, I think it’s about our avoidance of “classroom” learning. Kids at Ballibay don’t take art “classes,” they come into the studio and work, assisted and guided by an experienced, caring adult. They don’t take technical theater “classes,” they learn how to, for instance, use a sound board so that they can operate the sound for a play. And this applies in all areas of camp. Of course in dance there are “dance classes,” but dancers already understand learning by doing: a dance class is perhaps better called a “dance experience,” no matter where you take it.
What do you think returning campers appreciate the most?
Well, certainly the above. The kids who feel what we offer is right for them absolutely love Ballibay, and come back year after year. Most summers over 80 percent of our campers are returning campers, and for many of those who do not return, it’s because they are headed off to college.
But another thing I think that returning campers appreciate is new campers. A lot of environments for kids are clique-y and exclusive: one is either in, or out. Ballibay, in part because of the experience it offers to kids who have been searching for some kind of alternative, some kind of haven, is an “everyone in” environment: the returning kids can’t wait to help the new kids get settled, understand the kinds of opportunities they will have, and encourage them to try things, express themselves, and get what they want out of camp. There is an incredible pride among our returning kids—and I don’t just mean the teenagers; I see this in 10 and 11 year olds!—they want the new campers to understand that they stumbled upon something special, and that they are lucky, and need to respect it, and take full advantage.
I’d say it’s the most common question I get from first-time families: “Will my child fit in, is it ok if she comes by herself, not knowing anyone at camp?” I am so proud to run a camp where the answer is a resounding “yes.” The majority of our first year campers don’t know anyone when they arrive, and they are part of a family within minutes, literally. It’s a great thing to watch.<
Something that I’ve noticed as a parent of campers is how seamless the cultural transition is for my kids in terms of going from their Brooklyn lives into camp; i.e. Ballibay offers a sort of “Brooklyn” experience, with incredible food, arts-focused activities, and a level of independence that’s typical for city kids. Is that something you see as well?
It’s interesting… I think I gravitated to Brooklyn because I grew up at camp; and I wonder if kids and families gravitate to Ballibay because they grew up in Brooklyn. There is something to this!
Illustrations by Paige Vickers; Photo courtesy of The Ballibay Camps
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