Not Just For Kids, My Camping Experience in Retrospect

By Mrs. Tatianna Lapchuk Hoff

For each summer since the age of seven, I’ve visited Saint Andrew’s Camp in Jewell, New York. That’s a total of nearly twenty years that I’ve been involved with Saint Andrew’s. My experiences each year have varied because of the different roles I’ve been in (first camper, then teen, then counselor, now volunteer/visitor). But each is memorable in its own way, and I continue to love the Orthodox camping experience more, and differently, each year.

The Waterfront at St. Andrew's Camp

As a child, my summers were jam-packed with activity. For me, it was though there wasn’t a break from the school year, really. I participated in various summer enrichment programs, visiting Vassar and Bryn Mawr colleges in my younger elementary school years. There, I took rudimentary chemistry and biology courses, creative writing and fiction literature, kept up with music studies, and had daily instruction in sports (swimming and tennis were my choices).

Later, during high school, I’d trek up to Philips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire for six-week academic enrichment programs. It was the same deal there — academics and sports with some social fun — but I was older, and the program was longer. Also during high school, I even hopped over the pond for a couple summers to work on my French while living with a kind, sweet family in Provence. These were rewarding experiences that allowed me to grow intellectually and make friends with youngsters from different walks of life, and to keep me occupied in what would otherwise be a lazy summer.

But, my experiences at summer enrichment programs have always paled in comparison to the fun and growth I experienced at “camp.” And by “camp,” I mean the Orthodox camping experience, which – for me – took place at Saint Andrew’s Camp in Jewell, New York. Despite any other summer commitment or activity that I may have had, I was sure to visit Saint Andrew’s for at least one week each summer – and, without fail, it would always be the best week of my summer!

What makes the Saint Andrew’s Camp experience special and different from these other summer programs? It’s not really the camp – Saint Andrew’s – itself, but rather the fact that it has a program centered on Christ through Orthodox worship and religious education; this, I imagine, is true of most Orthodox Christian camps. To explain some of my experiences at camp, and the real value of an Orthodox camping experience, I will elaborate upon the framework of the four major components that make up life at Saint Andrew’s:

Chapel and Worship
The chapel services are certainly the center of daily life at Saint Andrew’s. Matins is celebrated each morning, and Vespers each evening, with Divine Liturgy served once per week (often with the Diocesan Hierarch Bishop Michael serving), with Great Vespers the evening before.

For many children, coming to Saint Andrew’s is the first time that they experience daily Church worship, and one might expect that the campers would either grow tired of the services or complain about always needing to attend Chapel services and everything that goes along with it (washing up and changing into dress clothes, needing to remain quiet and still, etc.) This is not the case at all, however! In fact, various informal polls that I’ve conducted over the years to campers asking “What’s your favorite part of camp?” have pointed to one answer: Church. And this is something that any observer can see for himself. Each time I visit the camp and observe campers during the services, I see joy and reverence emanating from each of them – in their posture, in their attention, and in their singing, chanting and reading. They eventually learn the prayers and tones from memory, and worship becomes seamlessly part of them. The importance of prayer is also instilled in other ways: through regular prayer before and after meals, at bedtime, and before and after religious education.

Religious Education
No Orthodox camp would be complete without religious education, which at Saint Andrew’s is held on a daily basis by the member of the clergy visiting for the week, or by His Grace, Bishop Michael, and sometimes by seminarians. Over the years, religious education has varied from Bible study sessions to lessons in stewardship and caring for the earth that our Lord has created and gifted to us (which is a huge theme at Saint Andrew’s Camp, and appropriately so because of where the camp is situated in a beautiful natural setting), to lives of the saints. For me, the religious education component of camp was of paramount importance, since it supplemented the religious education I received in church school on Sundays during the year, which was not the most rigorous program and did not meet regularly.

Fellowship
At Saint Andrew’s Camp, Orthodox youth are given the environment to grow spiritually in Christ in the fellowship of like-minded (Orthodox) peers, Hierarchs and clergy, and adult role models in the form of counselors and visiting volunteers. As a pan-Orthodox camp, Saint Andrew’s brings together children from different geographies, dioceses, jurisdictions and ethnicities. Lasting friendships are formed not only through spending time in religious education and worship together, but also in the simple things that are done as a community. This includes “General Environmental Care,” the cleaning of the community spaces in different teams on a daily basis, family-style meals in the dining hall, cookouts and bonfires. During some years, campers would also camp out in the woods – preparing a camp site, including the fire, in the week leading up to the Friday night camp-out. This, in fact, was one of my favorite memories from my days as a camper, since I loved preparing the campsite and subsequently sitting around the fire. (I would, however, get a horrible night of sleep giggling with the other girls in the tent and sleeping on the hard ground. But that’s camp for you!)

The Author performing a skit with some of the campers

Activities and Sports
While maintaining an Orthodox ethos as the backdrop for everything done at camp, various other fun, exciting activities have provided fun for all. Historically and currently, these activities range from archery and horseback riding, to skits enacting scenes from the Bible, to nature and ecological studies, aerobics and calisthenics, soccer, volleyball, softball, relay races, arts and crafts, swimming in Lake Oneida and many more.

These days, my favorite moments at Saint Andrew’s Camp almost always involve a member of the clergy. Last summer, the campers and I had a great laugh seeing Fr Vasily Lickwar swing on the swing set in his cassock. It was similarly gratifying to see His Grace , Bishop Michael relax on the dock on Lake Oneida as he watched the children play in the water. In years past, Fr Ken Stavrevsky always made things interesting – from blessing the lake and a procession around the church with fruit on Transfiguration, to a country western dance with live music that he arranged. The clergy are exemplary role models for demonstrating to youth the reverence that we must show in Church, in prayer, but remind us that we can have ”˜ordinary fun’ within the context of an Orthodox Christian ethos.

His Grace relaxing by the lake with campers

Orthodox summer camps build our youth and the future of our faith. They instill a foundation of worship and service all while building relationships with other Orthodox, which are lasting and lifelong. At Saint Andrew’s, the camp program reinforces what children learn in their home parishes, and teaches them things about Christ and the Church that they can bring home with them and share with others.

But camp is not only good for children, and that is what I’ve been learning and continue to experience as I participate in camp in my adult years. Saint Andrew’s Camp grows leaders of the Church to work with youth and parishes, provides an opportunity for clergy to minister in different ways, allows parents and other volunteers to become involved, prepares young adults to become parents, and creates an environment where everyone can learn from each other. While grown-ups offer their time, skills and patience in growing Orthodox youth, they learn just as much from the day-to-day experiences with campers, within group settings, and amid some trials and sundry daily struggles. Orthodox camping cultivates a love for our Lord in working with, learning from, and loving our neighbors – and this is what no other summer experience is able to provide, and has made my Saint Andrew’s Camp memories unparalleled.