Why summer camp memories stay with us for life

Sarah Culp, in green shirt, along with her camp mates, after a fire caught in their cabin.
Sarah Culp, in green shirt, along with her camp mates, after a fire caught in their cabin.Today

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By Meghan Holohan

It’s still unclear how it happened. Sarah Culp and her cabin mates were holding candles and booklets from a camp ceremony when they returned to their cabin. Somehow, one of the books caught fire and fell to the floor, igniting nail polish remover. Soon the flames ran up the wall of the cabin, torching a sleeping bag and a shoe. The 14-year-olds squealed before someone dumped water on it, extinguishing the flames.

It’s a memory that still bonds Culp, a 30-year-old music teacher in Columbia, Mo., with her cabin mates who remain friends.

“The counselors were pissed. They were so mad,” says Culp, nearly 15 years after her camp experience at a Mormon camp in Pennsylvania. “We shouldn’t have been playing with fire.”

Sarah Culp, in green shirt, along with her camp mates, after a fire caught in their cabin.Today

Summer camp, whether it was magical, awkward, fun, or traumatic, forms strong memories during adolescence. Psychologist Frank Farley, a professor at Temple University, says research hasn’t found that camp memories are stronger than other memories, but he does think they carry salience, an emotional importance.

“[These memories] are more your own memories, unique to your experiences --not common family memories, not common school memories. You may possibly think about them more or use them more in interaction with others reflecting your individuality,” Farley told TODAY Moms.

Ilene Harris Kosoff enjoyed Camp Ramah outside of Toronto so much that she attended for six years as a camper and then worked as a counselor. She fondly recalls the “color wars,” an Olympic-style events competition among campers. She remains friends with campers she met almost 20 years ago.

“[With] one friend, we hit it off the first time we met when we were 11. And we never looked back,” Harris Kosoff, 32, explains. “You are each other’s entertainment and you are each other’s drama and [you] form really close relationships. You have a new freedom and independence.”

While she enjoyed swimming and boating as a camper, her time as a counselor allowed her to work with special-needs children, an experience that shaped her career as a special education teacher in Pittsburgh.

“Camp provides opportunities for [trying new things],” says Farley. “New experiences, growth experiences, that may influence you long after camp.”

But not everyone has fond memories. Harris Kosoff says one of her brothers hated camp so much he tried walking home. And Jessica Green, 30, who is a graduate student in Tromso, Norway, attended Camp Ligonier in Ligonier, Penn., and remembers awkward moments. She got her first period after caving and while she understood what happened, she didn’t have enough feminine hygiene supplies. Then she felt embarrassed when another girl spotted her small stash of pads.

Farley explains that some memories remain more vivid than others. “One possibility lies in the physical changes, hormonal and puberty,” he says.

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Campers aren’t the only ones with bad experiences, though. Debra Kirouac, 37 of Fairfield,Conn., says she was hired as an archery instructor at Camp Fernwood in Maine even though she had never shot an arrow in her life. She often forgot to wear her arm guard, resulting in bruises. Although she hated the job, she did foster a lifelong friendship with the “camp mom.”

Yet, Rachel Tracewski, 28, wishes she could be a professional camp counselor. She worked at Rock Mountain Bible Camp in Northeastern Pennsylvania for five years and spent two years at an English language camp in Berlin. Her campers at Rock Mountain always had the cleanest cabins, meaning they won the rights to eat first.

“I think my camp counseling experience [was] really shaping, [it] helped me understand kids better and understand leadership roles,” says Tracewski, a clerk at the East End Food Co-op in Pittsburgh.