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Journey Camp marks 20 years and strong vision

  • Recorder/Paul Franz<br/>Sarah Pirtle talks with participants in Journey Camp at Woolman Hill in Deerfield.  The arts and nature camp is in its 20th year.

    Recorder/Paul Franz
    Sarah Pirtle talks with participants in Journey Camp at Woolman Hill in Deerfield. The arts and nature camp is in its 20th year.

  • Recorder/Paul Franz<br/>Sarah Pirtle talks with participants in Journey Camp at Woolman Hill in Deerfield.  The arts and nature camp is in its 20th year.

    Recorder/Paul Franz
    Sarah Pirtle talks with participants in Journey Camp at Woolman Hill in Deerfield. The arts and nature camp is in its 20th year.

  • Recorder/Paul Franz<br/>Isabel Brinton-Fenlason and Nile Gillette demonstrate animal poses at Journey Camp at Woolman Hill.

    Recorder/Paul Franz
    Isabel Brinton-Fenlason and Nile Gillette demonstrate animal poses at Journey Camp at Woolman Hill.

  • Recorder/Paul Franz<br/>Sarah Pirtle talks with participants in Journey Camp at Woolman Hill in Deerfield.  The arts and nature camp is in its 20th year.
  • Recorder/Paul Franz<br/>Sarah Pirtle talks with participants in Journey Camp at Woolman Hill in Deerfield.  The arts and nature camp is in its 20th year.
  • Recorder/Paul Franz<br/>Isabel Brinton-Fenlason and Nile Gillette demonstrate animal poses at Journey Camp at Woolman Hill.

DEERFIELD — Some of the pews in the 1849 Quaker meetinghouse are packed this rainy morning with enthusiastic singers, their young voices accompanied by hand gestures, and they wear colorful capes, wraps and scarves that create a magical scene of another time and place.

Maybe that’s why this is known as Journey Camp, which marks its 20th year at Woolman Hill this year with five summer programs, like this girls’ week. Life’s journey, these nearly 40 young campers ages 7 to 12 have been told, includes rain as part of nature’s cycle, so this indoor activity as part of the “morning circle” is taken in stride.

“We all come from the goddess, and to her we shall return, and to her we shall return like a drop of rain, flowing to the ocean,” sing the girls, who seem completely familiar with each other and every word and movement of the song they just learned yesterday, as well as their parts in the skit about a girl named Samantha and forest spirits.

Journey Camp grew out of director Sarah Pirtle’s own journey to Rowe Camp as a 12 year-old from New Jersey. She returned year after year, as a camper, a co-counselor, a counselor and a director, before returning to live in the area as a singer-songwriter, author and teacher of conflict-resolution skills.

“I wanted a camp of things that had mattered a lot to me,” says Pirtle. “I like to tell the girls the world we have is built from what all that the generations before us have given. It’s about adding your contribution to a community, where everybody feels they’re heard.”

Pirtle, in fact, takes her cues from what campers say they need, and this camp isn’t built around activities like swimming or archery or water sports. It’s about giving voice to the kids’ creativity, through storytelling, singing, theater, crafts, hikes and games .

“Camps are unique places that go beyond recreation or babysitting,” says Pirtle. “We really have the chance to teach the ancient arts of friendship.”

Woven into the watercolors, the songs from Native American and other cultural traditions, and the tiny wooden structures built in the woods are lessons for campers about listening to their own voices and caring for one another and nature.

Helping campers along the journey are about 20 counselors and counselors-in-training, nearly all of whom have been attending for years as campers and recall their own camp adventures.

“We’re creating a place where magic happens,” says Aiyana Masla, who first came as a 7-year-old camper from Ashfield and is, at 25, a counselor and, along with Kate Parsons of Shelburne Falls, a co-director. “As a child, it was one of my favorite places to be, and I looked forward to it all year. Imagination is so valued here, and as a camper, I felt really supported. And it provides a safe space for people to learn how to communicate creatively and sensitively with each other, and how to have respect for themselves and for others and nature.”

As part of a team of counselors who have taken Pirtle’s teen leadership training, Masla said, “We really want to give each girl a sense of being really special as a unique part of the community. And they see that happening in themselves and feel other girls becoming empowered and proud of who they are ... and it’s unifying. As a girl, I experienced the opposite in culture — a lot of competition and walls being built between girls — so it seems very important to encourage that, with a respect and sensitivity that’s pretty rare and creates a really safe container for growth.”

When there are co-ed groups, as there were earlier this summer, there tend to be more active games, with more running around and “a different energy,” she said.

Counselor Oona Kilcommons of Greenfield, a 19-year-old student at Bennington College who started as a camper when she was 8, said, “One of most compelling things about this community is how nourishing it is. We ask these girls to really participate in creating community, rather than just following rules. We give them the framework, offer them lots choices.”

Some of the campers, running barefoot, show off the rope necklaces they’ve finger-woven, a “fairy lamp” or other handiwork they’ve “invented” or a toe-worn friendship bracelet they’ve made, while in another group girls take turns at chain-whisper in the timeless game of telephone.

Kilcommons thinks back to the ritual “candle-of-the-day” ceremony that meant the most to her as a camper: holding up a finger and each child naming something that made them especially happy, then “blowing out” that imaginary light and having it glow inside them until they could meet the next day.

“I still carry that with me and cherish it as a memory. It’s helped me through a lot,” she said, adding that the camp’s focus on each camper discovering his or her own special gift can be powerful.

“Being up in the woods, and being able to be introspective in a community was a huge gift to me as a kid,” Kilcommons said. “Being able to sit there and be quiet and experience what was going inside of me emotionally, and having everyone around me be really excited that that was happening. Usually, adults want you to be having fun, or behaving, they don’t necessarily want you to be contemplating your purpose in life.”

Leah Schwartz, an 18-year-old counselor from Deerfield who began attending Journey Camp at 7 and has continued every summer since — including the Moonseed overnight camp for girls 11 to 18 — says “This was always the one place I was assured I could be me and not have to be afraid of being me. Now that I’m a counselor, I love being able to offer that to other girls.”

Traditions like sharing an afternoon story that weaves a bit of magic together with real characters like the counselors, animals or dragons are, Schwartz said, “a constant reminder that no matter your situation in life, you can find a place you feel you can belong ... a safe place for girls to explore who they are and come out of their shells.”

Pirtle, who invites campers to lend their own imaginations in creating the day’s songs, stories, plays and other activities, with themes like “every day that we care for ourselves, we’re changing the world,” says she’s watched the camp help kids shine, even if they’ve been withdrawn or depressed, by showing them they’re in a community that understands them and lets them be themselves.

Then, spontaneously demonstrating how the “magic” of the camp keeps working, Pirtle turns to Schwartz and praises the counselor: “Leah, this year you are one of the main anchors, because you know just what to do, through your instincts and your caring.”

A moment later, when a camper interrupts Pirtle to ask if she can lead a group in dressing up and fantasizing, the director demonstrates what Masla calls “a masterful way of handling conflict in a sensitive way that encourages growth instead of shame.”

Pirtle’s reaction is to suggest that the girl can try to approach the group herself, “and you’d include people, and you’d do the thing we do where everyone gets in costumes, and then you ask them what their character is, and then you could start without me.” The girl replies, “OK!” And heads off — as Pirtle later describes an over-arching camp theme — to “cooperate to be part of the solution.”

Of such moments are the 20-year-old Journey Camp made.

On the Web: http://sarahpirtle.com/journey-camp.htm

You can reach Richie Davis at
rdavis@recorder.com
or 413-772-0261, Ext. 269

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