Kids fool around on a bridge during a small-group summer camp held by Thorne Nature Experience in Boulder County in 2020. (Handout)

Our kids have been through a lot over the past year. The COVID-19 pandemic has stolen so much from them and upended their lives. It’s brought the move to online school, reduced social interactions, cancellations of clubs and sports, and for some, the loss of loved ones. 

It’s been nearly a year of “missing.” 

Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, this has increased the rates of youth depression, anxiety and sadness. The vaccines will hopefully provide a way out, and as we look towards brighter days this summer, parents are prioritizing mental health alongside physical health for their kids.

Brooke Cheley-Klebe

For some Denver families, sleepaway camp is the answer. Zach Street, a Denver dad of two teenagers who are fourth-generation campers at our Cheley Colorado Camps in Estes Park, said he is relying on camp to help heal the damage done by the pandemic.

“My kids have been isolated from their friends and virtually cut off socially since March of last year,” Street said. “If we don’t do something to change this trajectory, I worry it will cause irreparable harm. Camp this summer will be the reset button that gets kids back on track socially and emotionally.”

The Outdoor Participation Report, a study from the Outdoor Foundation released in January 2020 (pre-pandemic), found that nearly half of Americans did not participate in outdoor recreation at all in 2018. Perhaps one silver lining from the past year is that more Americans will see the value in and take advantage of the outdoors. 

Being in nature supports a connection to others and to something that is bigger than oneself. This is particularly important as we help our children meet the challenges of the new normal and heal from a year of isolation and loss.

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Bob Ditter, a child and adolescent therapist, has worked with camps around the world for more than 40 years to train staff and provide guidance on child development. Bob has some valuable insights about the impact of the pandemic on kids and how camps can help.

“If the pandemic has reminded us of anything, it is that virtual connections, including social media, leave something vital out of things for us as human beings,” Ditter said. “The pandemic has made it abundantly clear that we listen with more than just our ears and we talk with more than just our mouths. The way we touch, our physical presence, the look in our eyes and the way we hold ourselves communicates with a subtle, yet essential richness we don’t miss until we don’t have it.”

Summer camps have been around a long time but they are more relevant and important than ever before. Sleepaway camps, in particular, can provide a place for kids to develop deep and meaningful friendships, the freedom of being unplugged, ample fresh air of nature, and the growth that occurs with independence.

“As I’ve thought about all the kids I’ve seen at camps across the country in the last 40-plus years and all the children and teens I’ve seen in my psychotherapy practice, I realize that we have it exactly backwards,” Ditter said. 

“Most people think of school as essential and camp as elective. What I have come to realize is that camp gives kids that deep drink of connection, of creativity and of inspiration that grounds them and fortifies them for the demands of the rest of the school year. Socialization and deep relationships are not a frivolous add-on for kids – they are not ‘elective.’ They are the essential core ingredients that are the key to all other kinds of growth and maturation young people experience throughout the rest of the year.”

Last summer presented incredible challenges for camp operators, and many chose not to welcome campers that summer. At Cheley Colorado Camps, we drastically altered our programs by reducing the duration from four weeks to one, and offering places to local families only. 

We took unprecedented measures to ensure that every aspect of camp met or exceeded public safety recommendations so that the parents who wanted a path to camp for their kids last summer had one. We operated six sessions and hosted more than 200 campers for horseback riding, hiking, climbing, fireside chats and more. And we did not have one single case of COVID-19. 

We look forward to offering the full camp experience to kids who are yearning for close friendships, wide open spaces and carefree laughter as we celebrate Cheley’s 100th anniversary this summer. 

Kids need time in nature with their peers to help heal from the damage done by the COVID-19 pandemic. As my grandfather used to say, “Great things happen when youth and mountains meet.” 

Brooke Cheley-Klebe is camp director of Cheley Colorado Camps, where she is part of the fourth generation of leadership. She is a former competitor in freestyle skiing, an Ironman triathlete, a graduate of the National Outdoor Leadership School in Patagonia and a mother of three daughters.

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Brooke Cheley-Klebe

Special to The Colorado Sun