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North Hills Monthly

Friendships Forged at Camp Can Last a Lifetime

Feb 27, 2015 06:39PM ● By Hilary Daninhirsch
There’s something special about an old friend…but perhaps there’s something even more magical about a camp friend.

When Carol Sikov Gross of Squirrel Hill was in kindergarten, she met a little girl named Hope. The two became instant friends, but then Hope moved to Ohio when they were in second grade and the two lost touch. So it was a surprise to both of them when they reunited at Camp Lynnwood in Morgantown, WV (now called Emma Kaufmann Camp) when they were in fourth grade. The two wrote each other for a while but eventually, again lost touch.

After a few summers at Lynnwood, Gross switched to JLW Ranch Camp in Painesville, Ohio, a horse camp, when she was about 13. During her third summer there, who should show up but Hope, who had no idea that her friend was attending. “I thought, now that fate has thrown us together three times, we have to stay lifelong friends, and we did,” said Gross.

Though Hope has not lived in Pittsburgh since she moved in the 1960s, the two have remained close, serving as bridesmaids in each others’ weddings, talking regularly and visiting each other when they’re able.

Gross is a huge proponent of overnight camps and believes that camp friendships have a greater potential to create lifelong bonds since these are kids with whom children choose to associate, rather than being thrown together by parents or school. “I think it’s because you’re having experiences on your own where you don’t have any parental involvement; that really makes a difference. These are friends you are making by yourself, so it’s a very independent thing,” she said.

Tori Pernell, 21, a senior at La Roche College, can thank Windwood Day Camp for her three best friends. Pernell attended the Wexford camp every summer from ages 6 to 13. One of the girls went to her school and the others attended a different school district. “We all became friends right off the bat,” she said. And when the age for attending camp ended, the girls continued their friendship.

“These are my ultimate best friends for life,” Pernell said. “It’s probably because I’ve known them for as long as I can remember. They’re basically family; they’re like my sisters.” The girls all attended each other’s high school functions and became friends with each other’s friends.

Pernell believes that it is important for kids to have friends outside of the school environment, and that there is something pretty special about kids that you don’t see every day. “It might be the fact that it was only during the summer, so we’d have nine months to catch up on,” she said. “What we were doing at camp was always fun, and it was doing our own thing that gave us that freedom and helped us grow.”

Don Miller’s camp experience had such a profound effect on him as a youth that he continued as a camp leader when he grew up. Miller attended his first weeklong Boy Scout Summer Camp in 1971, and spent nine consecutive years at various camp locations throughout western Pennsylvania, first as a camper, then as a camp staff counselor. After college, he served as a volunteer troop leader for 12 more years, from 1986 to 1997.

“It’s fun, you’re 12, mom is not around, you’re outside, there are all kinds of cool things to do, there’s a bunch of boys, what can be wrong with that?” Miller said. “This is why we go and why we stay.”

While Miller is still in touch with most of the kids with whom he attended camp, his closest friends to this day are the other camp leaders; not just because they shared experiences together, but because they had memorable experiences that bonded them for life. For example, during a tornado, he and the other leaders led the boys to safety, and then worked all night to repair the damage to the camp. That kind of experience is one that you just don’t forget, nor is it one that could happen in a school environment.

“It’s not just that you’re away and having fun, but these are people you can be yourself with or be exceptional with, and not be embarrassed or uncomfortable with,” he said.

“There’s a coming of age and maturity that comes from being friends for the first time in a not so horribly supervised environment,” he added. “You’re solving problems on your own, working on your own, and that is what creates a bond.”