In a sprawling rustic lodge, after an impressionable fireside by our stake president, almost 100 girls with smudged faces and matching T-shirts sang “Happy Birthday” to Young Women camp. I’m not sure who blew out the centennial candle on our enormous chocolate cake, but we all enjoyed the sweet celebration of realizing other LDS girls have been doing the same thing for a century now.
And what is this thing called girls camp?
For most, despite time or location, the annual camp means leaving home (sometimes for the first time), hikes and firesides, singing silly songs, certifying with new survival skills, and spiritual surges while sharing heartfelt testimony.
I have a vivid memory of my first night at Young Women camp as a 12-year-old. Without the crutch of my best friend who was too young to attend, I sat in a tent with the older girls in my ward. My timid nature was soon dispelled by their kindness and I felt included in a way that changed my whole view of the Young Women program from that day forward.
I was a committed girl camper after that and enjoyed stake camps, ward camps and even Brighton Camp. The treacherous stories from my fourth-year hike along the Salmon River in Idaho still elicit laughs and gasps.
My best camp experience, however, came as a youth leader in high school when a new program was integrated to give the youths more responsibility. Three of us girls with an awesome mentor spent months preparing for camp by incorporating leadership training into the daily schedule, inviting an LDS singing star for our spiritual fireside, designing logos for sweatshirts and writing a legend for our new location in the Wasatch mountains.
During the week of camp, we were the ones to make announcements, solve problems and elicit excitement. The experience laid a sure foundation of confidence for future leadership opportunities, church callings and missionary service.
My next turn at camp came a few days after returning from my mission when a replacement leader was needed at the last minute. Revived with a service purpose, of course I said yes and happened to be the only one to pack rain gear. So when camp became a perpetual downpour, I spent most of my days and nights shoveling trenches and checking on tents of girls to make sure they were safe, protected and productive. I also had the chance to re-bond with my two sisters who had changed and grown much during my 18 months away.
We were living in Montana when I was next called to serve as a ward leader for camp. I was seven months pregnant and left three little girls home with my husband. Due to my condition, the young women carried the brunt of all chores and I took a three-hour nap every afternoon while they were off certifying with other leaders. If I had lodged in a five-star hotel rather than an army tent in the high alpine, I could not have felt more pampered from regular-day rigors.
It was ironically unnerving yet satisfying to take a 10-year break from camp, giving my own teens a chance to go a few years without their mom. This year, I was asked to lead the crafts and had loads of fun incorporating the youth 2012 theme to “Arise and Shine Forth” in the form of leather key chains, metal washer necklaces, ribbon and zipper coin purses, and duct tape bracelets in orange and gold.
At Camp Paxson on the shores of Seeley Lake, the location was picturesque with tall pines, star-filled skies and lots of wildlife. It was the perfect place to escape life and reconnect with our Maker, much like Moses, Nephi and all those other Mormon girls over the past 100 years.
Despite the stress of getting a stake full of girls and leaders on location with trailers full of gear, I found the miracle to be the serenity once we arrived. After three days of incorporating Hilary Weeks’ challenge to click away our positive thoughts, I realized I hadn’t had a negative one — at all. I treasured the mental rest from Satan’s effective tool to bring women down with their own negative thoughts and it was more liberating than I could have imagined.
Most of all, I loved that the youth leaders still run the show. From campfire songs sung in gorilla costumes to leading the younger girls in a candlelight walk to the dock to sing hymns in the moonlight, youth leaders were integral to our girls camp success. They taught younger ones how to tie knots, identify clouds and endure to the end of rigorous hikes. They were mentors and facilitators of spiritual experiences, and it was inspiring to witness.
For me, camp is an essential element of any young woman’s maturation in the gospel — dirt, mosquitoes, blackened socks and all.