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“Birch Camp is so much more than just a camp…”

By Sarah Small, corporate communications associate, New York

Draftfcb has a proudhistory of volunteering and assisting One Heartland and Birch Family Camps, a safe space where children and families affected by HIV/AIDS can go to enjoy a real summer camp experience. The tradition began in 1997 with 10 volunteers from the New York office, expanding the next year to include Chicago. This August, 38 volunteers from New York and Chicago spent two one-week sessions at Camp Laurelwood in Connecticut assisting 200 kids and 100 adults. Our inspiring counselors share their life-changing experiences at Birch Family Camp:
This has been my fourth consecutive year volunteering at Birch Camp. I can’t imagine a summer without going to camp. No matter how mentally and physically exhausting it may be, the kids, the parents and the volunteers have become a second family. Once the families get off the bus, they are welcomed with posters and hugs. Spending a whole week with people that you might not know may seem daunting, but by the end of the week you can’t wait until the next 51 weeks are over and camp starts again. The kids have taught me how the simple things we take for granted are totally awesome, from skipping rocks on the lake, to making s’mores at a camp fire and looking at the stars at night. They are also brutally honest and say whatever is on their minds. The parents are so thankful that they write Stargrams—letters that can be sent to any camper or volunteer during meal times, saying things like, “Thank you for teaching my son to eat vegetables.” Camp, of course, has its lows, like when we had “Reflections Friday,” in which a slideshow of the week’s memories was shown with music and a younger camper threw a fit and didn’t want to go back to his cabin because, he knew that camp was over the next day and he had to go home. One of the most touching moments occurred during Family Portraits when a returning family said “we can’t take this picture without you because you are a part of our family.” Birch camp is a place where different types of personalities, strengths and weaknesses come together and make it all work. I know I can speak for others when I say that, in only one week, this camp offers a brand new perspective on our priorities and opens our eyes to the many things we take for granted on a daily basis.
Jason Mercado, Business Manager, New York
I didn't know what to expect from my Birch Camp experience until I arrived at camp. Prior to leaving, I was so swept up in work and my daily life that I didn't spend much time researching the camp or the cause. And I'm not sure what research would've done to prepare me for camp. Birch was such a personal, emotional experience and I know I'm a volunteer for life. I was a counselor for the 6-8 year old boy group. The whole week pushed me out of my comfort zone. From digging in the dirt for worms to dealing with every kind of personality, it's important to realize you'll be doing a lot of activities that you don't normally do in your day-to-day life and embrace it as quickly as you can to get the full Birch experience. It's even more important to realize that the sooner you leave your comfort zone, the better off you'll be in dealing with most of life's situations. Spending time with my boys made me realize that most of my worries are trivial. It wasn't so much the hardships they faced that opened my eyes, as boys of this age generally don't know or speak about their family situations. It was the simplicity with which their minds work – things to them are black and white, right or wrong, good or bad, easy or tough. They don't vacillate and they don't dwell. It's a lesson I've been actively implementing into my business life. Remembering to trust your instinct is so important in the corporate world. Going with your gut, especially in the creative world, often leads to the best results because decisions aren't muddled by self-doubt and questioning. Go with what you feel most strongly about and the rest will come easy. Thanks to my little guys for reminding me of that.
Samantha Hayden, copywriter, New York
Camp. If you’ve attended summer camp—specifically a Jewish overnight camp—there’s something about this word that sends chills down your spine and brings tears to your eyes—in a good way. I spent seven summers growing up at camp. It was a part of my life that helped mold me into the person I’ve become today—who, now, is only so-so at the gimp box stitch. So when I saw the posters recruiting volunteers for Birch Camp hanging all around the Draftfcb offices, I was, naturally, the first person to ask for details and submit my application. Ten years after I performed at my last counselor talent show, told my last ghost story, bid adieu to that summer crush, I was able to embark on the camp journey once again, but this time I would bring the thrill of camp to families who otherwise would be left without. It didn’t matter to me what type of camp Birch was. It was a place where families could get away. Where they could paddle a canoe. Learn to dive. Roast a marshmallow. Learn the gimp box stitch. Sing a song that doesn’t make sense, around a campfire. Grow. Inspire. Thrive. But the years of being a camper and a counselor couldn’t have prepared me for when those big yellow school buses unloaded families in the heart of Camp Laurelwood on that perfect Monday afternoon. They couldn’t have prepared me for the sheer joy these campers—children and parents alike—emanated when they hopped on the swings or unpacked their sleeping bags, despite the baggage they carried with them. In just 4.5 days, the 7-year-old girls I spent every waking moment with showed me that kids are kids. They go to camp to have fun, to leave frustration and stresses at home. They didn’t know why they were there. It was camp, and that was enough. In 4.5 days, I cleaned up wet sheets, dried tears, cleaned dirty necks, became “TT,” served questionable camp food, tied shoes, read stories, gave piggyback rides, sang songs, raised my voice, laughed, took deep breaths, and learned more about the power of camp than I ever did in 441 days during my younger years. During the closing slideshow, my kids didn’t know why I was crying. Those were all happy pictures, weren’t they? These were all good memories, right? But those pictures showed 4.5 days of escape for these families. That slideshow showed 4.5 days of sheer happiness that I was able to bring to these families just by showing up with a positive attitude, a camp song, and a baller arts-and-crafts necklace. Birch Camp is like no other camp I’ve experienced. No, there were no frosted tip beauties. My gimp box stitch isn’t what it was. I didn’t wear headgear to bed. There were no Hebrew blessings before meals. But I left Birch Camp more exhausted and more fulfilled than I could ever have been from any other camp. I didn’t just remind my kids to brush their teeth, eat fruit before dessert, remind them to say please and thank you, tell them to wash their faces, scold them for teasing another camper, read bedtime stories, brush away tears. I gave them a week of escape—a beacon of light that I hope will stay bright for the next 51 weeks before they, and I, can return to the woods of Madison, Connecticut. Where we can sing that silly song. Claim the top bunk. Because Birch Camp is so much more than camp. Heather Irvine, senior copywriter, New York
Before coming to Birch Camp, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I was excited for the opportunity, but also a little nervous. Would I be able to connect with these children and families in one short week? Would I make a difference in their lives? Would there be situations related to HIV/AIDS that I wouldn’t know how to handle? There was a moment early in the week, I think it was on Tuesday, where I took a mental step back and thought about what makes Birch so unique. What I noticed is that everyone seemed focused on others. We didn’t worry about our appearances. We weren’t trying to impress anyone. We were simply there to love and grow and play together. No judgment, no prejudice, just pure love. Birch is a really special place not only for the families who attend each year and get to step away from their everyday lives, but also for the volunteers who get to meet, serve, and learn from these amazing parents and children. In some ways, Birch is similar to other summer camps with campfire songs, nature hikes, swimming, and other fun outdoor activities; however, in other ways, it's a unique environment full of so much love, acceptance, and pure joy and can be life changing for both volunteers and campers. I will always have a connection to the other counselors and campers for the work we did and the world we were able to create together. I can only imagine what it would be like if we brought the spirit of Birch camp into our everyday lives.
Laura Coalwell, junior copywriter, Area 23, New York
As a first year volunteer (who’s never gone to any camp, mind you), Birch can be considered an enormous undertaking. Thankfully from the moment I arrived and saw the grounds, got acquainted with fellow volunteers and met up with some folks I knew, it started to become clear – an interesting week lies ahead. There’s a ton of information and prepping for volunteers, getting ready for the families (campers) and how to handle stressful situations that may arise. There’s a warmth and consideration shared by returning volunteers for returning campers, as well as the anticipation of welcoming newcomers to Birch. This definitely sets the tone and confirms you’re doing something different. Special and memorable, to say the least. After long days of activities ranging from sports, to arts & crafts and adjusting to levels of caffeine you might not be accustomed to – the week is almost over. You’ve tested your own energy and abilities. Before you know it, it’s the last evening and you’re not looking forward to saying goodbye to anyone. You’ve witnessed some of these kids excel at sporting activities they’ve never been exposed to. They’re bonding amongst themselves. Inside jokes are born. They might even publicize a dance move or two they swore they’d never do outside of the cabin – because they got that comfortable with their new friends at the dance. Sweet. It wasn’t until after my highly recommended “post-camp nap” that I really appreciated why some volunteers have been doing this for years. It’s not hard to feel the allure to return. Yes, it was at times, exhausting. Yes, there were bugs (though not nearly as many as I anticipated). But the significant part really does live in the hearts of the families. Each one of them left knowing that they’d left an imprint on someone, I’m sure. Extraordinary people and experiences – couldn’t ask for a better week in the woods if you tried.
Cynthia Carrasco, talent manager, New York
Today, the average American has 180 friends on Facebook. Empowered by such hyper-connectivity, we seldom hesitate to share any passing mood, ambition, setback, or trifle. After all, having our voice heard makes us feel valued and hearing about others helps us relate. So, it was with regret that I stumbled upon the realization that the families in attendance at Birch Camp weren't accustomed to having the same sense of social-entitlement we often take for granted. That a personal component, overwhelming by nature and integral in forming one’s perspective, had desperately been stifled. For me, this understanding came from the contrast of two distinct points during the five day experience. On day one we greeted each and every family with personal welcomes brought to life via glitter-bombed posters. As camper after camper emerged from three, giant, yellow busses, I was immediately taken aback. Each disembarked with smiles larger than their faces and what I only imagine were demeanors reminiscent of the first conquistadors. They had arrived. And this was theirs. With each passing day songs were sung, hands held, campfires lit, and meals shared. In-between, as I drank the Kool-Aid (literally and figuratively), my confusion as to why the families entered camp with such pride quickly drowned. I came to comprehend the power of an open and unconditional community for those used to a much more relentless and disparate alternative. At its core Birch Camp played the role of providing a place for individuals to let their guard down, to experience life without reservation, and to grow from the collective wisdom of their circumstance. No moment better encapsulated this genuinely warm-fuzzy feeling than when the lights turned on after Reflections, the half-skit/half-montage two hour closing-day ceremony that transformed all camp participants into Birch Family kin.
Prunil Patel “Nature Guy,” analyst, Chicago