My Parents First Sent Me to Sleep-Away Camp at 8 — and I Plan on Doing the Same With My Kids

POPSUGAR Photography | Alessia Santoro
POPSUGAR Photography | Alessia Santoro

I remember watching VHS recordings of Salute Your Shorts on the small box TV in our living room every day during the Winter I turned 8, and every day I'd ask my mom the same question: "Can I please go to Summer camp this year?" And every day my mom, who'd never gone to Summer camp as a kid, would answer, "Maybe when you're older." Desperate, I enlisted the help of my friend Matt — who was a year older than me and started going to sleep-away camp the Summer before — and his mother to try to convince my mom to send me with him come June.

After a few months of begging, which were undoubtedly grueling for my mother, she finally gave in on my eighth birthday and said I could go to 4H camp, the coed sleep-away camp Matt went to about an hour away from home. Despite feeling ambivalent about sending me at such a young age, she agreed to sign me up for half the Summer as long as I came home on weekends. Once she realized my weekends home would be filled with whining and complaining about how much I missed camp, though, she conceded to letting me stay the remaining two weekends of the Summer, even though I'm sure it broke her heart a little. In retrospect, though I know she missed me terribly while I was gone, I don't think she ever regretted sending me — I knew in my heart that I was ready, and she trusted that.

Since that Summer of 1998, I've always looked at my life's events as before 4H and after. Before and after my parents gave me a unique gift that I'd carry with me my entire life.

I'd never felt more a part of something or more free in my life.

The first day of camp was exhilarating from the moment I got there. Despite my young age, I didn't feel homesick at all. I'm an only child, so camp was the first time I felt like I was living with siblings; nine of us, all under the same rickety cabin roof. I felt right at home and got along with everyone easily, even my two 20-something-year-old counselors. Even just after that first day, I'd never felt more a part of something or more free in my life.

Unlike in school, I was able to choose the activities in my camp schedule. Unlike at home, my mom wasn't there to pick my dirty laundry up off the floor, so I had to do it myself. Unlike with my friends whom I'd spend all of the daylight hours playing with back at home, my new friends didn't have to be home by the time the streetlights turned on — we all went home together, to our teeny cabin in the woods where we'd stay up talking way later than our parents would have liked. The balance between my camp responsibilities and freedoms made me feel more grown up and completely trusted to make decisions for myself.

In addition to becoming more responsible over the years — I learned to do my own laundry the Summer I was 9, each cabin had weekly and daily chores to complete for the greater good of the camp, and we all had to keep our cabins swept and neat for morning "inspection," among other responsibilities — I learned who I was as a person at camp. I made new friends each Summer but grew close with a core group of friends, many of whom changed me irrevocably and I still keep in touch with today. Through those friendships, I became a freer version of myself than I felt I could be at home and within the confines of the busy school year.

POPSUGAR Photography | Alessia Santoro

Said free version of me, flying out of a cabin door on a mattress during my last Summer as a camper in 2006.

Camp felt like a haven where I could speak my mind more, open up to people I'd known for 24 hours more than I could some of my home friends, and try any new thing I was remotely interested in. I had my first kiss (and second, and third) and fell in love for the first time on 4H's grounds. Many of the clearest, most fond memories I can recall from my life thus far include dirty knees, the camp's wood buildings, and the faces of my fellow 4Hers. They're memories I'd never trade, not for anything, and I'm certain they couldn't have been replicated or matched had I spent my childhood Summers looking for something to do in the suburbs.

I kept going to 4H as a camper until the Summer I was 16, and I started working there at 17 for the next three years. Driving out to camp every June felt like returning home to my family after a long trip. Those 12 Summers at 4H — the magical place that shaped me in so many ways — are the reason I am who I am today, and because of that, I plan on sending my future kids to sleep-away camp, too; if they're comfortable, at 8 years old, just like I was. I know that giving them that experience will change their lives in ways I never could, and that's the most priceless gift a parent can give.