Why Going to Camp Is the Most Important Thing I've Ever Done

Back in the summer of 2007, I began my first session at Camp Echo, a sleepaway camp in upstate New York. Nine years later, one night before my last night as a camper, I decided that there was still one thing I had to do before I left. I needed to tell my story of growing up at camp, and the best way to do this was with a speech.

It was to be presented at a ceremony known as Campership, where the weekly achievements are honored and the summer is reviewed. Camper speeches at Campership are unusual, but after reading my nearly nine-minute speech, the director of the program decided to let me give it in front of the entire camp. I've made the decision to turn this speech into a blog in order to assist some people in the audience who requested copies of the speech, as well as teachers and other professionals who requested it as an example of a child's growth and development within a specific setting over time.

In addition, I feel that this speech may provide some insight into exactly what camp means to the campers, or even serve as an enjoyable read.

Address to All Campers and Staff at Camp Echo at the End of the Summer of 2015:

So, the other day some friends and I broke our vows to separate school from camp and we did a little bit of math. As it turns out, in my nine summers at Camp Echo, I have spent 441 days as a camper. That's more than a year. In that time, I could have done so many other things. I could have finished my novel; I could have become champion of a summer ice hockey league; I could have stayed with my friends at home and watched Netflix. But I didn't. Today I come to you proud to say that I have absolutely no regrets. Camp has shaped my life in such unimaginably profound ways. I wonder sometimes if my novel, or my ability to play hockey or to make friends, would even exist without this place.

A few months before I left home this summer, I had been sitting at a restaurant with my parents. The waiter came over to take our plates away, and somehow struck up a conversation. He told us -- really my parents -- about his twins, both going into fourth grade. He was putting them in a day camp. I listened to them talk, finishing off my plate, when suddenly I realized I had to speak.

"Send them to a sleepaway camp."

Camp is this beautiful place where your victories are celebrated forever and your failures are forgotten. It is the land of infinite second chances. It's a setting where mistakes are made to be learned from and moved past. Camp is where I learned to stop being a kid from Long Island and start being Spencer Kaminsky.

Nobody is static here. Every day I walk outside and see the Freshmen doing their activities. Every day I remember how I was then, so unsure of myself and caught up in a world of people and ideas so much bigger than I was. I never could have stood up here then.

When many of my friends here try to draw a distinction between camp and home, they refer to home as "real life," as if nothing that happens here is real. This is only partially correct. Camp, to me, is very real, but it's a different kind of reality. At camp, our actions are real, and what we gain is real as well, but the setting is not. Camp is like a training ground. It's where we push limits and try new things. Things we fear at home we wouldn't think twice about here. When I was younger, I was so afraid to reach out and talk to people who were older than I was. Here, I learned to overcome that.

So when I say that camp is the most important thing that ever happened to me, don't excuse the statement as a cliché. I honestly believe that what happened in this place made not only me, but all those who have shared this summer with me as CITs, who we are today. We are no longer the timid third graders with the quiet voices.

That's why, when my waiter told me that he couldn't send his kids to camp, I protested. That's why even after he explained that they were afraid to leave home, and that he would miss them, I persisted. These kids -- all kids, really -- deserve a chance to feel the way I do about a place like this. I don't know what those kids did this summer, but I hope their father took my advice.

Being a CIT this summer has given me a new perspective on the value of certain events. As I watched Olympic Opening Ceremonies this summer, I couldn't help but feel strange about not participating. As a judge, this summer I watched Olympics from the sidelines, keeping score and keeping time. I watched the 10th Grade carry the torch across the field, Olympic theme playing in the background. I was there last year. If you rewound time 365 days exactly from that moment, I would have been right there with them, lighting the rings. I realized then how much I missed being a camper. After eight years, my time as a camper was over, and it took almost all of my ninth summer to realize. No one realizes how precious the summers are until they're over.

At some point, everybody will have a moment such as this one. An era of my life had officially come to an end. That's why I savored every moment of the last few summers. The last drops of water are the sweetest.

Camp, for me at least, was a place that filled a void in my life. All year I study and work and stress to elevate my grades, but it can be hard to find meaning in those numbers. I watch grades rise and fall, and I'm told by adults I hardly know that those numbers will dictate my future, that my grades control who I will be. Most of the things I do outside of school fill my resumé. It all seems to be ahead of me. It's easy to get lost in that, to feel like just another speck of dust in the universe. Here, my actions matter. I am part of something bigger, but easily understood. My role, whether I be a camper, a Haller, or a CIT -- I am a part of something real. I don't have to read a report card to know how much camp has helped me.

Now, as much as I talk about how we are made by camp, camp is made by us, too. Without the people, Camp Echo is just a plot of land in the mountains. Everyone -- the campers, the staff, Jeff and Cindy -- we make camp what it is. That's why this place is so special. I've had more fun just spending time with my friends this summer than ever before. They hardly feel like friends anymore; after all this time, this is family.

I regret to announce that next summer, I cannot return to Camp Echo. If I succeed this year in school, I will have an internship doing medical research for a majority of the summer. All I can ask of those of you sitting before me today is that you do what I cannot. Come back next summer. Keep this place great and beautiful and welcoming. Grow to do great things and have great ideas. Pics and Hallers, come back as CITs; I promise you won't regret it. Ninth Graders, be the Pics and Hallers every grade wishes to be. Juniors, set an example for the Freshmen, and Sophomores and Freshmen, just keep growing and learning. Don't give up on this place.

At this point in my speech, I would like to share with you all a hard truth and a piece of advice. First, the truth. I am terrified of next summer. I simply can't imagine my life without this place. THIS is home to me. It feels like I'm losing an old friend. For as long as I can remember, this is what summer was. Now I can't say that anymore.

My advice is to never lose touch. Four months ago, I got a phone call from my mother, informing me that a friend of mine's father had passed away. Three years ago, this guy had been among my closest friends outside of camp. We played on a hockey team in Brooklyn, 45 minutes from my home in Hewlett. I hadn't seen him since the team had broken up. I left to play for my high school, as did most of the other players. He was on a tournament with them when it happened.

We went out to see his family. When I arrived, I couldn't help but feel that I had failed my friend. It took such a horrible occurrence for me to reach out to him. It felt so strange catching up with him after three years. I wanted to be thankful, but I couldn't be. He was miserable. I could have avoided this. If I had stayed in touch, if I had called every so often. I never told him, but I vowed then never to lose touch with a good friend again. These people I stand with today, they are the best friends I have. If I lose them, I have truly failed.

I don't know how much everyone here knows about me, but I want to make sure you all know one thing about me. The best decision I have ever made was deciding to come home to this place every summer. I hope you all decide the same.

I'll be back one day. Heck, I'm going to get that 10-year sweatshirt if it kills me. But until then, this is my formal resignation from Camp Echo. No matter what happens, this place is home. Don't let me come home to a place I don't remember.

So go,

Make a new friend,

Play a sport,

Complete the ropes course,

Fill an address book with contacts,

Tell your cabin they're important to you --

But whatever you do, savor every moment.

It will be over before you know it.

Thank you.

Watch the full speech here: