The kids are out of school for the summer, and filling their schedules with structured recreational and social activity is a high priority. The days of just entertaining yourself in the neighborhood are long gone. The term “camp” has significantly expanded over the years. Today there are almost an endless variety of summer camps…sports camps, day camps, overnight camps, nature camps, academic camps and heritage-based camps. The Armenian community in the United States has long valued the importance of summer camps as an identity vehicle for our youth. They vary in history and mission, but they share a common thread of providing an opportunity for our youth to experience summer life in an Armenian environment. For that reason, these camps are designed to provide the social, athletic and educational experiences that are an integral part of our children’s development.
Camp Nubar, which was established in 1963 by the AGBU, operates in the scenic Catskills and has a long sustainable history of success. This is illustrated not only with its robust camp seasons, but also the presence of a strong alumni that provides generational support and important resources. The Diocese of the Armenian Church (Eastern) has run St. Vartan’s Camp for decades, and after years at rented facilities, they now reside at the Ararat Center (just north of the Catskills). The camp attracts parish-affiliated children from the eastern region and is managed by the clergy as well as lay staff. The Armenian Evangelical Church sponsors Camp Arevelk every August at the Ararat Center. Both camps at the Ararat Center offer campers a spiritual education in addition to ethnic, social and athletic experiences. Although not technically camps, both the Diocese and the Prelacy have well-established summer studies programs at St. Nersess in Armonk, NY and the Datev Institute in PA, respectively. These immersion programs offer substantial religious education in an environment of social and athletic activity. The west coast, particularly the Armenian Youth Federation (AYF) and the church, manage several summer camps that nourish the needs of our youth in that region. All of these camps serve an important purpose in the national diaspora. The AYF and other groups have even taken on the responsibility of running summer camps in the homeland. Our list would be incomplete without the oldest, founded in 1951: Massachusetts-based Camp Haiastan.
Campers, staff and alumni of Camp Haiastan have used phrases such as “a special place,” “my happy place” and “a place that changed my life” to describe their experiences and memories of this iconic location. The vision for this gift began in 1939 when the AYF Convention mandated the creation of a summer youth camp. The 100-plus acres of “Armenia” was purchased in 1940 with the support of the ARF and ARS. The original property included what became referred to as the “upper camp” with a caretaker’s home, store and cabins for summer use. The venue was initially used for traditional Armenian picnics. The years until the opening of the youth camp were interrupted by WWII and a need to focus resources elsewhere. When the war concluded, an incredible wave of volunteers arrived weekend after weekend and built what became Camp Haiastan in 1951. All of us should pause to remember those incredibly dedicated men and women who worked tirelessly while rebuilding their own lives in post-war America. I have been told by members of that generation that the dedication and passion to build the camp was unprecedented. The camp grew quickly as infrastructure, staff and more campers joined what was soon to become another pillar in the AYF legacy. I remember in my youth, growing up during the summer at my grandparents’ poultry farm in Franklin, that the older generation would call this piece of heaven on earth “Haiastan Camp.” I loved to hear my grandparents utter those words. Grandpa was a regular at the “upper camp” in the evenings to play pinochle with local friends and guests who stayed in those cabins to escape the city summer heat. I would sit quietly by his side watching them engage in life discussions while they played cards.
I remember my first time there. I wasn’t even camper age, but I remember the front gate looking like some sort of Armenian fortress. In those days, before the improvement of the parking infrastructure inside, cars and buses would park in the field on Summer Street across from the main gate. It was simply an unused field, and you had to carefully navigate the terrain with your vehicle. The upper camp was where the picnics took place. I have vivid memories of family mini picnics as you ventured to the periphery beyond the concrete dance floor. The smell of shish kebab and the energetic sound of the Armenian band were a constant. As you eventually found your way down the road from the picnic area, you entered a new and remarkable experience at the bend where the iconic Camp Haiastan sign resides. This was “The Camp.”
We were all lucky enough to attend camp in our family. My older sister set the standard. She was a camper and staff member for many years. She also was one of many to meet her spouse under the pine trees. We had a great number of family members in Franklin, so going to the camp felt a bit like a hometown adventure. We quickly learned that the camp operated in its own world and with its own unique culture. It was our Armenia in the diaspora. As a kid from a very small town, almost everything was a new experience—the rules, the cabin life and of course, the food. I met all these kids from New York who seemed so much older than me, probably because Queens has a bit more to offer than Indian Orchard. How incredible that kids at such an age have the benefit of knowing peers from Michigan, Florida or other areas of this country. What an important contribution to their growth when you consider the future visits and years of knowing each other. In today’s camp world, there are innumerable state and local regulations about safety and, in particular, food. It’s hard to believe, but back in the day, one could invite a wonderful Armenian grandmother to make chicken and pilaf. It’s a bit more challenging today with licensing and inspections, but the atmosphere is still special. One of the natural wonders of that property is the diversity of its offerings. Nature hikes are plentiful with 90-percent of the property wooded, and the waterfront offers a variety of activities. The locals in Franklin all know about the camp, and it is gratifying to hear “Haiastan” pronounced correctly.
So why has Camp Haiastan become such an enduring legacy? One of the obvious factors has been the ability to keep the core values yet introduce appropriate change. For example, they introduced teen sessions and a day camp for younger children a number of years ago. This allowed them to address a core demographic in the teens and at the same time build a “feeder” group with the day session. The curriculum at the camp has always been excellent with a focus on language, culture and history. With support from the Prelacy over the years, the campers get a well-rounded experience.
The camp has a superb safety record, which is of paramount importance to the parents and its reputation. The campers are probably the most important variable in this success equation. They are the ones who create the demand by asking their parents to return. The social experiences created by the cabin culture, competitive games, teamwork, friendships and dances allow the campers to grow into young adults under the guiding hand of a family-oriented culture. It does not get any better for parents knowing that their children are away, but happy, safe and fulfilled in an Armenian environment. This is how you cement the emotional bond to their heritage required for sustaining Armenian life in the diaspora. Hundreds of our camp alumni are contributing members of our communities; that first spark was experienced at the camp. Life is full of interesting transitions. As kids, we had limited awareness that the friendships we made there would mature into lifelong relationships. As parents, we return to the camp with our children and see the images of our time and feel joy for our kids that such an environment still thrives. Although my time as a camper was limited, I returned for many years as a volunteer teacher under the leadership of the iconic “Baron Pete.” The “return” rate is very high at the camp whether through campers, staff, volunteers, board, individual supporters and benefactors such as the Armenian Youth Foundation. The family has grown to be multigenerational, geographically diverse and deeply committed to the future.
The AYF has been able to build a network of interconnected anchors in its foundation that enable a level of sustainability. In previous columns, we have made comments about two of the other anchors—the AYF Olympics and Junior Seminar. The most valid confirmation of this trifecta is to look at it from the children’s’ perspective. These opportunities are viewed as bridges for their ability to communicate and see each other, thus building the depth of their relationships. If you add today’s feature of texting and Instagram, the relationship is continuous. This process has been viable for generations, even when letters or occasional phone calls were the sustaining methods. If we were to listen to the “see you laters” on exit Saturdays, how many times do you think one would hear, “See you at Olympics?” How many times do you think one would hear at seminar, “See you at Camp.” Another point to consider that sustains this model is that frequently as parents we do what we do for our kids with little expectation for ourselves. This is not true with the Camp Haiastan experience. When parents and grandparents bring their children, they see current and old friends. It becomes a somewhat expected mini-reunion. Camp Haiastan is a place with something for everyone that contributes to the essence of life—happiness. The camp board and major benefactors are essentially former campers and staff who have moved from participant to dedicated servants. This year marks the 70th anniversary of Camp Haiastan. A special gathering has been planned for July 23 to celebrate this remarkable achievement. It is rare today that we can continue multigenerational activities that are thriving. In the Olympics and the Camp, the AYF has managed to create two. When all the stakeholders (the parents, the kids and the community) see the importance, impact and long-term success, the result is truly what we call “special,” “best place in the world” and “my happy place.”