“Camp helped shape me into the person I am today.”
This is something that Ryan Mertz, the executive director of YMCA Camping Services, says he often hears from past campers at YMCA Camp Ohiyesa, located on the shores of Fish Lake in Holly.
It’s no surprise. The camp, which has been serving kids in the metro Detroit area more than 100 years and is no more than an hour from anywhere in metro Detroit, provides children with a place to learn and grow, make new friends and have experiences that will impact their futures. And they get to experience it all in a beautiful, natural environment — without screens.
“Camp is a place where youth gain independence, build friend-making skills, challenge their limits, explore the natural world and create lifelong habits of healthy living under the careful guidance of responsible role models,” Mertz says. “For kids, having positive role models who believe in you and encourage you (outside of their own family) is tremendously important in their development.”
For Highland mom of two Jennifer Gordon, the decision to send her children, Abby, age 12, and Quinn, 10, to camp each year is a no-brainer. In fact, the kids have spent eight and six summers respectively at YMCA Camp Ohiyesa.
“It’s about 300 acres in the woods with the lake and all the activities, typical standard summer camp activities — canoeing, archery, a giant swing and all the normal sports activities,” Gordon says. “I think the environment and the counselors keep us coming back every year.”
This summer is no different. In fact, Gordon’s children are back at YMCA Camp Ohiyesa for both day and overnight camps.
“They love both experiences, and both experiences are different,” Gordon says. “It’s great for them to get exposure to being away from home like that.”
Gaining a bit more independence is just one of the many benefits of the summer camp experience, and, this year, campers will also receive a boost in their academic and social learning — which is integral after the early end to in-person learning due to COVID-19.
“With kids out of school for so long now, we’re helping children to become reacclimated socially while continuing to develop communication, teamwork and science skills,” Mertz says. “Camp helps children to be successful in school, if they attend college, and in the workforce later in life. Research tells us that camp experiences are distinct from other learning environments because kids learn skills at camp that they do not learn in the same way in school.”
The power of summer camp
Michelle Lee, the academic principal at David Ellis Academy in Detroit, only attended camp once as a child, and it wasn’t until adulthood that she got to experience YMCA’s camps with her students. After that, she realized the power of the summer camp experience — and even found ways to expand on the skills children learn at camp in the classroom.
“Every activity that you participate in at camp increases your critical thinking skills, it increases a child’s independence,” Lee notes, and those skills stay with them for life. “Camp is very social, it’s very engaging. In camp, you are building friendships, you’re building skills all day long. I think that every child and every adult should experience camp. It’s something you will never forget. It’s positive.”
At YMCA Camp Ohiyesa, the camp experience is unforgettable for all ages. For day campers, Mertz says activities are tailored to each age group (day camps are for ages 5-16, while overnight camps start at age 8). The youngest campers may take part in pony rides, swimming, playing parachute in the field and more.
“We encourage them to try things like the climbing wall and archery, but we know their favorites might still be drawing with sidewalk chalk, the waterslide or making a craft to take home,” he says.
Other activities include yoga, art, canoeing and kayaking.
“Overnight campers can focus on skill development in the activities they are most interested in. It’s an opportunity to learn about goal setting in a healthy way with positive, encouraging role models,” Mertz says. “Older campers also get to try out more adventurous activities like the giant swing, the Alpine climbing tower and paddle boarding while learning leadership skills from our staff.”
These experiences are what keep Gordon’s kids coming back every summer.
“My kids look forward to this every year. They’ve been to Disney World a couple of times, and this they have called the happiest place on earth,” Gordon says. “This is their heart; every summer it makes them so happy.”
This content is brought to you by the YMCA of Metropolitan Detroit. For more information, visit ymcadetroit.org.