Nestled in the Southeastern Pennsylvania woods are clusters of cabins surrounded by soaring trees. Nearby, ponds and creeks reflect the blue sky, lapping and gurgling in the warm summer air. Such is the idyllic backdrop for Oxford’s Camp Saginaw and Schwenksville’s Camp Kweebec, two multifaceted summer-camp programs that continue to thrive on tradition.
From the owners to the campers, Saginaw is a family affair. Director Jessica Petkov married into the camp, which her husband, Mike, got to know intimately while growing up. He was a camper there himself before becoming a counselor, then a director. His parents bought Saginaw in 1986, and it’s been in the Petkov family ever since.
The ties are equally strong at Kweebec. Founded in 1935, it’s been owned by the Weisers for 47 years. The coed overnight camp is open to ages 6-16 and focuses on everything from athletics to the arts. Josh Weiser and his sister Rachel Weiser-Weisman are the directors, having succeeded their parents several years ago.
For campers, it’s often their first experience away from their parents for an extended period, so having a family running a weeks-long program can be a comfort. “The kids who come back year after year really do become part of our camp family,” says Petkov.
Weiser knows firsthand how important the relationships developed at camp can be. Some of his bunkmates from childhood are still among his close friends, and many were groomsmen in his wedding party. His parents even met at camp, shortly after his father bought it in 1969. “It has a warm, family atmosphere,” Weiser says.
Before camp even starts, Saginaw and Kweebec make efforts to help kids connect and ease into being away from home. It’s especially beneficial for those who signed up alone. Saginaw tries to put single campers in touch with others who might be a good match. Likewise, Kweebec sets up pen-pal relationships between new campers and those who’ve been through the process, are about the same age, and live in a similar area.
Roughly 400 campers—boys and girls ages 6-16—attend Saginaw each year. Many are local, coming from the Greater Philadelphia area, New Jersey, Maryland and Washington, D.C., with a few from other parts of the country and even the world. Camp sessions are broken into halfs and wholes. The setup is similar at Kweebec, though it caps numbers at 300.
While campers might be among family—whether it’s their own or a created one—homesickness can creep in. “A lot of parents are focused on telling their kids how fun camp is going to be—which it is. But they don’t always address those feelings. Acknowledging that adjustment period can be helpful,” says Petkov.
When simply discussing homesickness doesn’t suffice, there is a guidance counselor on hand to help kids work through their woes. For the most part, though, parents are quickly forgotten as campers are consumed by new friendships and activities.
Such was the case for Patty Shechtman. She was a camper for nine years at Saginaw, which her older brother and sister also attended. Her daughters, Ellie and Drew, are now following in her footsteps—not uncommon at either camp. When Shechtman parted with her daughters for their first summer camp at a nearby pickup location, she was amazed by the ease with which they went. There was a general frenzy of excitement among the other children, she recalls, and that made it better for Ellie and Drew. “There was a huge comfort and feeling of family,” she says.
Shechtman and her husband, Ari, loved attending summer camp growing up, and they wanted their daughters to have a similar positive experience. “I made the best friends; we had fun; I felt independent,” Shechtman says. “You got to go away from your parents and really feel like you were doing things on your own, which made you feel really close to your friends.”
That independence—and the deep and lasting connections Shechtman made—served her well when she went to college.
At any good summer camp, kids are kept busy for 12 or more hours a day. From the time they wake up until they go to sleep, recreation abounds. “We have anywhere between 80 and 90 activities—smaller camp games to sports to arts and crafts,” says Weiser. “Our arts program is one of our most popular.”
Sports ranging from tennis to soccer to basketball are an almost daily experience for Kweebec campers. “We give every camper the opportunity to try something they haven’t before,” Weiser says.
Petkov says it’s no different at Saginaw. “We have a lot of activities that kids wouldn’t get to do in their regular lives—go-carts, a 60-foot rock wall, a zip line,” she says.
Beyond the broad scope of recreation that each camp offers, trips are also part of the summer—whether it’s to a minor league baseball game or Hersheypark and Dorney Park. In the case of Kweebec, destinations include cities like Boston and New York. “If it’s going to be raining for several days in a row or really hot for a few days, we’ll take them bowling or roller-skating or to the movies to get them out for a little bit,” says Weiser.
All of these activities—coupled with living in a shared space—give friendships room to grow quickly. “The whole idea of going to camp is living with other people and making new friends,” Weiser says.
Campers are also given small daily responsibilities. At Kweebec, it’s simple things like sweeping or taking out the trash after breakfast. While largely perfunctory, the tasks give kids a regimen not unlike chores at home. “At the end of the summer, a lot of the parents say they’re amazed that their children came home more responsible—because we insist that they help take care of their bunk and work as a team,” says Petkov. “The sense of independence they gain is huge.”
Shechtman noticed the difference in her daughters. “I saw a big change in maturity and growth just in the first three weeks they were away,” she says.
When they returned, Ellie and Drew got their own snacks, put away their clothes, and took on household chores they’d never done before. “It carried over to school, too,” says their mom. “They took more ownership of their schoolwork, knowing their responsibilities.”
More than a sense of structure, camp offers a place for children to be themselves and separate from the daily bustle of life. To facilitate friendships and keep the kids focused, both Kweebec and Saginaw have instituted technology policies, limiting outside connections. Saginaw prohibits most everything but cameras and music players. “They really get to just be themselves,” says Petkov. “You have to develop social skills and relationships, and put yourself out there.”
While Shechtman is a fan of the limited-technology rule, her daughters have a slightly different opinion. “At nighttime, you can’t play on your phone,” says Ellie, 11, who enjoys staying connected via Instagram.
Drew agrees. “At night, it’s boring,” she says.
Even so, both found something else to do. Ellie reads, and Drew has “flashlight time,” talking with her bunkmates.
Kweebec implemented its electronics-free program last year. The new policy helps kids be in the moment and keeps them safe from potential online predators. “Last summer was one of our best summers,” says Weiser. “It allowed the kids to keep their focus inside camp and not worry about the outside world.”
While Ellie and Drew might not be big fans of the policies, it did help them build on the friendships that both say is their favorite part of camp. “I wanted them to experience a place where they could grow, feel safe, have friendships and fun. In this world today, there’s so much you have to be aware of and keep them safe [from],” Shechtman says. “At camp, they just can go and be who they are. I think camp is more important today than it was when I went. Kids can be kids. They can be outside with no worry.”
The attachments campers develop are perhaps clearest at the end of the summer, when the buses return them to their parents. Tears stream down their faces as they part with friends who’ve become almost like siblings. “They have a bond that’s unlike what they have with their school friends,” says Petkov. “By the end of the summer, everyone is sad to leave.”
Shechtman remembers Drew being reluctant to return home after her first summer away. “She walked off the bus and said, ‘I don’t want to be home,’” Shechtman says.
To maintain her connection with Saginaw, Drew texts her bunkmates and reminisces with her sister. It’s something her mom still does, keeping in touch and getting together with pals she made at camp 30 years earlier.
No matter the generation, traditional overnight summer camps continue to forge lasting friendships the old-fashioned way. “I think so many people look back at their experiences at camp and wouldn’t have been the person they became without it,” says Petkov. “There’s such a bond that these kids are making. It carries them through life.”