Hello muddah, hello faddah...how summer camp launched TreePeople

Tears came to my eyes last week while listening to a re-broadcast of an episode of NPR’s This American Life about summer camp.

They were tears of joy from great memories of camp and the enormous role it played in my life.

As a pre-teen and teenager, camp powerfully connected me with nature (I was a city kid who didn’t have much connection with wilderness) and with the power of being part of a team that enabled me to be, think and do things requiring much more strength and confidence than I had on my own. It was this intense experience of living in a community with shared values - caring for nature, the environment, and each other - that pushed me, with my Camp Director Jerry Ringerman’s encouragement, to bring those values back home to the city with me, to live them in the “real world.”

For me, summer camp became a launching pad for a life of service. It was at camp in 1970 when I was 15 years old, at Camp JCA in the San Bernardino National Forest about 100 miles - a 3-hour drive - from Los Angeles, that I began the work that directly led to my founding of TreePeople.

My original vision was to create a special camp for urban kids to restore the forests dying from smog creeping up from the city. And in fact, the very first years of TreePeople were spent engaging thousands of kids in dozens of summer camps in planting and caring for smog-tolerant seedlings to revitalize the smog-damaged forest around their camps.

That led to a nearly 40 year track record of educating, inspiring, engaging and supporting over two million people in tree planting and care throughout greater Los Angeles. The original spark I received at camp helped launch the citizen forestry movement in Southern California that has spread to other cities around the United States and around the world.

What also moved me while listening to the radio program was the realization that the summer camp spirit and values threading through all the tales told on the “Notes On Camp” episode, may be a shared experience and subtle link to connect, unite and quicken to action a community of tens of millions Americans with otherwise very diverse backgrounds.

Perhaps this is just what we need to respond effectively to economic and environmental hard times. Perhaps we should be investing in getting more kids to summer camp to ensure our future.