I never understood why it was so interesting that my mom rode her bike from Pittsburgh to Delaware with me back in 1998. The ride was 366 miles and it took us six days. It killed me that we only covered 60 or so miles a day and I frequently rode ahead several miles, then back to mom, then back ahead over and over for six days. I was very proud of my pace and the distance that I covered. I was proud of the fact that I took a train home the day after we arrived so that I could compete in a regional swimming championship meet. I was 15 and thoroughly convinced that what I was doing was quite impressive. So why did everyone get so much more excited when they learned that my mom, age 50, was riding with me?
Now she’s done it again. This time she didn't have an arrogant teenager whisking past her and repeatedly leaving her behind. Her trip was twice as long as it was the first time, 20 years ago. She rode over more mountains, through worse weather, and occasionally, alone. This time she wasn't 50 years old, either. And this time she had hundreds of people watching her, all of whom would have asked “why?” if she hadn't finished.
All of those challenges and her response to them - or the fact that she doesn’t even always consider them challenges - are what set her apart from that teenager. He was a pretty good athlete but he lived in his own head. My mom knows why she did this bike ride and it’s not to impress anyone. It’s to raise money for a cause that she has believed in and fostered for almost all of the 20 years that have passed by since our first bike ride.
This time the ride was to raise money for Circle Camps. And this time, even I am impressed.
When I read a good book, I can’t put it down until I approach the end. As with everything for me, I procrastinate to prolong as I approach the end of anything important. And so it goes with Cycle for Circle. At the end of Day 16 with only 37 miles to go, I cycled slowly, and that is saying something since every cyclist I saw on this trip whizzed by me…
I’m not really at the end of my Circle cycle. I will remain the Executive Director as I work with my successor. She and I will take time together to make sure the successor succeeds. And she will, of that I am sure. My team and I built the road of the past 17 years; with her own team, she will blaze a trail to the future…
After, I retire from my current role, I’m working on something that will teach Circle campers about and involve them in the non-profit world. That’s in the future, albeit not too far off…
Today as I cycled forward, my mind traveled back. It was 17 years ago that the first van, carrying 32 campers rolled into Circle of Tapawingo. That summer, our volunteer counselor numbers almost equaled our camper numbers. Three of those first-year counselors are Circle lifers, Grace and Jay Bright and Ann Salinger. The Emmons family volunteered in 2002; Peter Emmons is the Board Chair of Circle Camps; Lane Emmons Shelton is our Camp Director. Two of those first-year campers, Hannah French and Emily Koetsier, are counselors. A summer at Circle has staying power.
I wasn’t exactly sure what we were building 17 years ago but I was blessed by a team that knew we were on to something far greater than our original expectations. As the first week progressed, we watched sadness joined by smiles. We counselors were there, simply there, to kick around a ball and share the teeter totter. We didn’t get everything right, but our failures were unknown to the campers who gifted us with trust. We gave them their own community and a window to a world where loss and life go hand in hand.
We’ve greatly built on that first summer program for campers ages 9-12. We added a Teen Program for girls 13-14. And our campers asked us grow Circle as they grew and we added a Leaders In Training for girls ages 15-18. AS LITs graduate, they return to Circle as counselors. We are ensuring sustainability at the same time our newest campers have our oldest former campers as role models.
So many of you have been part of this journey. This is not an ask, but recognition of what Circle donors have enabled us to build. I’ve been thanking donors personally for a long time; I’ve been searching for a new and different way to say thank for almost as long. I finally understand that nothing says thank you better than thank you…
Let me share a few special, fun Circle moments…Tubing with a camper who had passed her deep water test the day before leaving camp. We shared the tube and at the start, too scared to talk, she signaled the boat driver to go slowly. By the end of our spin around the lake, we were flying and she was screaming… Blobbing, when someone sits at the end of a long tube filled with air and another someone jumps off a ten-foot tower onto the tube launching the seated into the air. I could blob the youngest campers in spectacular fashion. They insisted on blobbing me back. Nine years old and probably under 70 pounds, they jumped off the tower and I didn’t move. Camper after camper tried but I was unblobbable. Without telling me, the campers asked one of the larger male lifeguards to climb the tower. He jumped and I flew - what a moment for all of us...I am hopeless at arts and crafts and over the years many campers have volunteered to help me. Last summer at Circle of EKC a camper told me I should go play basketball and not waste the supplies. I was out of there in a flash.
Poignant moments? A few stand out…The camper who passed her swim test after five years of trying and signed up for the Lake Swim. All the other campers had completed the swim; every single one of them sat on the dock long into the next period cheering for that last swimmer...The camper who had practiced at home all winter for the Circle of the Stars Talent Show and when the time came, she froze in front of the audience. A counselor walked up to the camper, and turned her around. Not facing the audience, the camper sang and we all cried...
For me, books and memories have the same effect. The good ones take you to a place where you want to be. It used to be difficult for me to start a new book after finishing a good one. Not so anymore, and it will be the same as ride into Circle of Tapawingo tomorrow for the finish of Cycle for Circle. My Circle memories will lead me to a new place where I want to be and you will be there with me.
My first year at Circle was Circle’s first year at Circle. I remember my mother telling me that we were headed back to camp. I remember packing my bag. I remember meeting my co-bunk counselor, Grace, and my mom’s first introductory speech welcoming a new generation of girls—for so many of them—to their first camping experience. What I do not remember, no matter how hard I try, is the year leading up to that first Circle summer.
Inspired by to help by the loss of September 11th, my mother wanted to do something. Returning to camp was a no-brainer for her. I know why and how Circle came together. I just don’t remember it. That is how natural and effortless creating Circle was for my mom. She and that first team of camp lovers built the seed of Circle in months, and it grows strong today.
Biking 720 miles is not easy, and my mom will be the first to tell you as much. Climbing onto a tiny seat day after day with hundreds of miles before her has been hard. What was not hard—I am quite sure—was deciding that she would do this ride. Helping Circle, giving it to new and returning campers every year, has never been hard for my mom.
In a few days, my father, brother and I will get a call when my mom reaches Circle of Tapawingo and the ride is over. We’ll hear about the last rainstorm that threatened to slow the ride down or the cold dinner cobbled together the night before because the restaurant closed early. What we will not hear is any exhaustion in my mom’s voice. The moment she rides in to Circle, the campers will fill her with all the energy she needs to tackle the next challenge. And I am sure, as with all things Circle for my mom, she’ll make it look easy.
Jessie Welch Friend, Sandi's daughter
Sandi Lando Welch
Founder, Executive Director,