When I was 10 years old, my parents sent me to overnight camp. Everyone in Pittsburgh went to one of two camps in Maine…except me. My parents chose Camp Tapawingo. No one else my age from Pittsburgh went to Tap and that’s exactly why it was the choice of my mom and dad. They wanted me to have an experience all my own, 8 weeks of a new and different community that would be mine, all mine. I cried when I realized all my friends would be together. I barricaded myself in my bedroom for an entire day in protest, but in the end I helped glue name tags in my socks and polished the requisite uniform saddle shoes.
That was 60 years ago and my years at summer camp remain the best gift my parents ever gave me. They had no idea that camp would become my anchor, from 1959-1968, my camper and counselor years at Tap and then my lighthouse as I moved through the next 40 years.
I was 5’6” in third grade. I was the tallest kid in my school and a better athlete than most of the boys. Socially, the combination was not a good one. I never stood up straight, especially at dancing school when most of my partners came up to my chin. At recess, girls played hopscotch and I played softball. I saw myself as the odd one out at home. At camp, there were lots of other tall girls and lots of good athletes and suddenly, I stood up straight. Rather than standing out from my peers, I had a place among them. What a heady feeling…camp was magic.
My Grandma Lando was my champion. She came for dinner every Sunday evening and when she left, she always said to me, “Be good and even more important, do good.” I didn’t understand what ‘do good’ meant but her words stuck with me and as the years and my grandmother passed her words challenged me. I thought I was doing good in college when I wrote to unknow-to-me American soldiers fighting in Viet Nam and when I volunteered at Big Brothers and Big Sisters in Boston. I tutored Cuban immigrants in English, I learned basic sign language and created a garden for and with deaf students. I organized a group that helped a Russian family settle in Pittsburgh. I was doing good…
But camp, my magic place in Maine was always on my mind. I realized that I wanted to do something that would bring that magic to other young girls; I just didn’t know what. The day after 9/11 I was on the phone with Jane Lichtman, the owner of Tap and she mentioned that two of her campers had lost their mothers in the World Trade Tower bombing and that was my moment. Grieving girls and camp. Grieving girls at my camp...
The expression ‘If you build I they will come’ defines how Circle Camps came to be. Within three months of my conversation with Jane, I had contacted former bunkmates and former Tap counselors, begged legal help to secure tax-exempt status and traded on the friendship of a high school boyfriend for an initial grant. Circle was good to go. And it has been going strong for 18 years.
Thank you, mom and dad, for a decision you made 60 years ago. Thank you Grandma Lando for your wise, challenging words. Would that you all were still here to see this next Circle chapter…
From Circles to cycles…
Sandi Lando Welch
Founder, Executive Director, Sore Legs.