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By Dr. Arthur Schwartz 

Summer has arrived!

It’s hard to believe that the summer solstice is tomorrow (June 20). For centuries, the longest day of the year kicked off the harvest season, lighting and jumping over bonfires, building stone circles and other rituals of mysticism and magic that honor the heat, abundance, and vibrancy of the sun god. 

The spark of being outdoors fires up a memory from many years ago. I was working at the School District of Philadelphia, trying my best to prevent ninth graders from dropping out of school. One of my colleagues had an idea to take a group of “at-risk” students on an overnight experience in early June (two weeks before the end of the school year). We all got on a school bus and traveled to an overnight camp an hour away.  The kids had a blast. Hiking in the woods. Campfires. Smores. Staying up late, joking and laughing. 

The next week, one of the students pulled me aside and said, “Mr. Schwartz, I want us all to go back to that place.” You could just see in his eyes how much he enjoyed being away from the concrete, congested city. I gave him my word that I would try and arrange for us to go back next year. That wasn’t good enough for him. He reached into his front pocket and pulled out an envelope and gave it to me. I could see right away that it was filled with $20 bills. The student looked at me and asked, “is this enough for all of us to go back?” 

I later learned that the student was a drug runner for a local gang. But I will never forget how much he wanted to soak in the magic of our 2-day outdoor experience. 

Every child should experience the freedom that nature offers. Walking with friends on a nature trail, listening to the sounds of silence, watching the sunset, and cracking jokes before falling asleep (even having to walk to the outhouse). 

Summer camp is about belonging. The best camps have a set of rituals that bring everyone together. There are no tests, homework, or expectations to be the “best student” you can be. Rather, the only expectation is for every camper to be their authentic self and pursue what interests them (whether it’s the arts or sports). 

Growing up my daughter-in-law and her two sisters attended a Jewish overnight camp every year. They became counselors at the camp when they got to high school. All three have formed camp friendships that will last a lifetime, friendships forged in camp memories that will never fade. 

I don’t know what happened to the young man who wanted so desperately to experience the magic of the camp experience. I hope that he has, for decades now, used the summer solstice to rekindle the healing power of the outdoors. 

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