40 years a Tawongan – by Steve Catechi
Almost heaven, Camp Tawonga. I’ve been thinking about those words for most of my life. More than 40 summers have passed since I first rolled down that hill into our gentle valley above the Tuolumne River. I can still remember how homesick I was that first summer – a suffering that was prolonged and accentuated for both children and their parents by the ill-advised presence of a pay phone attached to the Dining Hall. Those two weeks were tremendously challenging, and it was the first of many lessons Camp Tawonga taught me: I can do this; I will be OK; I will thrive!
As a kid, Tawonga meant independence. I could be someone whom I just couldn’t be at home. I lived together with people who really understood me – and who allowed me to be the best version of myself. The plaques that to this day still hang from the Dining Hall walls are evidence of that; they serve as reminders of a time when a small group of kids came together and trekked across the Sierra, protected our precious food from bears (well, sometimes), and slept on mountains so high that there were no trees to block the wind, under the intense light of the stars that could keep you up all night.
As adults, we talk a lot about our Mission at Tawonga, and for a good reason: It is the foundation upon which we make our decisions, organize our lives at camp, interact with each other, and envision a different, kinder world. As a kid, it was never discussed explicitly. Tawonga was simply a place where I found my own voice, lived together with a small band of (mostly) like-minded kids, explored the wonders of the Yosemite high country, and discovered the awesome power of three hundred campers thunderously singing thanks to G-d for our food (and water, of course).
Each summer, an extraordinary group of committed staff and volunteers move our community a little bit closer to the change we want to see in the world. This commitment to change is infectious – just being associated with Tawonga reminds me to always strive to be my “best self.” This past weekend, I had the opportunity to experience that magic during my last at-camp Board Retreat – an annual convening of Tawonga’s lay leadership.
I’m just finishing up my last of six years on the Tawonga board, three as President, during some of the most challenging times for our organization. I’ve had plenty of occasions to draw from that deep well of knowledge, experience, integrity, and ruach (spirit) within our Tawonga community. Just knowing we’re traveling together on this journey is a source of great strength, and is perhaps the greatest lesson. After all, Tawonga really is almost heaven.
Steve Catechi, in addition to being a Camp Tawonga Board Member and Past President, is also a Tawonga parent, along with his wife, Kate Bell, of boys Ben and Sam. We are so grateful to Steve for his incredible service and deep dedication to Tawonga.