How a Bay Area Dad Survived His Child’s First Time at Sleepaway Camp

By Paul Greenstone

The thought of the word “summer” still brings back so many magical memories from my east coast childhood: No school, our annual family vacation in August and … sleepaway camp in July!

I clearly remember that summer between 2nd and 3rd grade when my parents first sent me off to camp. It was amazing. The camp was in the wilderness of Pennsylvania and I was there for the first session which was for … wait for it … the entire month of July – four weeks! Were my parents crazy!? I was so young. What were they thinking?! I was ONLY eight years old. OK, calm down. Relax.


Fast forward to two and a half years ago: My five-year-old son David and I sat with other kids and their parents at Temple Isaiah in Lafayette, Ca. one Sunday morning where we were treated to “sales pitches” from three area Jewish sleepaway camps. We heard sample daily schedules and watched video presentations … arts and crafts, swimming, hiking, sports, Shabbat dinner (customary Jewish dinner on Friday nights) and a zip line! David looked at me with pleading eyes:


“Can I go?” he whispered excitedly.


I quickly replied that he was too young. David took my inappropriately timed mini explanation of why he couldn’t go like a typical five-year-old and began to cry uncontrollably. 
So, the next two summers David had to “make do” by attending local day camps such as Camp Roughing It (at the Lafayette Reservoir), Theater Camp at the Orinda Rec Center, Sienna Ranch (camp at a real farm in Lafayette!), inventor camp at Camp Galileo at Stanley Middle School in Lafayette, SF Giants Camp at a nearby baseball center and Camp Kefli (a day camp at Temple Isaiah).
While David loved all those camp experiences, he always talked about how he couldn’t wait to be old enough to go to sleepaway camp. One of those camps that presented at our Temple that Sunday was Camp Tawonga. Tawonga is just outside of Yosemite National Park, had been around for about 90 years and like the other two camps, enjoyed a very wonderful reputation. BUT, the key difference is that Tawonga has a program where kids entering 2nd grade (and older) could sample the camp for a five night mini-session. And not coincidentally, David JUST started 2nd grade. 
edb6ba08-b7b0-45b0-b888-9e76993da3c4So, despite my rational and irrational worries as a full-time stay at home dad/part-time helicopter parent, my wife Naomi (who has been gung-ho since David made his first plea for sleepaway camp) and I signed him up for A Taste of Camp at Tawonga. On the morning of Father’s Day (stick the knife in deeper, please!?), we drove to a parking lot at Merritt college in Oakland for the annual ritual known as “Camp Drop-Off”.

So there we were, surrounded by 300 soon-to-be campers, their parents and seven large charter buses. Luckily, Naomi and I had been counseled by parents who had years of Camp Drop-Off experience. We knew to try NOT to cry but to wear dark sunglasses to hide the tears, make the “good byes” quick with little drama and to NOT go on the bus with your child to give him/her a final “good bye”.


While we waited in the parking lot, we commiserated with some parents that we knew. David seemed a bit nervous (can’t blame him … so was I) but when the time came to board the buses, we hugged him quickly and watched him get in line to board bus #4. Naomi and I had given David countless instructions on how to survive for five nights without us and three of those instructions included … 1. Take two steps up onto the bus, turn around and wave so we can get a photo … 2. When staff members are taking photos for the camp blog (which gets updated throughout the day), try and get in as many photos as possible AND … 3. Smile for the camera!
I never checked the camp blog. Really! Not because I didn’t care or didn’t wonder what David was doing. I knew Naomi would be checking … not in an obsessive unhealthy way, as far as I know. I knew she’d look at the blog photos with the eyes of a mommy lion who was looking for her missing cub in the wide open plains. In a sea of children, Naomi would find our little “Waldo” … For the first few days, Naomi updated me by saying she hadn’t seen ANY pictures of our child. NONE! But, on day #3 and #4 Naomi found some great shots of David: One with his bunkmates and another where he’s smiling at the pool with his arm around a new friend. He was alive! And smiling and having fun. But…
0d2e5b8b-daac-4132-b4d0-6282aa309d85We told him to smile! What if he is miserable and just put on a fake smile because he knows we are looking for him on the blog and doesn’t want us to be upset because he is having a miserable time?! I exorcised those demon thoughts from my being. HE IS HAVING A GREAT TIME. HE IS. I KNOW IT. RIGHT? RIGHT!?
RIGHT! Upon David’s return to civilization, he claimed to have had “the best time ever” and had to “pinch himself” when he first got to camp to see if attending sleepaway camp was just a dream. These claims were confirmed when we got a postcard AND a phone call from his counselor, as well. To be honest, we called the counselor after camp ended, so he was just returning the call – AND the phone call we made was BEFORE we received the postcard – really! Don’t judge us.
Not only did David thrive, but I survived … Those five nights make up the longest time our child has ever been away from us AND we didn’t have the luxury of hourly updates via phone, emails, text and FaceTime.
Next year, David wants to go to Camp Tawonga for … wait for it … two weeks.
What am I gonna do?!


Photos courtesy of Naomi Greenstone

This article was first published in the Lamorinda Moms Fall Newsletter.
Paul Greenstone lives in Orinda with his wife Naomi and son David. Camp Tawonga is very excited to welcome David back next summer for a longer session of sleepaway camp … we think he’s ready!