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I remember my first time crossing the little bridge to Keystone Camp as a key camper when I was eight years old. I was full of anticipation and excitement; I’d never been to sleep-away camp this far from home. I was a little nervous, but I knew this would be a new adventure. My parents have told me that they had similar feelings upon that first arrival to an overnight girls camp, for they were parents entrusting their daughter into the care of a group of people they had never met before. And yet, despite those parental nerves, they recall that as soon as they watched me run across the bridge over the creek into the cluster of excited counselors,they knew that I’d be back the next year, and the year after that, and maybe even the year after that.

And here I am again eleven years later, counting down the days till I get to go back to Keystone Camp, except this time I’ll be on the other side of the bridge welcoming a new wave of kiddos and their nervous-but-excited guardians.

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Going to Keystone Camp became almost a ritual for my family. My mom and I would start packing my sticker-covered purple trunk days in advance. Then finally we’d load up the car and make the drive from Jacksonville, Florida to Brevard, North Carolina. The trip varied each time, but we’d usually drive all the way up the day before (or several days before) and stay nearby to be up and in the opening day car line bright and early. And my goodness, opening day is a whirlwind: the long line of cars winding out onto the road, excited girls squealing in delight and running to greet their friends from years before while their parents snap pictures, work crew delivering trunks to cabins so fast in such warm weather that I am convinced they have super powers, nurse check-ins, unpacking and decorating, and all kinds of smiles everywhere. It’s magic. And then it’s over, and all the parents have said their farewells and the girls have already jumped right in to the vast array of getting-to-know-you games in their cabins and on The Green. They have no idea just how much they’re going to learn about themselves in their short stay at Keystone Camp. I know I didn’t.

At the start of every family drive up to Keystone, as he was pulling the car out of the driveway, my dad would ask me and my mom, “Now, have I ever told you what a keystone is?” He would then proceed to explain that a keystone is the stone (shaped just like our camp logo) at the center of an arch, the one that keeps the whole thing together. As the years went on, this became more of an inside joke than something informative, but I realized fairly recently just how significant that definition of a keystone really is to my Keystone experience.

I really like the person I became here…I think I’m going to bring her home with me.

I could go all-out with this metaphor – call myself the arch, define my family as my foundation, all I’ve learned over the years as the stones of which the arch consists, and Keystone Camp as the keystone, holding it all together. But the point is not so much the metaphor as it is what Keystone has done for my life.

I can remember each year, at the end of every camp session, the same thought would go through my mind: I really like the person I became here…I think I’m going to bring her home with me.

Every year I grew at camp. I gained confidence and independence paired with humility, I found a firmness in and understanding of my own beliefs as well a desire to keep an open mind, I learned to have grit and show compassion and be creative and flexible, I learned how I lead and how to use that to be a good leader in and out of the camp setting. The list goes on.

Of course I learned things like this in school, at home with my family, in my community, on my sports team, but there are just things I got to experience at camp, opportunities to learn in different situations that I would never get at home. And every year I did indeed bring the person I became at camp home with me, where she continued to grow in the classroom, with her family, in her community, and on her sports team.

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I think the first year I really processed what was happening to me at Keystone was my Aide year. As an Aide, I was still a camper, but I was in leadership. I sort of ‘officially’ became a role model, I got to help counselors lead a couple of activities a day, and I started to learn some of the behind-the-scenes things that go on to make camp so magical. One of the traditions that the Aides help with is Banquet; on the last night of camp they transform the dining hall and dress up according to a secret theme, whether it be Peter Pan, High School Musical, Disney Princesses, or Harry Potter. My Aide year, our cabin decided to put on an Alice In Wonderland banquet.

It was So. Much. Fun.

We painted the characters and movie quotes onto huge pieces of paper and put them on the walls. We made everyone place tags out of playing cards made one wall The Tulgey Wood and another the Queen’s flower garden. I dressed up as the white rabbit and ran out onto the green before dinner (followed by my friend, dressed Alice, and of course yelling gleefully “I’m late, I’m late for a very important date”) to announce the theme to the rest of camp. Because it had rained the day before, the green was still pretty muddy and both Alice and I slipped and fell, which was hilarious. We played it off like we meant to…we just tumbled down the rabbit hole, right? It was great.

All the campers followed us inside the dining hall’s double doors to the Wonderland we had created in the dining hall. Amongst all the quotes we had picked to put on the walls, there was one that read, “I found myself in wonderland.” I had helped paint that one a couple of days before we hung it up, and as I was doing so, it hit me. Keystone, to me, was wonderland.

I can say with confidence that I found myself at Keystone, that I went to camp every year and little by little pieced together that arch of myself that will certainly continue to grow and stabilize as I gain more life experience. I met incredible people, strong women with whom I could relate and from whom I could learn. I made memories that will last me a lifetime. I found passions in leadership and in helping and understanding people, and I found enjoyment in skills like rock climbing and canoeing that I’ll be able to use even after the summer ends. I developed a can-do attitude, and I discovered the power of positivity. I was encouraged to choose to safely step outside of my comfort zone. I learned to embrace new adventures, cherish the journey, and soak in everything that goes right and everything that goes wrong…because there is something to gain from all of it.

Keystone Camp really has been a keystone. Over the past ten years it has pulled everything together, all of those life lessons and hard skills and soft skills. It helped me find the best version of myself, which I know will continue to develop with time. I guess I should say thank you, Keystone. Thank you for all that you’ve taught me and for all you’ve taught other girls. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to be a counselor, to be that inspiring role model, teacher, and friend to campers as my counselors were to me.

And thank you for this eleventh summer. May it be as enriching as the previous year, and the year before that, and all of the years at Keystone before that.

BY CASEY GOODWIN

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