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AYF Summer 2017: ‘Empty and Echoey,’ but Full of Life and Memories

The “AYF Summer 2017” section of the Armenian Weekly’s Youth page will highlight the 2017 summer programs of the Armenian Youth Federation—Youth Organization of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (AYF-YOARF) Eastern United States.

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‘Empty and Echoey,’ but Full of Life and Memories

By Azniv Khaligian

 

On the last Sunday of their stay, on July 23, 152 somewhat sleepless campers rose to the usual wake-up call of “Good morning Camp Haiastan!” and brushed their teeth one last time before packing their toothbrushes into overflowing trunks for the trip home. The same kids—somehow still full of energy—who had homesickness in their eyes when they were dropped off at camp, reluctantly pulled their sheets off their beds, still in disbelief that the session was over.

Ungerouhi Azniv,” one said while scanning the room for the last time, “why does it feel so empty and echoey?”

As a staff member, I could not believe that five weeks had passed already, and a melancholy feeling crept into my stomach at breakfast (French toast sticks and fresh fruit!) when I realized that my time at 722 Summer St. was halfway over. Later, as I walked through the cabin circle, past the Karekin Nejdeh statue, I spotted some younger-group girls leaving Bunk 3. Passing cabin decks cluttered with luggage from the move-out process, I headed over to help carry their duffel bags and pillows down to the pickup area. “Ungerouhi Azniv,” one said while scanning the room for the last time, “why does it feel so empty and echoey?”

Standing there in a cluster of little girls, I had a flashback to when I was a camper leaving the same bunk four years ago after two weeks of excitement. In that moment, I felt so blessed to be a part of the staff that has given that same experience to an ever-growing number of campers, year after year.

This season was my first time on staff (I’m a lifeguard), but the transition from teen session camper to counselor was nearly seamless because of a thorough Staff Week of training. I never realized how much the ungers and ungerouhis do to make camp run smoothly; they make it seem effortless, though it’s anything but. Being a lifeguard at Camp Haiastan is no easy job. Besides being responsible for up to 100 8-14-year-olds in the pool at a time, we have other, pond and aquatic maintenance, and substitute cabin-counselor duties throughout the day as well.

I still love every single second I spend at my second home, and I guarantee that the rest of staff feels the same. For example, last week I was assigned to guard the S.I.T.s (Staff in Training) at the dock while we cleaned Uncas pond, a task considered an S.I.T. “rite of passage.” Camp Haiastan is the only place where 15 high-schoolers would trudge chest-deep into a fish-filled freshwater pond to scoop slimy seaweed from the bottom with smiles on their faces! It proves our dedication to giving back to the place that gave so much to us.

Whether a session has 50 or 150 campers, Camp Haiastan’s goal is to make every child feel safe, welcome, comfortable, and excited for what we want to be the best two weeks of their summer. Each week is packed with fun activities and opportunities to learn, grow, and make memories together as cabins and as a camp.

Mornings start with a trip to our newly built bathroom and shower facilities, followed by the traditional raising of the American and Armenian flags in the cabin circle. After that, a morning exercise routine on the basketball courts gets everyone awake and active for a positive start to the day. Before breakfast we say Hayr Mer and Jashagestsuk, and, after eating, a cabin-cleaning contest takes place. From there, both the morning and the afternoon are scheduled with at least five activities, ranging from sports to boating, as well a bit of free time and free swim.

Some activities, like Peanut Carnival and Armenian School, have been around for generations at camp, while others, like field trips to Spruce Pond Creamery and Monster Mini Golf, were added more recently. After showers, dinner, and flag lowering is a night activity. I love to see the campers’ creativity and talents shine through at Lip Sync Battles and Heghapokhagan (patriotic) Song Night, as well as to dance the night away to Armenian music at dances under the pavilion.

In the words of Mal Varadian, here at camp we continue to “keep the Camp Haiastan traditions, but make it better than it was.”

When I applied to be a staff member at camp this year, I knew that I was expected to be a role model and teacher for the kids who attended. My own counselors during the five years I was a camper did an amazing job of that, which was part of what inspired me to apply. What I didn’t expect was how much I would learn from the campers! Over the summer I picked up advanced tavlu (backgammon) skills from 13-year-old boys, tried new friendship bracelet patterns thanks to the younger girls, learned how to land a successful cartwheel with my fellow ungerouhis, and lots more. Keeping up with 8-14-year-olds for 24 hours a day taught me patience, showed me the power of listening, and made me realize the effectiveness of kindness and a smiling face.

At the end of the summer, when I pack my own suitcases for the flight home to Wisconsin and see the empty cabin with bare walls, I know I’ll have that same feeling I did as a camper: empty and echoey. That’s because the cabins that first felt so fresh and full of possibility were filled up with both silly and memorable moments in the time we lived there. The reason they feel empty is because when it’s all over, we take those lasting memories with us until we return the next year.

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