Camp Birchmont

Monthly Archives: August 2015

Candlelight at Pierce Camp Birchmont

Written by Greg Howes - Director, Camp Birchmont

Just about everyone who has ever spent a summer at Birchmont can recall their “Candlelight” night(s). Candlelight is a very special tradition on the last night of the summer which mixes high running camper and staff emotions with the looming camp departure to create a ceremony wrought with reflection, gratitude and usually a few laughs for all. At Candlelight all campers and staff gather in our campfire area, sitting amongst their group and staff mates, staring at the fire and listening to first one camper – and then one staff member after another give their thanks for the summer past. Unlike our opening night “Firelight” ceremonies which split the girls and the boys to different fire pits and to lay out goals for their summer ahead, Candlelight is coed and serves as a great way to put a cap on another wonderful camp season as a coed community.


Candlelight starts with Greg and Laura standing in front of a large campfire just after nightfall, under the beautiful, tall pines up behind Notches and surrounded in a large circle by their entire 2015 camp “extended family”.As they begin and light the first candles of the night, there is an almost surreal silence among the 400 or so people in attendance. Many are deep in reflection, somber at the thought that camp is basically over, knowing their departure is imminent the next morning and perhaps feeling at this point like close friends about to go their separate ways until next year.

Greg and Laura share thoughts and reflections on the summer gone by and set a mood for the rest of the evening, one that is thankful, uplifting and filled with brief stories that typically bring a laugh from the entire gathering. Once done with their comments, Greg and Laura introduce the Pioneer “B” winner along with their group leader, each of whom get to share a few words and thoughts from their summer at Birchmont in front of fire and for all to hear.


One by one, starting with the youngest group and all the way up through the “Super Senior” groups, every B winner and group leader is introduced and share their comments. At the end of each speech, that entire group of campers and their staff are invited around the fire together to light their own individual candles. The fire is surrounded by 2-3 inches of sand all the way around and candles, once lit, are pushed into the sand to create a stunning visual image that is both mesmerizing and stunning to see.

Eventually, every supervisor, all campers and all staff will light a candle that is then stuck into the sand with all the others. The result is a pretty spectacular circle of burning candles surrounding a larger bon fire. The image is a truly memorable one and for many it serves as a metaphor for how 400 individuals have, over the course of just one or two months come together to make and become a part of something much bigger than themselves… part of a very large family at camp they are likely to remember forever and a part of a very small community of friends they will always be welcome back to.

As the temperature drops, candles fade and the last logs burn down, the Super Seniors surround the fire and stand arm in arm reflecting on their camp years, flanked by Greg and Laura Pierce. For some, the idea of returning to the place they love as a staff member in a few years is comforting. For others, this marks the end of a very special era that can’t be replicated and some tears mix in with their collective laughter. Happy or sad, they all share the common bond of having made so many lifelong “camp friends” and countless memories at Birchmont.

Its very true what they say, summer at camp and time, in general, move way too fast! We will miss you Supers! And for everyone else, we hope to see you NEXT SUMMER for our 65th season! We hope everyone is enjoying time home with their families and nobody is experiencing “camp sickness”.

“Don’t cry because it’s over, but smile because it happened.”
-Dr Seuss


Birchmont Presents Matilda The Musical

Written by Laura Pierce - Owner/Director, Camp Birchmont

We commend everyone who took the stage to be part of what was arguably the best camp musical production in years! The talent that was assembled for Roald Dahl’s Broadway tale of a brilliant child who rebels against her oppressive school and awful parents, was by any theater critic’s standards, fantastic.  The chorus ensemble from our very youngest campers to our oldest delivered the fiercest, most rousing musical numbers with tight and terrific choreography. “When I Grow up” and “Revolting Children” were stand out performances fully deserving of the ovations they received. And best of all, the kids on stage were having a ball.

Jessie R as Matilda and Renee M as Miss Trunchbull were the night’s brightest stars.

Matilda Summer 2015

Jessie amazed everyone with her great vocal range and well timed delivery of clever lyrics with fine musicality. Jessie’s energy never wavered and she made the audience love Matilda with her first song “Naughty”.

Miss Trunchbull played with great gusto by Renee M. had the audience rooting against her character from the get go, and her two solos, “The Hammer” and “Smell of Rebellion” were actually scary and hilarious at the same time. Miss Honey, played sweetly by the very musical Annika P. was the perfect foil as she delivered her haunting songs ” My House” and “Pathetic”. The set design and costuming added great production value. The brightly painted wood blocks made in woodshop, scattered on stage were also echoed in the alphabet tiles which encircled the curtain and made for a perfect classroom scene.  Campers working the spot light managed to catch all the soloists, and made good use of the colored filters to enhance the moods on stage. All the actors hit their marks, and few lines were missed so the script made sense, and set up the songs perfectly.

Super Senior Raquel G served as the dance captain and I do not think it is over estimating her talent, to suggest, with future training and experience she could become a choreographer of some note; she’s simply a natural.  Our director, Steve Vieira and musical director, Cherry Yang did a wonderful job teaching and coordinating all facets of the production.

The kids on stage were having a great time, and that’s what camp theater should be.

The full cast party consisted of hot pizza, cold sodas and a special cake baked for the occasion. But probably the sweetest reward was to come later as so many campers were congratulated and praised by their friends and counselors that night and following day.

Personally, I missed “Matilda” on Broadway, but I don’t think I could have enjoyed this show more if I had seen it in orchestra seats in Times Square.

Summer Art Show 2015

A few nights before the play, we had another lovely arts event on campus. Each summer we host an art gallery evening up at Notches where campers display their art works for the camp to see. There’s jazz playing, faux champagne served (ginger ale with raspberries and blueberries) and petit fours baked in our kitchen and served on trays, adding a little elegance and sophistication to the affair. This has been a transporting evening with campers talking about art, how they make it, what they envisioned, how long it took to create…But alas, this is not a gallery in an arty city loft, and just as we got started a summer storm blew in bringing thunder, wind and big black rain clouds, in minutes, it began pouring. We all scrambled to save the art and get under cover vowing to re-schedule. We were able to make that happen, but there were precious few evenings left with Color War breaking, and Water Carnival nights on the beach,  so we do what campers do, we do not whine, we do not cancel, we re-group, re-adjust, and do what we aimed to do in the first place. We pulled off the art show on a sunny rest hour afternoon, and it was still wonderful. There were paintings, sculptures, wood projects, glazed pots and bowls, and mixed media pieces including a rusty bird cage centerpiece lined with mosaic tiles and stones that was transformed, inspired by a photo of the Taj Mahal. A few Upper Seniors designed and wore “disposable dresses” for the occasion. Creativity ran amok, just the way we like it. Kids wore feather boas and fake mustaches for the occasion, too cute for words.

We are now full steam ahead into Color War, and the excitement builds every day.

Photographs now should reflect the primary colors of our four teams, but we don’t know if photographs can really capture the fun, joy, and never ending spirit of this weeks activities.

Our colors are true blue for Birchmont, no matter which color wins.

Good Article Sheds Light on Teachable Moments For Campers

Written by Laura Pierce - Owner/Director, Camp Birchmont

We like this recent article from Psychology Today which resonates with why the summer camp experience is such a powerful one, and how it offers memorable teachable moments, referred to here as “disruptive moments” in the brain.

Anyone who has been to overnight camp can probably relate to the author’s discovery and insights into the hard-wiring of the learning experience in the minds of children. I wasn’t a psych major in college, but this makes sense to me. Enjoy.

Summer Camp and Disruptive Moments
Camps have a powerful impact on the children they serve. He is a reason why.
By Steve Baskin on Jul 26, 2015 in S’mores and More

For the past 23 years, I have worked as a summer camp professional. As a child, camp was one of the definitive developmental experiences of my life. As a camp director, I have seen a short 2 or 3-week sessions become transformative to a child. When I applied to graduate school, I wrote about my camp experiences as a seminal experience.

If you know someone who attended camp, you probably wonder what the fuss is all about. How could a short experience be so much more meaningful than 9 months of school? You may wonder if your friend is a little delusional. It does not make sense that 3 weeks for 5 summers could be as powerful as they insist it is.

[Note: if you went to camp, you are likely the person sharing these stories and confusing your friends.]

This article is an effort to explain partially why camp is so impactful.

Put simply, camp helps people improve their personal narrative in a remarkably efficient way.

It starts with our brain. We are wired to become very attentive to new and unusual experiences. Do you remember your first kiss? How about the first time you met your college roommate? I suspect you remember both in great detail. But do you remember your 20th kiss with the same person or your 15th conversation with your roommate? I suspect not.

This is because familiar experiences are not threatening. We know we will survive them because we have already survived them. But when an entirely new experience occurs, our brain detects a potential threat and lights up and becomes highly focused. We notice and remember more. Our brain changes from brick-like to sponge-like.

When we are in this “sponge-state”, we will absorb and retain our memories, feelings and ideas. The brick is slow to learn. The sponge is a learning machine.

I call these new and unfamiliar experiences “disruptive moments”.

One of the reasons camp is powerful is because it is full of these new and unique “disruptive moments”:

  • The first time away from home,
  • Meeting an entirely new cabin of friends and counselors,
  • Ascending a 40 foot climbing wall (especially if you have a fear of heights),
  • Seeing a sky full of stars for the first time,
  • Performing in front of people at a talent show
  • Camp has another cool advantage – camp professionals know when these disruptive moments are happening. They know when a child’s mind is like a sponge. This knowledge creates an opportunity.

Camp counselors and directors can provide a “powerful message” that combines with these “disruptive moments”.

When a camper’s mind is like a sponge, counselors can make sure that the sponge is absorbing lessons that will help make him/her more capable, confident, competent and successful.

Let me share an example of combining “disruptive moments” with “powerful messages”. Imagine a 9 year-old girl with a strong fear of heights approaching a Climbing Wall with great trepidation. After much encouragement from her counselor, she chooses to climb, setting as her goal the half-way point. She ascends 25% and becomes nervous, but the cheers of her friends and counselors encouragers her to go halfway. She is incredibly nervous and is ready to come down when her counselor provides a loving challenge, “can you go one more step?” The girl climbs “one more step” about 5 times before deciding she is done. After climbing 75% of the wall, she rappels down and arrives on the ground. She is shaking and proud.

Clearly, she just had a “disruptive moment” and her brain is like a sponge.

At this point, the counselor can deliver a message that will have maximum impact. I will give three different messages – one common, one horrific and one incredibly powerful.

The common message would be happy and simple, “I am so proud of you! Great job. Give me a hug.” This is what most counselors will say and the camper will remember the climb and the love/acceptance that followed it. Not bad.

A horrific response would be different. [Note: I cannot imagine anyone saying the following, but imagine the impact if she did.] “Wow, I have been here all day long and you are the only person who has failed to reach the top of the wall.” Words of disappointment like this might make the child believe that she is weaker or less capable than her fellow campers. This internal narrative would likely stick with her at camp and back home.

Imagine instead the following powerful and validating comment that I actually heard a counselor use in this situation. “Wow! I have been here for two days and you are the ONLY camper who went 50% above her goal! You know, many people never reach their goals. Those who do reach their goals usually stop. I think you are one of those rare people who can face a fear and go beyond your goals. I cannot wait to see what you will be like when you grow up!’

This young girl practically floated around camp for the next week. She now saw herself differently, not as a girl defined by a fear but a determined individual who can overcome challenges.

By combining enough “disruptive moments” with these “powerful messages”, a quality camp experience can change a camper’s personal narrative. Every one of us has a personal narrative that helps us interpret the world. Some people have powerful and effective narratives:

  • Hard work pays off
  • I am likable
  • If you treat people well, they will treat you well
  • I am lucky
  • I can learn new things
  • Inside of every problem is an opportunity

Others have dysfunctional narratives:

  • You cannot trust other people
  • No one likes me
  • Nothing good ever happens to me
  • I am not good at stuff
  • The world is full of problems that I cannot do anything about
  • You have to look out for yourself, no one else will

Once we have a narrative, we tend to hold onto it. It takes an unusual experience to change these closely held beliefs. Typically, we do not have many such experiences.

But such experiences are almost common at camp. The “disruptive moments” happen at predictable times and they are naturally mated to with the right “messages”.

This combination enables camp to create an impact that is disproportional to the time spent there, creating new narratives and strong memories that continue for years.

“Watch Carefully the Magic That Occurs, When You Give A Child Just Enough Comfort To Be Themselves” -Atticus

Written by Laura Pierce - Owner/Director, Camp Birchmont

It has been so wonderful watching our campers come into their own this week. The collective awareness that time at camp is passing quickly now is palpable. We have gotten a lot done these past few days.

Summer 2015

We entered 8 of our Upper Senior campers in the Lake Wentworth Association Sailing Regatta and took second place. It was a gorgeous day for sailing with friends! To come so close to a first place finish in a tournament of people who have grown up on this lake, was a good testament to the “know how” of our campers, and the strength of our waterfront program. Our beginning water ski club has had great success getting kids up and around the lake in the evening activity when the lake is like glass just before sunset. On land, campers who learned to ride bikes here without the fear of traffic, or falling on pavement have gone “off road” on the Rail Trail to town…many steps taken on the road to self-discovery.

Other fun happenings at camp which included our staff World Cup Soccer Tournament where bravely, perhaps insanely, England took on the rest of the world, and lost when the American soccer counselor, Nick, put in 2 goals to bring the final score 3 to 1. It was a really spirited night as campers wrapped themselves in flags from different countries and screamed out to their favorite counselors on the field. So many counselors got into the act and the sportsmanship, athleticism and antics made for a great spectator event.

Greg Howes former collegiate player at Springfield College had a solid game, and kept up with counselors half his age which was exciting for our supervisors to watch as well.

Summer 2015

The soccer game was followed after dark by an outdoor movie on campus for our younger campers who watched “Big Hero Six” an awesome animated feature with an uplifting message about friendship and brotherhood tucked in.

The following evening after our Explorer Girls tucked in for the night, Greg and I rallied the girls out of their bunks to see the beautiful sight of the Blue Moon rising up just over Notches. We all gathered in the middle of the field and stared at a sight that would not be seen again till 2018! I loved hearing the kids giggle and gasp and ask why they call it a Blue Moon, its big and bright but not blue. We explained the phrase “once in a blue moon” and listened to kids say they never get to see a sight like this in their pajamas, and best of all, with their friends. Some special moments at camp happen often, others, well, once in a blue moon.

Speaking of things that are blue at camp, the native high blueberry bushes at the Garden Club, are bursting with fruit, and are picked and eaten by whoever wants them. Naturally, our organic garden does not include spray so everything is edible and available to harvest.

Sunday was a different kind of a day, but jam packed, starting with our late reveille, some Breakfast Rides on horseback with Martine, and our beloved Bagel Sunday for the whole camp which included Bagels and lox and all the fixin’s. One of our Explorer girls who came to Birchmont all the way from China had seen and tasted her first bagel, and her American camp friends tried to answer why it has a hole in it? Is there really an official answer to this question?!

Summer 2015

Sunday was also our Midsummer Surprise which had been rained out after Visiting Day. The camp had a great time playing on giant inflatables and games of skill, with an outstanding DJ spinning tunes. That evening the entertainment continued with an outdoor Cirque du Soleil type troupe which performed exciting arial stunts to a local live band giving the feel of a private concert and gymnastics show rolled into one. To end the night, the entire camp rocked The Lodge with our first DJ social of the 2nd session!

Next week we have some tennis and soccer competitions and some of our natural highlight trips including The Polar Caves, The Flume and camp-out, and a 3 day trip to Boston. We close the week with our camper musical production of Mathilda on Friday and the whole camp is psyched as we begin perhaps the best week of the summer on Saturday as we break our 64th Color War. Looking forward to a great week ahead!

Top Chef, You Bet!

Written by Laura Pierce - Owner/Director, Camp Birchmont

Camp Birchmont 2015One thing that struck me last night as we all were enjoying Chinese Banquet Night was not just the variety and popularity of the dishes offered at Birchmont, but the creativity and care with which they are put forth. An old saying of Pop Pierce’s is especially true at camp, “many hands make light work”, and so it happens that a few areas of camp get involved with making magic for the kids. To set the scene for Asian cuisine there was paper mâché sushi, in a garland of green cellophane seaweed, glittering giant chopsticks made in Arts and Crafts and set out on a table, Chinese lanterns were hung from the Dining Hall ceiling with Chinese fans and Japanese parasols strewn about, all to create a fun meal for campers to remember.

It is no small feat to make Asian style dishes without sesame oil, peanuts, cashews and shrimp, (allergens all) but Helen and her team of 16, pulled off chicken tempura, beef with broccoli, honey roasted ribs, vegetable lo mein, pork pot stickers, and egg rolls to the delight of us all.

We even enjoyed campy fortune cookies and oranges for dessert. When Greg asked the campers for a round of applause for the kitchen staff, the cheers were loud and authentic.

Camp Birchmont 2015At home, meals are made with no less care, but somehow children expect great home cooked meals all the time, and much to the chagrin of moms and dads everywhere, most meals are taken for granted. The job of preparing 3 meals a day for 400 people at once is a huge task, and our campers and staff are genuinely appreciative at meal times.

We owe this mainly to our Head Chef, Helen and her trusted assistant, Kitty, two harder working women would be hard to find. Helen has been with us for over 25 years while cooking at the esteemed Phillips Exeter Academy during the school year, and has made her summer home at Birchmont to cook and run our camp kitchen.  After many years at Exeter, Helen worked at University of New Hampshire, cooking for a sorority house there but still returned to camp with the energy of a college co-ed herself. We never take for granted that while many camps are hiring food services with first time chefs, we have Helen, whose experience, pride, and love of camp make our food terrific all summer long. We have even had Alumni come back and visit with Helen.

We like that Helen has been open to new food items and ideas, when our campers ask for edamame on our salad bars and sweet potato fries on their plates, Helen makes it happen. Egg white frittatas with spinach and feta, no problem. We love her stuffed portobello mushrooms, artichoke dishes, and Italian baked eggplant stacks with cheese. Turkey meatloaf, ribs, chocolate chip pancakes, chicken patties and veggie lasagna are all camper favorites. Camp food has come a long way since most of our parents went to camp. Greg and I feel that food is fuel, and campers need energy to be their best. Food quality while not seen by parents is an area worth our attention and investment.

Camp Birchmont 2015

Helen has certificates in food science and safety, allergy prevention, dietary nutrition, etc. but what we care most about are the fresh, and varied meals she consistently prepares at camp. We have a vegetarian option at every meal, and handle food and allergy restrictions with care and vigilance. Together with Helen, we are able to coax some very picky eaters to try new things, an experience whose rewards translate to more pleasant home meals after camp.

All the special event meals Helen and her staff turn out are just icing on the cake and we won’t even get into our baked desserts from our bakery department. So now you know why Helen is our Top Chef at Camp Birchmont, and she gets our highest ratings. We can only hope nobody steals her for her own reality show…she would be a star!