50 Years of Summer Camp: A Q&A with Charlie K
Penn Charter Summer Camps is celebrating our 50th year! And camp director Charlie Kaesshaefer has been here from the beginning. Charlie recently reflected on summer camps past and present, beginning with his first job as a junior counselor 50 years ago. Register online.
Penn Charter Summer Camp is celebrating its 50th year. Tell me about your first year as a junior camp counselor 50 years ago.
When I was a sophomore at PC and interested in becoming a teacher, the director of our brand new day camp told me I could be a junior counselor but he couldn’t put me on the payroll. Forty campers and 10 counselors did tennis, archery, art, music, swimming, sports and games. The names of the bunks were Native American tribes: Blackfoot, Lenape, Iroquois, Sioux, etc. Our big events were the counselor hunt, capture the flag, and the carnival. We’ve continued these classic activities for 50 years. At the end of the summer, I did get paid—$25. The director wrote a note that said: “I hope you’ll come back next year.” His note also said if I came back he would double my salary—and he did! My second summer I made $50.
What are some of the things you love most about Summer Camp?
I love watching the kids make new friends. In many cases, these have become lifelong friendships. Coming to PC Day Camp was—and is—like a summer tradition for entire families. I love to see campers try new activities, which builds confidence when they are successful, especially in tennis, archery and swimming. I love watching the friendships develop between kids and their counselors. Many of our campers develop an interest in working with children and later apply to be counselors. Often, this is their first job experience, and I have the privilege of mentoring them.
When I run into former counselors and campers, they often share their fond memories of summer camp with me.
How do you keep Summer Camp fresh?
Each year we have a different summer theme, and we plan many of our activities, special events and trips around it. Our core group of counselors has been with us for decades in many cases, and yet we add new counselors each year who bring new ideas and renewed energy. Adding new activities helps, as well. We now have cooking, drama, and for older campers, a variety of electives.
What are some of the best summer themes over the years?
Some of the most successful have been the Great Outdoors, Winter Wonderland and Olympic Summer. My personal favorite is Tropical Paradise. We trucked in 50 tons of sand to build a “beach” where we held most of our special events like a sand-sculpting contest, a treasure hunt for coins and treats, and beach volleyball. During a trip to Independence Seaport Museum, the kids learned about pirates and Philadelphia seaport history.
Fifty years ago there was only Day Camp. Today there are more than 25 camps. Why so many specialty camps?
Growing beyond the basic day camp is a national trend. Kids have more varied interests, so we offer specific camps, everything from theater to tech, science to sports. Campers can still enroll in the traditional Day Camp but can also mix and match with some specialty camps. More and more families seem to be choosing the “mix and match” option.
How do you come up with ideas for a new specialty camp?
PC teachers often propose—and run—specialty camps, such as Drone, Science Invention, and Science Engineering camps. Innovations at PC such as the IdeaLab have helped spark new camps: Animation, Minecraft and Filmmaking make great use of the lab’s technology.
We often partner with outside organizations to run their camps. Handworks Studios, which adds fashion and machine sewing to our camp offerings, is a good example of this.
Parents are busy. What are some of the options you've added over the years to help them out?
We have added transportation, early care and after-camp care, and a lunch option to help out busy parents. We welcome campers ages 3-14; we began with ages 6-12 only. And we are flexible with enrollment weeks: Families can sign up for just a week or for the full nine weeks of programing.
You are a longtime teacher and assistant director of the Lower School at Penn Charter, as well as summer camp director. What does traditional Day Camp do for the development of a child?
Building memories and lasting friendships are key. Kids get to interact with each other in a safe, positive and fun environment on a beautiful 47-acre campus in Philadelphia. Being outside for much of the day is important for their physical, social and emotional development. While they get to take part in some of the traditional camp activities that we have offered for 50 years, they also get to try new things and mix it up with new camps that offer specific skills in an array of areas. They get to experience healthy competition between bunks and color-contest teams, as well as challenge themselves by trying to make it to the next level in archery, tennis and swimming.