My 40 Years at Camp

With my dad, Sam Dawson.

As we celebrate 100 years of Camp Alleghany for Girls, I’ve been reflecting on my own slice of that. It’s hard to believe I’ve spent my whole life at ‘Ghany, and that it’s been 40 glorious years! To think, that’s less than half of Alleghany’s time!

As I look at my own timeline I am, of course, dating myself here. I actually think it’s a little less than 40 years when you break it down, so here goes:

I made my debut at camp in July of 1980 at six-months-old. I visited mid-summer, and Papa (my grandfather and former owner of camp, S. Copper Dawson, Jr.) took me to Assembly, held me up over his head and said (all choked up), “My granddaughter!,” and everyone started cheering! I’m told that I started bawling because it scared me!

That same summer in August I went back for Family Camp and slept on Tent Row with my parents. It was my first taste of slumbering in the wilderness under the stars, a joy I treasure to this day!

The following summer I went back, in August 1981, again for Family Camp, along with a newcomer, my baby brother Cooper.

My third summer at camp, all of two-and-a-half years old, I tagged along with my mom for Second Term, who was a teacher and spending part of her summer at camp, We went on and stayed for Family Camp again, too. Sadly, my dad Sam was still in the hotel business at the time, and couldn’t come that summer.

Camp Is Our Life

And then our life began to change a bit.

In 1984 my dad joined the Administrative Team at camp as Papa’s right-hand-man, taking on the role of Associate Director. That meant that I spent the whole summer at camp along with my dad. My Grandmother, Franny, was there too, making for a nice multi-generational summer, but the day-to-day of taking care of this toddler was in the hands of Counselor-Nannies, just as the Admin Team uses today. My mom joined us for Second Term with two baby brothers in tow now.

With dad’s new job, being at camp all summer was now the norm. So for the summers 1985 and 1986 I lived in the Cottage with my family and enjoyed camp life as a small child, participating in some things, playing, enjoying nature, and the happy pleasures of Alleghany.

I’m a Camper!

Then finally it was 1987 and my first summer as a camper! This was before we had Mini Camp. I was seven and was a term camper in Junior Camp! Here are some of my fond memories:

  • Making a crown out of sticky burrs that got stuck in my hair. I had to sit out of Evening Activity while several counselors painstakingly tried to take the burrs out without having to cut them out of my hair (and probably silently freaking out that the granddaughter of camp’s owner and Director had messed up her hair so badly!)
  • My parents had put the fear of God in me over not making a big deal out of who my parents and grandparents were, so that summer I started referring to those family members by their first name, so as to not give me away.
  • Looking up to my counselors and Unit Head SO MUCH. My Unit Head that summer is still a Mini Camp Counselor today, and I remember she was cleaning out her trunk when camp was ending and giving away shirts. I got one from her and I still treasure it, wearing it every year on West Virginia Day!

My Junior Camp years were 1987-1992, and they were so special to me. I was full term every summer, so I spent 12 terms in Junior Camp! I had such memorable counselors and tentmates – women I’m still very close with to this day!

I always looked up to the Junior Counselors (JCs), Counselors, Unit Heads, Department Heads, and Head Counselors with such fondness. In my early years I was there at camp out of necessity. As I grew older, at least by age 11, I was there because I wanted to be.

Growing Up ‘Ghany

My Senior Camp years were 1993-1996, and I only missed one term, so I spent seven terms in Senior Camp. However, during the one term I missed (I stayed home with my mom because she was taking a graduate course and I wanted to see what it was like to stay home during the summer) I desperately missed camp so I made my parents let me go visit for almost an entire week. I think that proves how well the “experiment” worked to see what it was like to miss camp ;). That happened a couple of other times in my camp life, where I had signed up for a ballet camp, and later a cheerleading camp, only to cut them short because I desperately missed being at Alleghany.

Working at Camp

In 1997 I became a JC, and what a summer! Finally I was a counselor. It was a dream to me to be one of those people I’d looked up to forever, my whole life! I had fantastic campers both terms and have wonderful memories of that summer. From my campers, to my JC peers, to teaching activities, and more, everything was just what I hoped for. And something super personally exciting is that my 25th JC reunion is this summer during camp’s 100th anniversary!

In 1998 I returned as a First Year Tinge (a tinge is what we call JCs who become counselors). I really thought working at camp couldn’t get much better than what I had experienced my JC summer, but it did! And continued to do so.

Interestingly, I see this as a trend and worry amongst staff to this day, the fear that nothing can top JC summer. But it’s simply not true. With more experience, familiarity, confidence, and expertise, the summers just honestly get better the more you come back. I didn’t think I had any more friends to make, but always got closer to different people each summer I returned.

During that time I took on various different roles, like:

  • 1999 – Head of Dance
  • 2000 – Head of Unit 1, Senior Camp
  • 2001 – took a summer off for an internship in Chicago and missed camp SO MUCH that I called my mom daily to hear about camp. I left Chicago earlier than expected to spend the last week of the summer at camp! (Insert official camp geek emoji here!)
  • 2002 and 2003 – Head of Junior Camp. What a fulfilling experience! Doing it twice made me that much more confident in my leadership the second time around. I can’t emphasize this enough to current staff who always want to try a new position each year. I understand the appeal or novelty but doing something more than once gives you the confidence and experience to excel further in that role. My second summer as Head of Junior Camp was a home run because I already knew the job. I wasn’t learning the job, so I could focus on refining my leadership skills and be even better at what I’d done the previous summer.
  • 2004-2005. Sadly, I had to take these summers off for graduate school. But my graduate degree, a Masters in Education and Human Development,  has proved to be so worthwhile for the job of Camp Director.
  • 2006 – Head of Senior Camp. While I was mostly a Junior Camp counselor, this was a great experience for me to switch camps and give it a try. I’m grateful for this experience, especially now in my current role as I know what it’s like to be Head Counselor in both camps. Things were starting to transition a bit this summer, and I could feel the winds of change… or rather, I started to feel called to do this more permanently….
  • 2007 – I took this summer off to move, buy a house, get settled in a new job in a new town, and plan my wedding.

Camp as a Career

My first official summer as Mrs. Shreckhise was in 2008 (though I’ll always just be Elizabeth at camp). At this point, my masters under my belt and all grown up and married (ha ha) I began to really help my dad, who was Director by now, to really run camp. I stepped in to what would eventually become the position of Assistant Director, on what would eventually become known as the Administrative Team.

While the team, and the position, both took years to develop and hone (and are still changing and evolving!) this was the start of my full-time, year round journey. While I’d still work as a school counselor until 2010, and balance both jobs, this was when it sealed the deal that I wanted to be in this for the long haul!

From 2008-2017 I was the Assistant Director, and it was a time of learning more about the behind-the-scenes aspects of camp as a business with so so so many components well beyond just the joy and wonder and programming we create in the summers. I was learning insurance, and more regulations, and payroll, and staffing, and all that huge constellation that makes camp tick and hum.

And then, in 2018, I was promoted to Director, the third generation Dawson to hold the job! You could say that camp is in my blood.

My years heading up camp have had their ups and downs.

We’ve created new programs, like Leaders-In-Training and Mother-Daughter Weekend, and tried new Activities like Cooking, Bouldering, and bringing back Sewing some summers. We’ve adapted more and more to the Internet age and tried to streamline the paperwork and information needed for a sleepaway camp. And of course we’ve made more videos and grown our social media during this time.

Then again, we’ve had natural disasters like the derecho and the flood, camp closures, COVID tests, and other challenges and bumps in the road. Still, the good has always outweighed the challenging; and the challenging has always made me stronger and caused me to grow and stretch in ways I never thought possible.

The world is changing – faster than I can keep up with – but my goal is for camp to remain the same: a place to empower females to grow and learn, a safe place to make mistakes or fail, a place to learn to navigate life’s challenges. Is it ironic that Alleghany shaped ME, and the challenges I now navigate are Alleghany’s? I think not.

Here’s to 40 more years, as we celebrate our 100th!

— Elizabeth Shreckhise, Director, Camp Alleghany for Girls