Summer is here, and what better way to foster family togetherness than with Cousin Camp! Susan Alexander Yates, grandmother of 21 and author of the new book Cousin Camp has some great insights on this celebrated family tradition.
Horns honking, kids jumping out of barely opened car doors, shrieks exploding as someone sees a cousin hiding behind a bush.
Muddy shoes are dumped inside the front door along with sleeping bags and backpacks. And the race begins to find the Camp Schedule posted on a kitchen cabinet along with the “Buddy List” and sleeping arrangements. “Alllll..right” yells one cousin. Fist pumping and giggles ensue. Our house which was quiet a few hours ago has turned into a noisy cyclone of chaotic movement.
A dozen years ago my husband John and I began to host an annual "Cousin Camp” for our grandchildren. We’ve hosted camp for 11 years. The first year we had 5 grandchildren from 3 different families. Our camp runs for 3 nights and 4 days. You have to be age 4 to attend our Camp. The last few years, we’ve had all 21 of our grandchildren come. Parents are not allowed at camp!
Over the years, we’ve made lots of mistakes, shed tears, laughed uproariously, separated quarreling kids, cheered when kindness overcame selfishness and fallen into bed exhausted, but above all we’ve had a blast. Seeing two girl cousins who used to fight like cats now snuggling in sleeping bags, giggling together, makes it all worth it.
Our family vision and prayer has always been that our children and grandchildren would love the Lord with all their heart and love each other as well. (from Matthew 22:37-39). Because we don’t all live in the same place it’s hard for our kids to even know their first cousins. We also wanted to be able to encourage their faith.
Camp begins with an opening cookout. Each child receives a “goodie bag” with a snack, reusable water bottle, and a small flashlight. We mark every item with their name in permanent marker. Items change year to year.
One of the big surprises for us has been the popularity of the Buddy System! We began this system out of desperation! The 2 of us could not fill all the water bottles, find lost shoes, help serve meals, and comfort a needy child. There were too many. So every child has an older buddy who is not a sibling assigned to them for camp. The older buddy shows the younger one where to fill his water bottle, sits with him during Bible Study and helps him write or draw in his journal, and is his special friend throughout camp. Bonds are built between cousins who might not know one another, and the older kids learn how to care for others! Each year before Camp I usually get a call from a grandchild asking, “Who is going to be my buddy this year?” Everyone loves the Buddy System.
We design our daily schedule based on the ages and needs of the campers coming. This changes from year to year. So often in planning events our natural tendency is to think “program.” But often while our event may go well, it may not meet the needs of those attending and its impact may be limited.
Each year we ask the parents to email us about each of their children:
This information enables us to play to a child’s strengths and be alert to things we might not know. And it helps us to know how to pray specifically for each child!
A typical day begins any time after 7 am. Each room has a digital clock and the kids don’t come out of the room until the clock shows 7:00. We have breakfast followed by Bible Study. At their first camp, each child gets a Journal with their photo glued on the cover. We use these during our Bible Study, and they stay at our house when camp is over. That way nobody loses them from year to year. We bring them out each year and the kids roar as they look back at what they wrote years earlier.
Throughout the day we have special events from a scavenger hunt, to berry picking, arts and crafts, swimming in the pond, soccer, and badminton. What your day looks like will be determined by where you live. You can have a camp anywhere by simply adapting your activities to your location.
At our first camp, I bought a gutter from a hardware store. I lined it with aluminum foil, tons of ice cream and toppings and created our county’s largest banana split! It’s now a camp staple!
Another fun event is the whipped cream fight. Everyone receives a can of whipping cream and we divide into teams and cover each other. And we use shower caps for any kids who don’t want their hair sticky.
As the kids have gotten older they have created some of their own traditions like a guacamole cooking contest, a dance party, and an outdoor “manhunt” in the dark!
The last night of camp we always have a special BOC (Band of Cousins) ceremony. We have a candlelight parade and initiate the new campers into the Band of Cousins. They recite the pledge: As cousins, we pledge to serve the Lord and to take care of each other always. Each cousin receives a small gift. Leather bracelets with the word “family” were a big hit.
There’s no one right way to host a Camp. You have to discern what’s right for your unique family. Friends have hosted 1-day camps, camps for younger children, adult camps, and extended family reunions. A single friend hosts a camp for her nieces and nephews. In my book, Cousin Camp you’ll find many stories of different types of family gatherings.
Often when you read a book like this it’s easy to get to the end of the book and feel completely overwhelmed with ideas and you hardly know where to begin. To avoid this overload I’ve inserted a working chapter right in the middle of the book for you to design your own event. I guide you through planning questions. As you read the rest of the book you can go back to your chapter and insert what you’d like to do. The goal is that by the end of the book you have a first draft of your own camp!
With the pandemic many of you can’t begin to think about a reunion or camp; you are just trying to make it through the day. In order to help you, I’ve created a free download: Camp at Home: 100 practical Ideas for Families.