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For the Love of Summer Camp


When your most cherished childhood experience becomes impossible for your own kids, there’s only one choice: recreate it for them yourself. That’s what Jim Sperber did three years ago when the pandemic shut down summer camps across the country. He’d grown up going to his beloved Keewaydin camp in Vermont, and his three kids followed that tradition until, in 2020, when they couldn’t. But Sperber refused to let the tradition die. He and his wife created their own version of Keewaydin in and around their home in the New York City suburb of Bedford Corners, complete with riflery, campfire songs, and an overnight in the woods. It proved to be a wild adventure in parenting—and a magical summer for their family.

Podcast Transcript

Editor’s Note: Transcriptions of episodes of the Outside Podcast are created with a mix of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain some grammatical errors or slight deviations from the audio.

Michael Roberts: Please leave your message for Mike. 

Paddy O’Connell: Hey, hey Mike. It’s Paddy O, your favorite podcaster. The summer camp story is all ready to go but it's missing your introduction. I know you're heading out on your own summer camp-y vacation, but we really just need you to explain that Outside contributor Frederick Reimers reported the piece, and that we all call him Rico, because that's how I refer to him in the episode. That's really it, man! You can just send me the file, and Robbie and I will take it from there. Okay, safe travels. Have fun. Thank you. Goodbye.

Okay. Hey Mike, it is me again. So, I just realized you are already on vacation, which I guess that means we just go ahead? Um okay. Thank you. We’re gonna do that. Enjoy your break. Don't be mad at me when you come back. It's a really great episode. You’re gonna love it. Uh okay, have fun. Bye-bye.

Paddy O’Connell: I was like a very active, like maybe overactive little human, especially in the summers. You know, I was never a summer camp kid, though. I was the pool rat kid, swim team kid. And I just played a ton of team sports. But camp wasn't really our family's thing at all. Though I was always kind of jealous of the kids who went to camp, because it seemed like a really cool thing to do. You know what I mean?

Rico: Yeah, well, I think you should be jealous. I was actually raised at a summer camp. My dad was the director of the camp in northern Ontario. And I went there as a kid. Those summers were the happiest periods of my childhood. I think I just fit in better there than I did at school, probably because I was so hyperactive.

And if you're a kid like that, like I was, sleepover summer camp is this dream world where you can run around outside all day and try new things like canoeing or archery or even performing in a campfire skit. It’s kind of like a reset from the school environment, which means it’s a reset of your persona back home. It’s just easier to put yourself out there, which for me and a lot of other kids, led to real growth and maturity and even better self esteem.

Paddy: So on top of missing out on all the fun, now I know why I never developed into a fully formed adult.

Rico: Yeah. I mean, maybe so.

Paddy: But you are here today to tell us about a very different kind of camp.

Rico: Yeah, this is a summer camp story. But it’s really about a guy who loved camp so much that he created one in what seemed like impossible circumstances.

The guy is Jim Sperber. I met him last summer at a camp called Keewaydin in Dunmore, Vermont. It's actually owned by the same foundation as the camp where I grew up. Jim and I are both on its board of trustees. 

Jim had been a Keewaydin camper for six summers, and now his three kids go there too. 

Except that in the summer of 2020, camp was canceled because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Paddy: Right. Camps were canceled all over, just like everything else. 

Rico: Yeah, but Jim didn't want to give up. For him, summer camp was an essential service for his kids. So he decided to create his own version of Keewaydin at his home in Bedford Corners, about 40 miles north of New York City. He called it Sperbaydin.

Paddy: Okay, I already love this so much. This is so adorable. Tell me more.

Rico: Yeah it's very Jim. He's a kindergarten art teacher, so he's really creative. And that means he was also off for the summer, so he had plenty of time on his hands. But more importantly, Jim and his wife Corey felt like their kids needed something special after months of remote school.

Jim Sperber: We had been in the same house for three months together. They had left school and done this Zoom thing for a while, which for one kid was really positive because they're more of an introvert. And for the two others it was a disaster.

We just needed some sort of focus and schedule. But it was important for us to have a camp experience that summer because not doing that would've led us probably into a digital abyss. 

Rico: Jim's wife, Corey, had similar fears. To her, it was simple. The kids just needed to get outside.

Corey Sperber: Obviously the spring was a time of just total fear and isolation, not wanting to be near anybody, and just wanting to be safe.

But then as we approached summer, we started thinking about how our kids were probably just gonna play video games 24-7 if we didn't do something dramatic. 

So, I don't think there was any hesitation on either of our parts. When we heard that Keewaydin was closed, we knew we had to do something else, and this seemed like a great alternative.

Paddy: Okay, Rico, I don't get how you create summer camp without, uh, an actual camp.

Rico: Well, yeah, that was the heart of the challenge. They started by building a basic camp framework. So this meant recreating all the specific activities and traditions of the real camp. They used the Keewaydin song books. They even made Sperbaydin t-shirts and a camp flag.

Paddy: And all this was done in and around their home?

Rico: Yeah. They really went for it. 

Jim: I built a fire pit and I cleaned out a chicken coop that was really disgusting and turned it into a woodworking space. And a neighbor loaned me their paintball guns. So we kind of had a version of riflery. We set up targets and little bottles and stuff. 

Paddy: Well, that makes sense to me. I mean, the neighbors don't want you firing off twenty-twos.

Rico: Yeah, exactly.

Jim: I'm a bit of a hoarder, so sometimes the hoarder stuff works out for you. And when I had that bag, I felt that I had been holding onto it for like five or six years, I was like, great, we can make banners. And so everybody made banners.

We knew we could go hiking because next door to us is the Westmoreland Sanctuary and they have like 25 miles of trails. We had this field, across the way, that we could utilize, because the field was part of the Fox Lane High School and no one was there.

I just basically made a lot of lists of different things we could do. And we just sort of wrote down all the different things that we could accomplish here that were gonna be like the activities at Keewaydin. 

Rico: Jim took it even further. He made this achievement board, which at Keewaydin is called a Coup Board. And each camper gets a sticker on the board for some achievement they've accomplished, like mastering the backstroke or learning seven tree species or something like that. 

Paddy: Ok, but Rico, hold up a second. I get that Jim, the on-break kindergarten teacher has the time for all this all this, but does Cory have a full-time job, or what’s happening there? 

Rico: Yes, she's actually an executive at the TED foundation, which makes the TED talks, and she was working remotely full time.

Paddy: Oh my God. So like, "Hey kids, no camp songs for an hour, mom has a Zoom call!"

Rico: Right. Yeah. And that’s why they hired an actual Keewaydin counselor. 

Paddy: No way!

Rico: His name is Nik Elrifi and he moved into their basement.

Corey: The staff were these cool dudes, right? A little bit older, but not so old like your parents. Kids don't always listen to their parents. That's the truth. And so we wanted someone that they would be excited to be with, someone who had maybe a little bit more energy to push back if they were being less than enthusiastic.

While they know their dad went to the same camp and has participated in the same kind of traditions, having someone there from camp really made it that much more fun and engaging and a little bit more real for them.

Rico: Jim and Corey said that hiring Nik actually cost less than sending all three kids to camp would have. And Nik, who had been on staff for four years at Keewaydin, was psyched to continue his own camp experience. He was at school at NYU, doing acting classes over zoom, when he heard Keewaydin would be closed.

Nik Elrifi: It’s a huge part of my life and just hearing that it wasn't gonna happen was, you know, kind of devastating. 

So when Jim emailed me and said, ‘Hey, I want you to run Keewaydin for my kids, at our place that's, you know, 40 minutes from your parents' house.’

It was so easy. I mean, I was like, oh, okay, even though the pandemic's happening, there is this sense of like something normal is still going to happen.

Paddy: Okay Rico, but what does a day at camp Sperbaydin look like? I mean, how do you make your suburban home feel like summer camp?

Rico: Well, again, it was just like Keywaydin. Jim started every morning at eight o'clock, with clang of the camp gong, or in this case, a steel water bottle.

Jim: If you hit it with a fork on the side, it actually really was very much like the sound of the gong at Keewaydin and so I'd wake people up with that. Just dong dong dong. 

They would come and have breakfast. We would all eat together. They would have to make their bed, wash their hands and face, brush their teeth, get dressed. We would have 'em stand there at attention while we would do inspection. We would check the beds for sand.

Then after inspection we would do formation. Kids line up in a, in, you know, in a straight line. They stand at ease. We go, camp, tent hut, they stand at attention. We raised the Sperbaydin flag, which we had made, and then Nick would mime the trumpet.  Do, do, do.

Paddy: This is amazing! I mean, the commitment is outrageous.

Rico : Right? It only gets better. 

After the fake trumpeting, the campers, which were Jim's kids and one other neighbor kid, would do a morning activity, like riflery or wrestling. They made up a game called Ultimate Field Smack, which is kind of like Calvinball from the Calvin and Hobbs comics. 

Paddy: Oh, yeah yeah yeah. 

Rico: So they had a beach ball. They’d hit that with tennis rackets into these lacrosse goals at the high school nearby. And then you know, they’d have lunch, then rest hour, which was a more quiet time indoors, playing with legos or maybe some tutoring on school work. Then there was an afternoon activity, and after dinner, an evening activity like a campfire or poker night, which they called Sperbaygas.

Paddy: That seems pretty regimented actually.

Rico: Yeah, and that was the idea. Jim says that preserving the camp schedule and traditions was essential.

Jim: Well, the reason I wanted to recreate the traditions of Keewaydin was to carry on that important link to it being real. I didn't want it to seem like we were at home faking our way through it. I wanted it to seem like all the traditions that they do at camp are also happening here. These guys were immersed in it, and I was immersed in it, and Nik was immersed in it, and Corey was immersed in it.

Paddy: So, how did it all turn out? I'm dying to know.

Rico: Well, I'll tell you, right after a short break.


Paddy: Okay, Rico, please tell us how this DIY summer camp experiment played out.

Rico: I mean, it played out like summer camp. Nik, the hired counselor, led the three Sperber kids, Sammy, Astrid, and Oscar, through a lot of the typical summer camp stuff you'd expect.

Sammy Sperber: One day we had one really big campfire and I gotta perform the mango song. The Mango Song is a say as I say so, and a do as I do song.

Rico: This is Sammy Sperber, who was 11-years old in the summer of 2020.

Sammy: It's basically about having a mango, peeling like the mango, chopping the mango, smooshing the mango, super smooshing the mango, bathing in the mango and eating the mango.

Paddy: How have I never bathed in a mango? God, I should have gone to summer camp.

Rico: I'm telling you! But it wasn't all silliness. The kids also worked on their outdoor skills like camping and fire building. They could also get their names on the All Trails Club plaque for hiking all 25 miles of the Westmoreland Sanctuary.

Sammy: We all got it except my mom. Who's, I think, still working towards it, or she's got it by now, I'm not sure.

Paddy: Speaking of mom, what was her role in the camps given that she was still working her 9 to 5 job?

Rico: She was a counselor, too. She mostly did the evening shift. One of her favorite activities was a game called Steal The Fire.

Corey: There's someone blindfolded and they have newspapers around them that are supposed to be sort of like campfire logs, and then they're blindfolded and another person has to try to steal those logs. And the kids would just end up giggling a lot during this.

And so they get caught and I’d figured it out. You know, I'm a little competitive here, so I take off my shoes and I could keep it together and I could steal the campfire logs, and it was really fun. 

Rico: Oh, and get this, the kids also learned sword fighting.

Paddy: What?!

Rico: Yeah, Nik, as part of his actor training at NYU, had earned a sword fighting certification from the Society of American Fight directors.

Nik: I know your kids are like into like swords and stuff, I know how to do that stuff. Do you want me to teach them that?

And Jim was like, ‘oh my God. Like, yes!’

Rico: The kids all made their own swords, right?

Nik: Yeah, they did. They made their own swords in the wood shop.

Reimers: How long were these things?

Nik: Some were enormous, like like unwieldable, like that's how big the biggest one was. But most of them were like pretty, pretty well sized, and like they were like pretty well made too.

Like the kids actually, the kids were doing better in the wood shop than I was, which was very humbling.

Paddy: This is all just so impressive. I mean, at this point, I half expect you to tell me they created their own circus.

Reimers: Well, they did make their own carnival actually.

Paddy: Okay you’re kidding. No way! Seriously?

Reimers: It was their own version of the games at a county fair, like ring toss and face painting. At Keewaydin, each cabin makes a concession stand, but at Sperbaydin, with fewer numbers, each kid had to make more than one.

Nik: These kids are the most creative kids I think I've ever met in my life. It's insane. They each were like, ‘all right, I wanna build this game. I wanna build this game, I wanna build this game.’  And then they literally would just take cardboard and wood and build these games. I'd be like, ‘yep, that's, that's a game.’

Rico: For Astrid, the oldest Sperber kid, who was 12 that summer, the carnival games were a huge highlight.

Astrid: Sammy had made like this one where you had to shoot these little dudes down, with a rubber band,

Rico: Oh. 

Astrid: And, but they were like all like weighted at the bottom for some amount, so you would have to hit them like harder or less hard to like knock certain ones over.

And then Oscar had beat the box, which was a box that you could pay tickets to then beat with a bat.

Rico: With somebody in the box?

Astrid: No, nobody was in the box. You just gotta beat up a box.

Rico: Like with a real baseball bat.

Astrid: Like the wiffle ball bats. Yeah, Just go crazy beating up the box for a specific amount of time.

Rico: That's awesome.

Astrid: Yeah, it was, it was a really great way to get out your frustration after losing at some other games.

Paddy: So, does all this amazingness build to something? I never went to summer camp but don't lots of camps end with like a big overnight in the wild or some kind of event?

Rico: Yeah, that's right. For the grand finale at Sperbaydin, everyone went out for a three-day adventure at the Pound Ridge Sanctuary. The plan was to sleep in tents, cook over the fire, and do three long day hikes.

But on the first night, Jim woke up in the darkness and had a feeling that something was very wrong.

Jim: I hadn't slept in a tent in a long time. And so when I got up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom, it was so painful. I was like, man, do you think I just can't sleep on the ground anymore? How did I get so soft? I can't believe it.

I was just like, oh my God, something is really wrong with me. This is not from sleeping on the ground. And I was scared because of course this was the summer of Covid and so many different stories were going around about how it can affect you. I've never ever felt so sick in my life.

Rico: Jim called Corey, who was in New York City for work, and at five a.m. she drove up to take Jim to the hospital. Nik and the kids stayed at camp, hoping their dad was okay.

Jim: The aches and pains in my joints had moved to my stomach as well, and I felt like I was gonna throw up. So I'm in the waiting room, like buckled over going, oh, oh. And I couldn't help it. I had to moan and people were freaking out. I mean, and like justifiably. Whatever I had, nobody wanted anything to do with it.

Corey: It turned out it was a tick-borne illness. It was Ehrlichia and thank goodness for antibiotics, because within 24 hours he was back on his feet.

And honestly, I was panicked cuz I just thought, if Jim goes down or if he's out of play for a while, I'm not sure what will happen. Cuz it really did take everybody to keep camp going to keep the enthusiasm going and keep all the activities going. But he recovered very quickly. Science is amazing.

Paddy: So was that it? The big camping trip was a wash, and then camp was over?

Rico: No, not quite. Nik had to leave in August, so he performed a ceremony typically done at Keewaydin near the last day, called the “chuck” ceremony. He had made an award for each person, what they call a chuck, a hockey puck sized slice of wood on a necklace. On one side he’d burned the recipient’s name, and on the other he’d burned a word to embody that person.

Nik: Sammy got spirit and all endeavors. Oscar got kindness. And then Astrid got leadership. And then I secretly made some for Jim and Corey too. Jim got love and Cory got acceptance. She had to work most days, but every opportunity that she had to join into the camp, she did.

Jim got the love award because I don't think I know someone who I've seen just love Keewaydin as much as Jim does. It's in everything that he does, how much he cares about camp, his kids, his family, really everything that he does, he never goes halfway.

Jim: It was just so impactful because these touching statements that he made before handed them out, he would tell a story. Nik is a great storyteller. And when the chuck is in his hand, he'll say that this is a chuck for acceptance and then tell a story about this person.

And you're not sure exactly who he's talking about until he finally declares that it's this person and, and that's why they deserve this. And it was, honestly, it was a, it was a big, big tear fest. It was wonderful. It was the real deal.

It was just, it was very touching. 

Rico: This really resonates with me, because one of the best things I got out of summer camp was getting recognized for who I was and what I was good at. It's a really profound experience for any kid. And so much of it has to do with being in an environment where everyone is stepping outside of their comfort zones. It's just incredible that the Sperbers were able to create this in their home.

Corey: When you have kids, it's about finding this balance of giving them freedom and choice and pushing them to have collective experiences. Everyone just gave it, gave it their all.

Paddy: So Rico, did reporting this story lead you to any kind of new perspectives on what summer camp is really all about? Or what it can do for us?

Rico: Yeah, for sure. I’m a new parent, and I’m studying up on this whole family thing. One of the things I'm learning is how important traditions can be to creating a supportive structure that helps kids grow, and take chances. That’s what summer camp is, three or six or eight weeks of traditions. That’s what makes camp a rite of passage.

I think that’s something we can all take from Sperbaydin, is that you can set up these special events for your family. It doesn’t have to be a nine-week DIY summer camp. Maybe it's just an annual long weekend. 

Don't worry about it feeling contrived. Make the schedule. Make the T-shirts. But just make it memorable.

Corey: It's funny cuz when they get older and they become teenagers, there's certain things they don't wanna do. But when it's tied to a tradition, something they've been doing for a long time, they're definitely more apt to do that. I was surprised by how committed the kids were to the proposition, to the construct, like we are doing camp.

So I think about that a little bit more with other things we do around holidays or weekends or whatever it is. I realize that if you can make it into something that's just like, that's what we do. That's what the Sperbers do. It helps. It takes away a little of the responsibility for decision making for the kids of like, is this cool? Is this fun? Should I be enthusiastic? It's just like, well, this is what we do.

Jim: It could not possibly have gone better. It was a complete success. The kids completely accepted it as camp. We put the tech away for the entire nine weeks of camp, and everybody had a great time. In fact, it was probably the best summer of my entire life.

Paddy: Wow. That pretty much sums it up.

Rico: Yeah. But I think Oscar, their youngest child, says it best.

Do you wish you could do Sperbaydin every year?

Oscar: Yes.

Rico: Why do you say that?

Oscar: Because it was so fun.

Paddy: This episode was reported by Frederick Reimers, AKA Rico, and produced by Rico and me, Paddy O'Connell. Michael Roberts was the editor. And then bailed on us for his family vacation before handling his usual hosting duties. Right now, he is probably sunburnt and/or covered in aloe. But I am certain he is quite happy.

Music for the episode by Robbie Carver.

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Okay. That's it! Toodles!

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Outside’s longstanding literary storytelling tradition comes to life in audio with features that will both entertain and inform listeners. We launched in March 2016 with our first series, Science of Survival, and have since expanded our show to offer a range of story formats, including reports from our correspondents in the field and interviews with the biggest figures in sports, adventure, and the outdoors.