Freedom — September 21, 2009 — At 40 years and counting, camp director Jody Skelton has been at Camp Huckins longer than anyone. It’s a marker that speaks to the continuity of tradition that is the hallmark of the girls camp on Ossipee Lake. To commemorate the occasion, Skelton invited 240 of her closest camp friends last month to celebrate as well as to kick off the camp’s first capital campaign.
Skelton began her camp experience at the age of nine. She was the third of four sisters, and her family sent the eldest two to different camps in the area to find one they liked.
“When I was old enough, I came,” Skelton said. She went with her sisters to the YMCA’s Camp Huckins, a 200-acre campsite on Ossipee Lake, and fell in love with it. “I liked it, so I kept coming back.”
Skelton returned to camp each year she was young enough to be a camper, and then she continued on as a counselor in training. From there, she became a counselor, then assistant waterfront director, then assistant small craft director, then counselor-in-training counselor, then leadership division leader, then 14 years as assistant camp director and the past six years as camp director.
“I kept on hanging in there till they finally had to promote me,” she said.
Over the past 40 years, the camp has been physically updated. An outdoor chapel was built as well as a stone wall on the water front and an indoor basketball court. There are 70 more campers now than in 1970, so more cabins have been built, she said.
Some activities have been added to the camp experience. Skelton said the girls fill a hole with mud, enjoy a mud bath and then jump in the lake to rinse off. The camp also now offers kayaking and windsurfing, she said.
The girls also have changed since Skelton came as a child. “I’d say girls are growing up much faster,” she said. “Kids have done so many more things than I did. I didn’t fly in a plane until college, but some of these kids have been all over the world.”
Although they have changed, one thing remains the same: “They don’t give up (coming to) camp.”
And there are reasons why they keep returning.
“In 40 years, it’s still situated on a beautiful lake, there are cabins and stars at night,” Skelton said.
The girls still dress up and sing songs, she said. They have sports races, campfires and s’mores, and they sleep under the stars on an island. They still wake up to the sound of a bugle, although these days it’s played by a CD, not a record.
“The traditions of camp have stayed the same,” Skelton said.
One of those traditions is becoming a Huckster. When a girl attends Camp Huckins for five years, she earns the status of a Huckster. When she returns for 10 years, she becomes a Double Huckster, which essentially means she’s become a staff member, Skelton said.
When a girl becomes a Huckster, she writes a card, saying why she has loved returning to camp each year. Skelton said most girls write, “Camp is the place I can be myself.”
“How great that kids can be comfortable here,” Skelton said. “What a magical place they can come to. It’s like coming home, but it’s an escape from parents and from the computer.”
Over her 40 years at Camp Huckins, Skelton said she has learned about life and about herself.
“Camp helps you build self-confidence,” she said.
She’s learned about managing people, coaching counselors, giving positive and negative feedback and interacting with people.
She’s also learned about “being independent,” she said. “You learn how to drive a boat and a truck. There’s a level of responsibility and trust.”
The YMCA encourages people to live by four words: “caring, honesty, respect and responsibility,” Skelton said, adding that “you learn those at camp, too.”
Women who have grown up going to Camp Huckins have learned and benefitted from the experience just as Skelton has. Some of them, like her, have been coming back for years, either as counselors or visitors.
“We grow our own counselors,” Skelton said. “All the women I went to camp with, their daughters are coming now. We started Family Camp 23 years ago, and it’s great because alumni come back.”
Skelton’s 40th year at Camp Huckins was a great “excuse” to get as many of them back together again as possible. “I wanted an excuse to invite everyone back to camp,” she said.
So, 240 of Skelton’s friends, family and Camp Huckins alumni held a celebration on Aug. 23 in honor of her 40th year. The camp has been in existence for 42 seasons, according to a recent news release. Skelton said she’s the only Huckster who’s ever been there for 40 years.
“Thirty-two years was the longest,” she said.
It also was the kick off for the camp’s first capital campaign to raise $2.5 million to build four new cabins, update existing camp buildings and set aside $1 million of the funds for camp endowment, including $500,000 for camp scholarships, according to a recent news release. Skelton said the camp has already raised $650,000 toward the campaign.
As Camp Huckins continues to change and grow, Skelton said she plans to be there for years to come. “I’m not going anywhere,” she said, when asked if she was planning to retire.
Her life has benefitted from the camp, and she looks forward to continuing to inspire young women as previous camp counselors have done for her.
“I think one of the great things is that (Camp Huckins) hasn’t changed that much and that the girls can be in a place where they can be themselves,” she said. “That’s one of the greatest gifts we can give to girls. It just doesn’t get any better than that.”