Since 1946, summer camp along Lake Huron's shores has helped campers learn new skills, find God in nature

CARSONVILLE — In today’s “hurry up and wait” culture, in which kids are overbooked with school, sports, extra-curriculars and a never-ending bombardment of media, there is something almost radical about playing in the woods.

It wasn't so radical in 1946. That's when the Catholic Youth Organization's summer camps began along the shores of Lake Huron, on the east side of Michigan's Thumb. 

For a week at time throughout the summer, the CYO offers a place for kids to hike, make bonfires, play in the water, learn new skills and meet new (and old) friends — in other words, “a place for a kid to be a kid,” said Molly Hochstein, summer camp director at the CYO camps in Carsonville and Port Sanilac.

The weekly boys, girls and co-ed summer camps run from July 7 to Aug. 3, offering sleeper cabins, swimming, archery, arts and crafts at two locations: the CYO Boys Camp in Carsonville and the CYO Girls Camp in Port Sanilac. 

Aside from the traditional camp experience, CYO Camps also offer horseback riding and sailing camps to introduce campers to new skills.

Isabella Alam listens to her instructors before setting sail in the Port Sanilac Municipal Harbor. The sailing camp is a unique part of the CYO summer camp experience, which offers a variety of activities for boys, girls and families.

Dominic Licavoli of St. Mary Queen of Creation Parish in New Baltimore is a certified lifeguard and activities specialist at CYO Camps. His job involves teaching campers new skills and making sure they are having fun — and staying safe.

Shortly after the campers woke up and had breakfast on July 17, Licavoli led the group into the woods to teach them ways to build a shelter in an emergency situation. 

Licavoli, who was involved in the camps last year as a volunteer, said the camp staff works hard to provide a positive learning experience.

“I like seeing the children have a good time for the summer,” Licavoli said.

Campers often return for second, third and even fourth summers at the CYO camps, Licavoli said — and many return to work at the camp themselves, remembering their own experiences and wanting to recreate that for others.

Second-year camper Claire Schultz of Divine Child Parish in Dearborn said the experience helped her overcome her fear of bugs.

Dominic Licavoli, right, teaches campers how to build a makeshift shelter in the woods during the CYO summer camp in Carsonville.

“Camp is just really fun, and you make a lot of friends and get to experience things you don’t do every day,” Claire said. “It helps me be not afraid of bugs like I was before. Once you’re at camp for a week, you just go, ‘Die bug,’ to any one you see. I wasn’t that brave before.”

Whether it’s learning how to sail or ride horses, the measure of a successful camp experience is not in the skills learned, but the time spent in God’s nature, Licavoli said, where campers can let loose and have fun.

“Sometimes, this is the best time they will have all summer, where they have a chance to get away from the city and just be in nature,” Licavoli said. “For me, a successful camp experience is when they go home and they tell their family, their friends about their time at camp, and spread the word of God.”

Just north of Carsonville in a cove on Lake Huron, Claire and other campers got their chance to learn the basics of sailing — a brand new experience for the teenager. 

“I’ve never been in a boat before, but today we got to learn how to set up the boats, put up the mast, steer the ruder; I never thought I’d ever learn this,” Claire said. “It’s just fun to be at camp to experience things you didn’t think you’d be interested in, but it turns out they are really fun.”

Campers pose for a group photo after an afternoon of sailing.

The campers start and end every day in prayer and pray before meals, in addition to having Mass celebrated at the campgrounds once a week. It’s the Catholic nature of the camp that drew Plainfield, Ill.-native Alexis Salazar to volunteer.

“I found it really interesting because there aren't a lot of camps that involve your faith,” Salazar said. “This will be my fifth summer here, and the people here are just amazing. I could tell there was something different about this place. It's a very welcoming group of people, and I've stuck with them ever since.”

Salazar initially wanted to be a teacher, but working at camp led her to discover a passion for working with kids. Now, she wants to be a social worker.

“I really like making this a place where kids want to come back, teaching them songs, eating together and just the whole experience of being together,” Salazar said. “It is a very family-like atmosphere. These kids hardly know each other when the week starts. But after five days, they act like best friends.”

Gabriella Bruni of Macomb Township planned on meeting new friends at camp, but she also brought along her friend, Isabella Alam from Tucson, Ariz., to experience CYO camp with her.

With no iPhones in sight, campers reconnect with nature -- even bugs -- while building a shelter out of sticks and branches July 17.

“I told her how we do sailing, arts and crafts and archery, and she decided to tag along,” Gabriella said. 

Gabriella's favorite experiences so far have been the archery and bonfires, but she also enjoyed checking out a “muddy, dirty creek,” which she described as “pretty scary.”

“I only went in once, but they told me there were bugs and rats and animals,” Gabriella said. “I can’t tell you if they are really there; you have to find out for yourself.”

Gabriella also appreciates the faith aspect of the camp, having the chance to sing hymns and pray every day.

“We sing songs, praising the Lord, celebrating new friendships and daily goals,” Gabriella said. “We have challenges, like today you should make a new friend or make a friendship bracelet. Just small things like that make camp fun.”

Campers have enjoyed the CYO camp experience for decades, said Molly Hochstein, as a place where “kids can be kids” and escape from the pressures and regimented lifestyle of the city. 

Camps are only a week long, but the memories last longer than that.

In the campground office, pictures of camp counselors dating back to 1946 line the walls. Whether it's traditions like “Capture the Cabin,” a camp-wide game of hide and seek, “Woods Games” at the CYO Boys Camp and “Wishing Boats” at the CYO Girls Camp, or the legacy of campers who are at the same campgrounds as their parents when they were young, Hochstein said the memories are treasured forever.

“It’s a place where kids get to run outside and be free,” Hochstein said. “To disconnect from everything, from being overbooked and over-scheduled, and free their mind for new ideas. That’s why kids keep coming back. It’s a place for kids to be kids.”