Young campers feel the magic of summer camp. Counselor help create that magic. And camp directors work backstage setting up the show.

This, according to Louise Johnson, director of Camp Arcadia in Maine, is what it's all about.

For 98 years, the stewardship of Camp Arcadia has passed down Johnson's maternal Darien family tree, from grandmother to mother, through an aunt, and now to Johnson.

"Camp is a haven for children where they can come and be themselves," Johnson said. "They're living life without their parents and it's a place where they can create themselves."

Located in Casco, Maine, on 365 acres, Camp Arcadia is a home for 175 campers and 65 staff members from around the world each summer, with many of the campers returning for multiple years.

"There are generations of aunts and mothers and grandmothers and daughters here," Johnson said.

Kathleen McLaughlin and three other members of her family attend Camp Arcadia each summer. McLaughlin started going to the camp when she was 13, and has returned for the past 14 years.

For the last couple of summers, she's been joined by her sister, who is also a counselor now, and her two younger cousins.

McLaughlin initially went to Camp Arcadia to be a part of the Junior Maine Guide program, which sets Arcadia apart from others in the area. The JMG program offers an educational opportunity for girls within the state to spend a majority of the summer learning different material pertinent to the history and wilderness of the state.

"It really emphasizes being comfortable with living in the out of doors," McLaughlin said, adding that the girls involved with the program spend a week at the end of July camping outside and testing their survival knowledge.

In the 1890s, George Meylan, Johnson's great-grandfather, teamed up with a group from the local YMCA that shared his concerns with the link between children's general well-being and the time spent in New York City, where Meylan was a doctor.

"He was a big part of the movement of the beginning of organized camping," Johnson said.

Following a trip to various camps across the Northeast, in 1905 Meylan created White Mountain Camp for boys on Sebago Lake after being reminded of his home in Switzerland, according to Johnson.

In 1917, Meylan saw that while camp was good for boys, it was also good for girls, and purchased land from a neighboring woman who was looking to stay closer to her Connecticut home. White Mountain Camp shut down during World War II.

Meylan's oldest daughter Juliette Meylan Henderson then ran the camp for 40 years before passing it along to her daughters, Anne Henderson Fritts and Louise Henderson, who were also the directors for 40 years.

"My grandmother's philosophy," Johnson said, "was that in order to feel confidence and comfortable in the world, you need to feel confident and comfortable in the outdoors; you need the basic core skills."

Those basic skills include swimming, canoeing and camping, like pitching a tent, building a fire and cooking outdoors, Johnson said.

Kaleigh LeClerc started as a 10-year-old camper who went to Camp Arcadia at the suggestion of her parents. Now, 15 years later, LeClerc is the head of canoeing, an activity that was her favorite as a camper.

"Campers will always look up to their counselors," LeClerc said. "But there will always be that one counselor that makes you feel like you really belong."

Or a group of counselors, which was the case for Vicki Secrest, of Darien, who is in her 48th year at the camp.

"I arrived in the rain," Secrest, who grew up in western Kansas, recalls of her first summer as a swimming counselor. "It was dreary and drab and cold."

Another counselor had shown Secrest to her cabin, where she would be staying during orientation week. She put aside her bags, left the cabin and started walking toward one of the main buildings on the grounds.

Up ahead of her on the path was a group of counselors on a large rock. All Secrest could think was "What have I done? What have I done?"

It was then, Secrest said, that one of the counselors stood up and started to approach her. The counselor said hello and acknowledged that Secrest was new.

"They pulled me into the group," Secrest said. "And that was the beginning. I really immediately felt comfortable."

Sometimes, not being able to return to camp can be a challenge for some. Johnson received an email from a counselor who had made a home at Arcadia for the past nine years.

"For the last 9 years this time of year always brings a rush of emotion for me," the counselor wrote to Johnson. "I find myself aching to be back among people who understand me for who I am and not for what I do or where I come from."

Secrest, LeClerc and McLaughlin all work or have worked with children when not at Arcadia in the summer, all of them saying that their experiences shaped the way they approached their careers.

The days at Arcadia are structured so that the campers choose which activities they want to do based on their skill levels and interest so that during one session a 14-year-old may be participating with a 9-year-old camper.

McLaughlin is an anatomy and physiology teacher in New York and said her time as counselor has helped her in the classroom.

"At camp, I learned to teach an 8-year-old and a 16-year-old in the same session," McLaughlin said. "I apply that in the classroom every day; not everyone learns at the same pace and the same skill level."

Regardless of their different experiences at Camp Arcadia, Johnson, McLaughlin, LeClerc and Secret all said that overnight camp is something that every child should be able to experience.

"Arcadia is a community where everyone wants to be there," LeClerc said. "Everyone wants to create a magical atmosphere where everyone just gets to be at summer camp. Even though Arcadia is a unique summer camp, summer camp is just an experience that everyone should have."

mspicer@bcnnew.com; 203-972-4407; @Meg_DarienNews

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