Co-Interim Program Directors and Marriage

Kevin and Alliison WeddingMeet Allison and Kevin! Wait, you may already know them. Both have been working at Valaqua for many years all the way from CITing to Counselling to leading the CIT program and this summer, they are taking on the role of Co-Directors (we are not seriously calling them Co-Interim Program Directors, but it makes a good title) to cover the sabbatical leave for our long serving Camp Director Jon Olfert.

Last weekend Valaqua hosted a wedding and, you guessed it, these two tied the knot by the creek at Old Chapel. If you know Valaqua, you know that Old Chapel is one of the most beautiful sanctuaries in the world and it was a great pleasure to be part of this wonderful day.

The wedding, reception (which was hilariously MC’d by Jon and Nicole), and the whole day reflected the love and care these two have shared for many years. It was wonderful to come together to celebrate the love and dedication Kevin and Allison show each other.

Raise a glass to the Bride and Groom!

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Taking my Camera for a Walk

It is not often that a funeral, wedding, or large event in my family goes by in which photos are not taken, reviewed, or reminisced over. Photos play a huge part in cataloging my family and keeping track of the years and events. Photos have a way of taking on an emotional identity and they are cherished for many years. We make them into books, hang them on our walls, and make slideshows to tell a story. It is this emotional quality that photos embody that is of great interest to me. When my family comes together to look at photos of passed loved ones, celebrations of marriages, and new children born, there is an element of unveiling the parts of us that hold on to long lost sentiments. In this way, I believe that photos, and the act of taking them, are fundamentally therapeutic. This is an idea that is not new – photography and art therapy does exist. The question in my mind this morning as I walked was, what if we paired the idea of photo-therapy with being outside?

DSCF2574The Wilderness

In the thick of chaos and turmoil, when my life has been rocked, turned, and tossed around, it’s hard for me to see the next turn. It’s hard to remember my roots and who’s on my team. I forget what is good for me and turn to things that are available and easy. I lose sight of my goals and find my life seemingly out-of-control. Perhaps this can be likened to the wilderness – that massive presence all around us that I spend a lot of my day ignoring. Because the thing is, nature is unpredictable. It is an enormous expanse of chaos that plays by its own rules. It is wild, dangerous, and erratic. When the wilderness gets going it can really do some damage – rivers bring down our bridges and storms flood our houses.IMG_0867

Yet it is exactly this place of wild chaos that I come to seek solace. It is one of the few places of stillness that can match the ache for quiet and peace within me. The wilderness has much to teach me about where I came from, why I’m here, and my purpose in life. It can remind me to slow down and take in the beauty of the moment. It demonstrates the power of the spiritual presence that surrounds my life with guidance, strength, and companionship. It is in the wilderness that I take my camera out for a walk.

The Lens

In the midst of the chaos of unknown, I look through the lens for a little perspective. The angle in which I shoot, the distance I stand, and the way I place my object into thirds can all change the feel of the photo. Some photos dive into the darkness; displaying the parts of the wilderness that are scary and unseen. They can reveal the awesome power of nature in its relentless ways; reminding me of my insignificant size. Photos can also demonstrate light, and the joy that is found in a natural space. They can emphasize life that springs organically from the earth in surprising places. The importance is that I, as the photographer, get to choose my perspective. No matter what life has thrown my way, I have the choice to see light or absence of light._MG_0706The Camera

My camera is my tool box. Everything I need is at my fingertips. The breadth of my knowledge gives me freedom for creativity and the depth of my knowledge creates the quality in photo. My camera gives me as little or as much control of the incoming light as I’d like. During a day of feeling like I am “out of control”, my camera gives me a bit of the power back. I have a layout of my choices and I manipulate it. I am the artist of my life. This is a skill I have earned and there are no wrong answers. In my camera bag are the miscellaneous gadgets I’m beginning to collect. These are my team members, the tools and people I’ve met along my journey who are there to help me.IMG_0881The Picture

The picture I produce is my expression. I’ve dived into the chaos, chosen my perspective, allowed the camera to be my instrument for control and choice, and now I have creativity made manifest. The picture is my journal entry, my landmark, and my snapshot in the world. There is no right or wrong picture. There is no right or wrong way to take a picture. It is created from within and is mine to share. I have discovered the piece of nature that resonates with me and so in small ways I am beginning to discover myself. The more photos I take, the more confident I become in my ability and willingness to share._MG_0621The Story

There is nothing like putting my story together in a creative and meaningful way that doesn’t lend itself to a little bit of therapy. A string of photos in a blog post, a photo book, or even a post or two on Facebook allows me to start placing who I am and where I’ve been in the world. When done thoughtfully, it can be a wonderfully introspective task. The chaotic places in my story that are dark with intensity are being acknowledged. The _MG_0947pieces of joy and light are displayed and highlighted with a sense of achievement or reminisce. It’s important to me to share my story; and to listen to others. It is how I learn, grow, and form my values. In sharing I acknowledge my shortcomings and nurture my strengths. It is the story telling that gives the wild things in my life perspective and meaning.

-Allison Goerzen

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the rock

IMG_5572[1]My desk is a huge mess. It makes people flinch to look at it and I could blame it on the hectic pace of summer (it becomes a bit of a dumping ground in July and August) but if I am honest, my desk is a mess most of the year, like right now in the calm of winter when I have no excuse. It is a collection of projects on the go, reminders to myself to do this or that, pieces of equipment that need putting away or will be used again soon or need repair, and coffee cups and sweaters that help me meet my human needs during the day to day work that I do here at Valaqua

My desk is chaos but it is a chaos I understand so judge away if you need to but it works for me. It turns out I am a creature comfortable with chaos. I can work with the chaos of a group and usually bend and flex as necessary. I have come to appreciate the messy side of what we do here… the human side. The side that forgets to put away the climbing ropes or uses up the last of the paint is a side I understand and one I usually have grace for (but seriously, tell someone if you use the last of the paint).

That is the long form of “my desk is a mess and I’m not really embarrassed” so there you have it. This story isn’t really about my desk, it’s about a rock.

IMG_5573[1]There is a rock on my desk. If you squint carefully at the photo of chaos up top you can see it in the top left corner, just under the monitor and left of the computer. It’s not holding the desk down or pinning down paper or doing anything particularly useful… it’s just sitting there. It’s not a particularly fancy rock; just plain brown with a little streak of red rust across the back and about the size of my palm. It is not a diamond or a piece of coal, it’s not even from some exotic destination; I picked it up down by the river.

So what makes it special? It has my name on it and that tells part of the story but the bigger part happened half a year or a lifetime ago during our staff training week. We were blessed that week to have Kari Enns join us to guide us in some times of worship and reflection and one of the things we did was pick rocks. I picked the one you can barely see on my desk. I wrote my name on it –as per instructions- and brought it to the session. I will admit I almost skipped that session. Kari told me I could and orientation is a hectic week for me and I almost took that time for myself but something pushed me to join the group. I’m glad I did.

IMG_5574[1]See at that session we talked about community and then we handed around our rocks. Each of us spent a full minute thinking about and praying for the person who belonged to that rock. I could feel the warmth of the hands that had held the stones before mine as each stone was passed to me and when we had made our way all around the circle the stone I received was somehow transformed. It is now on my desk, in a corner of the chaos, reminding me quietly of what is to come. It reminds me of the young people who will come to call Valaqua home for a summer. It reminds me of the thread that connects us. It reminds me of the human warmth that we give to each other in our time together. It reminds me of camp.

It can be easy to forget about camp on cold, lonely mornings in the office as I order brochures and prepare mail outs and organize marketing efforts. It can be easy to lose focus on what it is we do and why. This small rock holds down my focus as we roll over the crest of another year and begin the downhill ride to summer camp.

This rock reminds me of all those others that shared a place with mine last summer. Those other rocks are scattered across Western Canada now and hopefully some of their owners are thinking about camp once again. I know I think about them each time my eyes drift to the dusty corner of my desk that is held down by a fist sized rock labelled “Jon.”

The staff application deadline is in a little over a month, but applications have begun to arrive and the key leadership people are in place. It is amazing to think that in a few short months we will be doing all of this over again. I can’t wait.P1040439

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I know you

IMG_7039Heading into our third week of camp and the last one before we take a break for a week and it’s been a busy few weeks so thank heavens for that. Our camps have been full or almost these first three weeks and it has kept us hopping with wave after wave of energetic kids pouring in on Sunday and pouring out tired and grubby but also uplifted and refreshed (we hope) on Friday nights. The trick is finding a way to flow in that sea of energy and have it lift you and carry you rather than trying to be the rock it breaks against because no one can take that kind of beating for long so pick up your feet and allow yourself to be carried to interesting and wonderful places.

I love my job.

Anyway, last week saw a large and largely new group of campers join us for the week and an interesting and wonderful thing happened quietly and in the in betweens. At one point early in the week, a new camper that I had met on a field trip and whose teacher a few years back happened to be married to me ran up to me in the in between times and said rather confidently “I know you.”

I know you too. I answered.

“How?” she answered and so I proceeded to answer:

Well, you’ve been here before with your grade three class and I know your teacher from two years ago and I helped your mom register you so I know your name and address and phone number… I know you lots of ways.

That seemed to satisfy her and she ran off to her next activity or cabin time or meal or whatever it was that was happening next right then. This continued through the week and became an every time I walked past sort of a thing. I heard “I know you!” ring from across the grass, through the dining hall, and across the campfire circle. Soon other kids joined and I had a long list of campers to know and who knew me.

The first thing I noticed is how wonderful it is to be known. I am a pretty front and centre type of Director when it comes to camp and I try my hardest to be involved with the campers. I definitely get to know the kids who are homesick or struggle with behaviour and I also run morning activities so my counsellors can rest for a few precious extra minutes (this morning I ran crafts which means I ask kids to show me how to do things because I am not exactly a crafty guy) and I visit with kids when I have a minute. It is important for me to know the campers and a good measure of my work health that I do and a not-so-good sign when I don’t.

Anyway, when I am doing it right I am present at camp and this means most of the campers meet me at some point during the week and I have discovered that it makes me feel good to be known. I like being recognized and flagged down and having campers want to talk to me and as I thought about this I realized just how important it is to be known. I should be no surprise that the campers last week took such joy in being known. It made them feel just as important and connected as it did for me.

As I rolled the idea of being known around in my foggy head a small light bulb in some dim recess popped on. At first I couldn’t see it clearly through the haze but it grew brighter as the week went along and I started to use it as a mantra in what became a challenging week (a long and separate story that I will tell you if we ever sit down for a coffee together… the offer stands and I’ll buy):

I am known.

People know me because of my work at camp. My brother-in-law calls me Camp Jon and I still get junk mail with “Camp Jon” emblazoned on it after a magazine subscription in that name came to me for a few years. What I do is who I am and it has grafted itself into my identity until there is no separation between who I am here during the silly season and who I am every other day of the year. I am Camp Jon.

But then I am not always Camp Jon. I have my down times (Camp Jon is always happy), I have my low energy times (Camp Jon is always ready to go), and I have times when I would really rather not talk to anyone (Camp Jon is always ready to chat). And so I am not known here… not really, not all of me. I wonder sometimes if I would still be as popular to these kids if they knew me, I mean really knew me. If my constituents and the parents and campers knew the grumpy me, the worn out me, the bitter me, would they still show such amazing trust in me?

One of my favourite verses lies in Psalms 139 and while I often struggle with the Psalms (reading them is a roller coaster ride of highest highs and devastating lows) this piece of wonderful prose hits home is a way that rings true in my heart:

For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place, when I was woven together in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be. How precious to me are your thoughts, God! How vast is the sum of them! Where I to count them, they would outnumber the grains of sand— when I awake, I am still with you. – Psalm 139: 13-18

That the God I know knit me together in my mother’s womb, that the God I know knows all the days of my life is a wonderful and powerful thing. See the God I know loves me. All of me. The grumpy me, the bitter me, the happy and carefree me. All of it. I’m not hiding the bad stuff because there is no hiding. I am fully known and I am fully loved.

I got to know some of those kids pretty well last week. I found out about their favourite things, their pets, their families… I knew them. But not like that, not like a God that knows every inch of your being and what your being will become. I can’t know a camper like that. I can’t know myself like that.

This leaves me in a place of deepest gratitude. I am so desperately grateful for a love that gazes unflinchingly into the grubbiest parts of my soul and without blinking carries on.

I hope the kids who were here last week (and this week, and the week after/year after/decade after that) feel it to.

Now, if you’ll excuse me I’ve got some kids to get to know…

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the help – why we do what we do at camp

AlisonWords from our wonderful CIT Director Allison Goerzen

As I reflect on what our mission is here at camp, I am drawn to one of my favorite books: “the Help” by Kathryn Stockett. It is a story set in Jackson, Mississippi during the very beginnings of the civil rights movement. It follows the lives of three women who have decided that they are going to start telling the truth about the racial segregation in place. Many of the black women at that time were maids for white women and would slave away at cooking, cleaning, and raising their bosses’ children. The children they would care for were often neglected and mistreated by their mothers and taught racism against blacks at a very young age. It is in this setting that we meet Aibileen, a black woman who has been working as a maid since she was a teen, who begins to have the courage to speak out and create a change.the Help Title (3)

Aibileen, during the story, is raising a small girl named Mae Mobley. Aibileen tries her very hardest to show her that racism does not need to exist and that not every influence around her is correct. Aibileen struggles as she has watched so many of the kids she raised before grow up and turn just like their mamas. She knows that it is only a matter of time before teachers, friends, and parents teach Mae Mobley that blacks are dirty, sinful, and dumb. Aibileen, in her short time with Mae Mobley, decides on three simple truths to tell her every day, in hopes that she might remember who she was as a child and overcome the societal pressures to be racist.
“You is kind, you is smart, you is important.”

I think these three things are universally important for all kids. To me it looks like this:
You is kind – What you will give back? You have the knowledge, so now what will you do with it? How will you choose to project yourself? What things will you be involved in that can better the community around you? How will you treat your friends, peers, or parents?

Mae MobelyYou is smart – you have what it takes. You are a smart kid who is capable and that knowledge comes from within you. You do not need external affirmation to know that you are a skilled, talented, and gifted person.
You is important – The wisdom within you, the knowledge that you have gained, the things that make you who you are, are valuable. You are worthy, significant, and lovable. You mean something to someone.
I think these three things, as simple as they are when spoken to a child, hold great meaning and purpose in shaping us. I think about all the kids who come to camp and how impactful our counsellors and CITs are to them. We have a single week with them, it is vitally important that our messages (whether implicit or explicit) be good ones. Kids are faced with some tough things. Some have never been told they are loved. Some have ideas that have never been acknowledged. Some feel as though they have nothing good to offer because they believe they are stupid. Many kids who come to camp are not the “cool kids”. So we strive to make the one week we have with them as meaningful as possible. We strive to let silliness be the new cool while they are here. After all, isn’t that the best part of being a kid?

In fact we often find that camp is the perfect home for those who are silly, creative, weird, and outrageous. It is a place where all can come to thrive because we, as staff, are silly, creative, and a little weird too. We love the ridiculous and all of our programs are aimed at creating a solid foundation for kids to build from. It is incredible to watch campers and staff move through Valaqua and discover that they are kind, they are smart, and they are important.

If we as staff work hard to accommodate these three fundamental truths for each camper that is entrusted to our care, I think we can say that we have accomplished our mission statement.

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Why Camp?

Why Camp? Some words from our amazing Office Administrator, Jill Beever.  That’s her at camp… the upside down one!

Jill picture 1Eleven years ago my best friend invited me to go to the bible camp that both her older sisters had attended. I’ve been going to that camp ever since.

Jill Picture 2As a junior camper, I loved going back every year because it was fun, silly, and I felt so close to God, something I hadn’t felt going to church. It was always a safe place where I was welcomed and encouraged in my faith, unlike my small hometown where there was a huge lack of church-going kids.

As I grew older I, too, stopped going to church like all the other kids my age. It wasn’t because I didn’t want to go to church, but because my family was so busy, and without other kids church seemed lonely anyways. But I continued to go to camp every year and every year I wished that I would not have to leave camp, because it felt like leaving God. I loved camp as a teen because of the wonderful people that surrounded me and encouraged me to pursue my faith. It was a safe and supportive place, a place where I could get away from the social media and busyness of everyday life and replace it with campfires, fun games, and worship songs.

Camp has been a huge part of my life. I never would have considered enrolling in the Canadian Mennonite University if it hadn’t been for camp. And now that I have finished my first year at CMU, I have a better understanding of Christianity, the Bible, and my own faith. Between camp and CMU, I have made some lifelong friends that I treasure, and I love how they encourage my relationship with God100_7906.

Camp, and the friends I made through camp, truly shaped my life. See, the Bible camp that I have gone to for the past decade is not Camp Valaqua, but that’s because I am from Manitoba. I now find myself working at Camp Valaqua 1200km from my home. I found out about this camp through some friends at university who worked here.

So why would some kid from Manitoba move halfway across the country just to work at Camp Valaqua?

Sometimes I tell myself it’s because I’m adventurous, and my hometown seemed the most boring way to spend 4 months of freedom. But a more probable reason it that I find office work a lot of fun. But perhaps the biggest reason that I find myself at Camp Valaqua is because somehow I knew that it would feel like home. After realizing that I feel most at home when I’m around people from camp or from CMU, I knew that moving out to the middle of nowhere to spend 4 months living in a community of people I’d never met could turn into a very excellent summer.

DSC_0068After living here for a week, I can honestly say I am not disappointed. I love my job, the staff here is wonderful, and the camp is beautiful. I enjoy that fact that when I go for a walk in the evening I get to hear the river, an owl, or the wind instead of cars and trains. The people I work with are a lot of fun and are very enthusiastic about the upcoming camps. I’m excited to see all the kids laughing as they enjoy the activities that the staff members are putting hard work into creating.

So, why camp? Personally, it comes down to three points: self, community, and God. Camp helped me to discover who I was and wanted to be. In turn, I discovered how much I valued the Christian community and continue to surround myself with these friends. Both of these where simply parts of my walk with God, a walk that I probably wouldn’t be on if it weren’t for camp. And the best part is that all of this faith and fun happens in the great outdoors!

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the thick of things

mountain bluebird imageIt is a wonderful time of year here at Camp Valaqua; the country is alive with birds returning to the land after a wise winter away, the trees are yawning and stretching and waking up, and camper registrations are pouring in!

Last Saturday we held our annual Spring Work Day and over 60 people came to help us get camp ready for summer. We cleared brush, varnished bunks for new cabins and installed our new kayaks. The earth seems to be getting ready for camp too as mountain bluebirds can be seen on nearby fence posts, the great blue herons are in the marshes once again, and even the poor deer and moose trapped here through this long winter by lack of wings are starting to look sleeker and less ragged as the grass grows in. Summer is coming!

And we are preparing. We have some staff onsite working hard to make sure that the facilities are ready to go and preparing to train our wonderful staff team. Summer is coming and we will be ready!Great blue heron image

This is a thrilling time of year for me. Now is when I get to begin focusing more exclusively on our summer camp program. I meet staff and settle them in to their roles, we spend time planning how we will train our staff and how we will shape the culture we want our camp community to have this year. I spend hours thinking about the gifts of the staff who are coming and how we can best support those gifts so that they are as successful as possible. Camp starts to turn up in my dreams in vivid and sometimes scary ways as it lurks near consciousness at all times. Everything I read or listen to is chased by the question “how can I use this to make our camp better?”

This morning our sixth new cabin arrived, the truck growling past my house as I poured coffee at the kitchen counter, the cabin sitting placidly in the parking lot before I returned from getting the kids on the bus to school. Today the maintenance staff will prepare to move it to its prepared site that we spent a piece of Saturday clearing. This summer, Mennonite Disaster Service is partnering with us to build the remaining 4 cabins as part of a family building project and we are very excited to host them and to see this project to completion. Fundraising for this project is underway and moving ahead thanks to the amazing generosity of the community that supports Valaqua.

Yes, it’s a wonderful time of year here at Valaqua, and we can’t wait to have you join us!

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and so it continues to begin

???????????????????????????????For the first time in my eight years at Valaqua (and, Jeff assures me, in all his years -to which we will not now assign a number-) there is so much snow that I cannot see the parking lot from my office. This is a mild annoyance as I can’t tell if anyone is pulling up outside of my office but more than anything it makes it difficult to focus on preparing for the summer sun. It is, however, light just a little later and just a little earlier and this brings a promise of long days and cool nights and summer camp that will jump out at us before we are ever really fully ready for it.

A past Director of Valaqua once put it to me this way: You spend all fall building a snowball, then in January you push it down a hill and it just rolls faster and faster, and gets bigger and bigger, and then it’s September.

And then you start again.

An apt description if ever I have heard one.

Coming through the winter months can be a challenge at times. It is easy to lose focus in the minutia of hiring and promoting and website work. Snowcamps help remind me and upcoming church visits will make it more concrete still. Sifting through resumes now and looking for a few more here and there and arranging interviews is the order of the day these days. Interviews will start next week and then hiring goes on forever and a day as we call references and put together lists and confirm staff and pull a group of wonderful people together to care for the kids who will join us this summer.

I find myself wrapped up in what ifs and maybes and spending time pondering and considering and then shake myself from a reverie and work on the registration system or answer a parent question or return a call.

Brochures are out, camper registrations are rolling in, hiring is in process, and church visits are coming up. We can’t wait to see you here!

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take me outside!

Take a moment to consider this: According to the 2013 Active Healthy Kids Canada Report Card, Canadian youth spend nearly 8 hours a day in front of a screen. The Suzuki foundation points out that 70% of our kids also spend less than an hour outside each day.

Meanwhile our kids are more obese and suffering from Asthma and Diabetes in record levels. Is there a link here? I suspect there is.  There is never a “one source” solution but the line from here to there seems to cross all of these points so what can we do?

Screen_Shot_2013-09-15_at_4.32.14_PMOn October 24, take your kids outside. Then go outside again on the 25th, then the 26th, and the day after that too!

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that’s a wrap folks

1148909_645041282180658_88436032_nCamp wrapped up last night and now reentry into the world beyond camp begins once again. Last night was one of those late nights as the staff extended the kiss and cry and lingered, not wanting to turn the page on this thing that we had built together over the last few months. It’s a tough thing, leaving a community of intentionality and love and support and reentering a world that is… less focussed on these things. As usual it is the newer staff who hang on the tightest and as this was my 17th such event and my 8th here at Valaqua, I find myself just trying to be patient and gracious and waiting for everyone to go home.

Don’t get me wrong, I will miss this group (they were excellent) but there comes a time when you recognize the transition as one of many and sadly it looses some of the magic it once held.

I teach a session to my staff about the stages of staff progression. It begins with the excited staff with few skills but lots of enthusiasm and progresses all the way to the Natural who is a camp person all the way to the centre of their being. The thing I try to highlight as I teach this is that the camp community is built on the backs of those staff with raw skills and bundles of energy. We need our stage one and two and three staff to carry us old tired guys along.

I like to use the image of a campfire. As anyone who has been through my fire-building session will know, you need three sizes of fuel to start a fire: tinder, kindling, and fuel. The tinder is the small stuff (smaller than your finger) that catches a spark and holds it and you need a lot because it burns very, very fast. Kindling are the small sticks (finger width-ish) that cary the flame on and you need a fair number of those as well. The fuel are the larger logs and once ignited, they hold the flame for a long time, giving the fire longevity.


In my imperfect metaphor of camp as campfire, campers come as tinder, we need lots of them and they burn fast and go home tired. The counseling staff take on the role of kindling, taking the spark of excitement from the campers and making it into something bigger. The leadership of the camp acts as fuel, taking the flame and helping it to burn and give light and heat over a longer period of time.

Staff party is this afternoon so we are not done saying goodbyes yet, but the hope is that these goodbyes in the light of day hold more hope and joy. We will enjoy some time together at the beach and linger in one another’s company one more time before we part ways for the winter. Then it is back to the reentry plan as fall becomes a fast reality.

Thank you to everyone who helped make Valaqua a great place to be this summer. To the staff, countless volunteers, and to the parents who trusted us enough to drop off their children: thank you. I hope you join us again next summer!

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