Camp Kawaga Blog

Pete Zollo is Camp Kawaga’s Executive Director and this week’s guest blogger.


My favorite time at camp is first thing in the morning, which at Kawaga means Polar Bears, an activity I never attended as either a camper or a counselor. But, these days I’m up early. And, accompanied by Jozie, my four-year-old Golden Retriever, I walk down to the Buddy Board check-in, where I await the call of reveille over the PA. That’s when the cabin doors fly open and the boys come running down to the waterfront for a refreshing morning dip in Kawaguesaga. What a great time to talk with the boys, when they’re lined up ready to jump in the lake, anticipating another beautiful day at Camp Kawaga.

Our campers are simply the nicest boys. Those who choose to go to Polar Bears are also pretty talkative in the morning. As you can imagine, the dog lovers in the group (pretty much all of them) are especially excited to be greeted by Jozie, who heralds their jump by barking until they quickly surface in the Advanced Tank. In fact, Jozie is a comfort dog, providing therapy six days a week to memory-care residents in an assisted-care facility. But, at Kawaga, thanks to our boys, she receives as much comfort as she gives. Boys play with her throughout the day — gently, patiently, lovingly.

I just returned from my 4th visit to The Shores of 2015. Not counting a few years when I was unable to visit, this is my 50th summer at Kawaga. What a lucky guy I am. I get to meet and know another generation of Braves.

And, here’s the thing that strikes me most during each trip to camp (which others have also said): We have the most polite, well-mannered boys, who are eager to jump into conversation.

Visitors are often astounded by how our campers stop and say hello and ask our guests if they can direct them to the office. Our boys introduce themselves, greeting visitors as if they’ve entered their home (which, of course, they have). The pride our boys show in being part of this piece of paradise is palpable. It’s also contagious — it’s not just taught by parents and counselors and directors. It’s internalized through the experience of being at Kawaga. It’s what we mean when we say, “Be Kawaga.”

We really do have the nicest young men at Kawaga. I know you’ve heard and read this before, so let’s take a moment to think about it. Could this really be true or is it only our biased perception? After all, our campers certainly could have chosen another camp. So, why are our boys so noticeably different when it comes to how they treat their peers and respect their camp? And, if so, what is it about Kawaga and our families that separates us when it comes to the character of our campers?

Is it that the nice boys choose to come to Kawaga, or that Kawaga fosters an environment where “nice” shines? The answer, of course, is both. The ideals that we stand for are not coincidentally those that our families also prioritize. Even in the heat of competition and in the all-out fun we have at camp, what matters most to us is what we value and how we behave. It’s what counselors talk to their campers about each night in their cabins. It’s what’s discussed in each small powwow. It’s what’s reinforced every day at Camp Kawaga.

Parents, you would be so proud to see how your boys treat and bond with each other, how they admire and care about the staff, and even how they greet visitors (human and canine alike). No, they’re not perfect and are, of course, always a work-in-progress, but they are so impressive, so warm, so caring, so kind.  When I leave camp after each visit, they’re what I miss most.

So, when the boys were lined up at the Buddy Board the day of competition with Camp Menominee, I asked, “Who can tell me what the Kawaga Ideal says about sportsmanship?” Hands flew up — not just from the older Oneidas and Mohawks, but also from our youngest Chips and Siouxs. One 10-year-old responded, “Be humble and gentle in victory,” which I challenged by asking, “But what if we don’t win?” That’s when a chorus of boys answered, “… proud and unbending in defeat.” The boys smiled, feeling so assured and comfortable in our approach to competition. Yes, we want to beat Menominee and always try our best to do so. But, as Matt reminded the staff during last Sunday night’s counselor meeting, “We only want to win the Kawaga way.”  (And, yes, we did win — with enthusiastic pride but also with gentle humility.)

And, then it was time for those lined up at the Buddy Board to jump into the water, one by one (well, with Jozie in tow). Campers smiled on the way in and high-fived on the way out. They asked me if I’d be around later and if Jozie would be going swimming at Open Areas. When I let them know that this was my last day for this trip, they told me to come back soon, to have a good drive, and that they’d miss Jozie.

I’m so proud that this particular group of boys has chosen our camp and is our next generation of Kawaga Braves. Thank you, Kawaga families.

Be Kawaga,


P.S. Click on the “Jozie Video” link to see a volleyball match between Jozie and one of her best camp friends: Jozie Video