Burt Chaikin is a long time camper and counselor. Burt’s passion and love for camp is incredible. His dedication to camp and the Kawaga way is appreciated by camper and staff alike. A true Brave through and through. At our Saturday services Burt shared his thoughts and feeling about the meaning of camp, paying it forward and carrying on tradition with our campers and staff. We are so lucky he did, this is a read you don’t want to miss. This is Kawaga, enjoy!
For those of you that think I like to talk a lot, this might come as a surprise to you… but I really really did not want to give this sermon. Seriously, I tried very hard to get someone else to do it instead. I did not want to give it. I really really did not want to write my counselor message the other day. And I really really really do not want to leave this place next weekend. Basically I’m just trying to avoid doing anything that would force me to start facing the reality that after 13 summers, I may be entering my final, final week of camp. My last Saturday service, my last league games, last blue-gold cup, last banquet night, last all-nighter, last time searching every other cabin for my not-washed laundry that was dispersed to everyone else, last open areas driving boats, final tapping ceremony, final bugle calls, final staff show, final cheers in the mess hall, last small and big powwows, and my final days with my kids that I’ve watched grow up since they were 9 years old.
I don’t really know how to contemplate all of this or how I could possibly put it into words. There aren’t words to describe that feelings that are starting to sink in. I don’t know my summers without Kawaga or my winters without having Kawaga to look forward to. While I have no idea what the future brings, I do know that there is no place in the world that could have prepared me more for it.
Every year, I grew, learned, loved, worked, and laughed more than I had the summer before and am a much better person because of it. My childhood lives and breathes in these woods. 13 years is a very long time… at any other place but here. Here, it’s way too short.
If I could do this job for the rest of my life, I would. I feel like people search their whole lives to find something that means as much to them as Kawaga means to me. I’m very fortunate to have learned what it means to be passionate about something and to know what it feels like to care about something this deeply.
When I spoke during the parents weekend sermon a few years ago, I had to keep re-iterating how tough it was for me to put my thoughts on Kawaga into words. As I’ve gotten older and have had to start to explain to more and more people why I’m not in LA during the summer interning, or why I’m back at a place after some of my best friends no longer are, or why I feel no need to respond to any outside world commitments while I’m up here, it’s forced me to start to consider why this place is so difficult for others to understand. And the answer is because camp is not just a place, it’s an energy, a feeling.
In that last sermon, I explained the meaning of a Native American word: “svota.” And what svota means is “when the invisible becomes visible.” So for example someone may ask, “What’s beautiful?” And then you see a sunset like the ones we have here and you say, “Oh, that’s beautiful…” These moments of Svota are probably the best I can do in order to describe camp to somebody who’s never experienced it. The only way I was able to express what Kawaga is was to people who had never been here was to describe distinct moments:
The rush a chip gets when their name is announced in the mess hall for getting their miracle, that’s Kawaga. A camper memorizing the ideal for the first time—that’s Kawaga. That same camper finally understanding it’s meaning, that’s Kawaga. The opportunity to talk to your best friend while they are sitting in a bathroom stall next to you, that’s Kawaga. Going to free swim with someone you just lost to in an 88-0 league game; doing the fork in the garbage disposal at the top of your lungs; and going nuts for chip burgers—all uniquely Kawaga. The sound of reveille is Kawaga and the feeling you get looking up at the stars each night here is Kawaga too.
The reason I bring this up is because when you get towards your final years on staff and start to think about your experiences here at camp, the way you will remember camp is also simply by these moments of svota. These little fleeting feelings are all that remain with you of camp.
As I said 2 years ago, Kawaga is a magical place. It’s where dreams are born and goals are achieved. It’s where history is constantly being written and where the stars shine brighter than ever. It’s where the word “can’t” simply isn’t an option, where treasure hunts last all night, and where miracles happen every day. Kawaga’s where pirates come to life, where Chips are bananas, and where a feather represents a thousand memories. It’s where everyone is a kid again. Most importantly though, and this is why camp is more important than ever, Kawaga’s where even the shortest of moments become sacred again. When you hug your best friend after a hard-fought cups tennis match, it matters because that’s a moment that teaches you what camp is really about. When the powwow music plays and everyone goes silent and starts walking in one direction with headbands and feathers on, it matters because it’s a Kawaga moment.
It matters when a counselor wakes you up and gives you food because for some reason Domino’s tastes a thousand times better at camp. When you get to recite your sachem name at a powwow, it matters because you’re the only one that will ever do that and a name given to you when you were 9 still fits you as a 21 year old. It matters when I see Gordon Olim teaching Cole Olim the ideal for the first time because I had Gordon as a camper and saw him learn it for the first time and only 2 years later, he’s already part of the tradition of passing it on even as a 12 year old. It matters when everyone gets excited for Jailbreak because it means we are all excited together, and it matters when we make fun of Jay for being short and he smiles about it because that means a chip who isn’t so tall might be able to be secure enough to do the same when he’s on staff and then one of his campers will 10 years after that. Cheering matters and so does calling the bathrooms Egypt, going silent during flag matters and so does Rocky IV club. Calling the Omni the Omni matters, watching sunsets and breakfast club too. Saying grace and not shooting another basket at the 15, polar bears and the dirt you get in your sandals on the way back; odds are, Seiferts mess-ups, Saturday services, juice mustaches, ski staff names, inspection, Tolf championships, Mohawk Madness, noodle hockey—it all matters. It all matters because Kawaga matters to us and if those things matter to us, Kawaga will continue to matter to others. Take care of the memories you love so that we can keep passing on the spirit of Kawaga.
It’s important to recognize this because these little moments are what make camp what it is… But they don’t just happen. The spirit of this place continues on because campers and staff alike find what they love about camp and make sure to continue it on. This place is like no other in the world because since 1915, Braves have come and gone, but most with the understanding that what they are leaving behind is much bigger than themselves. My counselors and elder campers who learned it from their counselors taught us and we now are trying to teach all of you.
The goal is to leave this place better than we found it. I read a quote once that said, “real education educates us out of self into something far finer—into a selflessness which links us with all humanity.” So I guess that means I have Kawaga to thank for giving me the most real education I could ever receive.
A lot of people said to me that I better not be using this sermon to say goodbye. The truth is I could never do that, because I’ll never say goodbye to this place. It’ll always be with me no matter where I am. So, braves, in this final week, I want to give you all a goal: I want you to find something that you personally love about camp. Find one of those moments of Svota. And then as you continue to come back to camp, make sure that you spread the love of those moments to others. Find what matters to you here, figure out why, and make sure it keeps mattering to others.
I talk to my campers about a phrase that I love: “From The Feet Up.” It means to live camp with every step. Finding these sacred moments is just that, living camp with every step. Hold Kawaga sacred and keep it close to your hearts, because life will pull you in a lot of different directions, but these moments of Kawaga will always bring you right back home.