Originally published in The Weekly Packet, July 31, 2014
Nichols Camps continue under old traditions, new leadership
Nan Fowler is the new director at Nichols Day Camps in Sedgwick, Maine, which is in the midst of its summer 2014 season.
by Tevlin Schuetz
Nichols Day Camps are steaming along this summer with their regular array of outdoor activities, including swimming, boating, archery, field games and hiking as well as theater, music and arts and crafts.
The traditions at Nichols have remained, but a new director, Nan Fowler, is bringing years of experience and new energy to the camp’s workings.
Fowler, who grew up in Maine and spent time in the area as both a child and a young adult—doing things “like raking blueberries and painting lobster buoys”—said that when she heard of the opening at Nichols she leapt at the chance to return to the Peninsula.
The mission of the camp appeals to Fowler, who stresses the importance of waterfront safety and swimming skills development as well as teaching the kids to become “environmentally aware,” all while giving the campers plenty of opportunities to have fun.
Another aspect of Nichols that appealed to Fowler is that “it is purposefully small.”
“We serve primarily area kids, but we do accept out-of-state children,” she said.
Camp tradition and intentional communities
Intentional communities are those in which people can choose to live with a shared purpose, Fowler said. She has made their study her life’s work, earning her PhD in Education with a focus on intentional communities.
“Summer camps have always been the forerunners [of intentional communities],” Fowler said. New England has always had a strong tradition of summer camping, and Maine and Vermont have perhaps the richest tradition, with camps going back more than 100 years, Fowler observed. It “began with people in the city getting their kids out for the summer.”
Nichols Camp—at 51 years—is the “youngest” camp at which Fowler has worked, she said.
“Intentional communities as a study came out of my work at camp,” Fowler said. While she had a school teaching career, her primary interest was in intentional communities. “I loved [camping] as a kid and loved going back as a teacher. Summer camp dovetails nicely with school teaching in that it gives teachers the opportunity for the type of experiential learning they can’t often do in school,” Fowler explained.
Many camps rely on teachers to be staff members in the summer time, Fowler said. “Both teaching and camp work have been equally important in my life.”
In the blood
Fowler’s affinity for working at camps may have deeper roots than merely her teaching and educational background. Her commitment to camp life began when she was just 8 years old, while at a camp in Hope (now Camp Bishopswood). Her parents had signed her up for one week, but before her staywas over she had asked the director if she could remain at camp for the rest of the summer. “I was hooked after a week of camp,” she recalled.
Fowler camped there for eight more summers before becoming a counselor herself.
It was only when she married and began raising a family that she stopped going to camp, but when her kids were old enough to attend, she returned to camp during the summers off from her teaching career. Fowler said she worked her way up through the leadership hierarchy and has been involved in camp work for 25 years.
Fowler’s grandfather was also a teacher on Long Island, N.Y., and he owned a summer camp in Ashfield, Mass., on the edge of the Berkshires. “I guess you could say it’s in my blood,” she mused.
A tale of two camps
Fowler explained that there are, in a way, two different camps at Nichols: the camp for kids, plus a camp for counselors.
“The goal for the kids is for them to be able to swim, be comfortable around the water, to learn to be kind to their friends and fellow campers, and to have a comfort level in and appreciation for the natural world,” Fowler said.
For the counselors, Fowler hopes to develop good role models who will be attentive and more focused on their jobs than on their friends. “It’s fun to work at camp, but their primary job is to make this magic summer experience for [the] children that come,” she said. “Trying to get them to make good decisions [is important]. They need to know they are making the right choice in the moment, with guidance.”
Keeping both groups working well together is critical, Fowler said. “You can’t have a good camp without good counselors, and you can’t have a good camp without eager children.”
Fowler considers the new Camp Leadership Training program the most important improvement at Nichols so far. Notwithstanding the fact that 39 individuals between the ages of 16 and 28 have jobs for the summer, the counselor training program bolsters these young people with valuable skills in addition to creating a team of competent and responsible camp counselors at Nichols, Fowler said. “We’re providing training….The old adage is that colleges and employers hire people who have been camp counselors because they are able to do a multitude of tasks. They have to be everything during the summer, from cheerleader to mentor to role model to knee-bandager to listener. We also pay for their certifications, like lifeguard training.”
The job of executive director
Fowler revealed that being the executive director at a camp requires her to attend to many nuts-and-bolts responsibilities. “Program directors are totally immersed in the kids,” Fowler said, but as an executive director, she spends time “talking to counselors who need direction, shopping for materials on the weekends, and taking care of health forms.”
There is much to do during the off-season as well. Fowler said that planning for the following year starts in September, with writing grants, raising money, answering questions and attending conferences. “People think it’s just eight weeks in the summer, but it’s really a year-long job,” Fowler said. “Those eight weeks take a whole year to plan.”
Fowler expressed her gratitude for the involvement of the trustees at Nichols, who she said put in a lot of work cleaning and moving boats and doing other chores at camp. “They give of their time, and we wouldn’t have a camp without them,” Fowler stated. “I find them very easy to work with.”
Fowler also credits Nichols with having a great leadership team and a dedicated summer staff. According to Fowler, the first question many of the staff asked her when she was hired was whether she would keep the traditions of Nichols. “It wouldn’t be camp without the traditions,” was Fowler’s response.
Libbey Gulliver, president of the board of trustees at Nichols, said the board was considering three well-qualified candidates, but that Fowler was “an easy choice,” due to her work with the American Camp Association and the accreditation process required by that organization. “She works well with boards and communities [and] enjoys challenges and problem-solving,” Gulliver added. “[Fowler] could think about the camp and look at the future, but was also sensitive about its traditions.”
Here to stay
When asked about what invigorates her at camp, Fowler revealed that her favorite moment of the day is before the campers arrive, when she spends some quiet time at the waterfront. “Seeing the waterfront waiting for the kids, seeing the eagles flying overhead and listening to the loons. Being there in the quiet and knowing in a few hours it’s going to be full of kids and counselors. It’s a quiet, reflective moment…when I get to connect with the natural world,” she said.
Fowler, who studied and worked in Edinburgh, Scotland, for several years, cherishes being able to travel and has enjoyed many adventures in life, starting with a jaunt to Woodstock at age 17 in 1969. “You can’t tell your parents everything,” she joked.
She also savors time to pursue her own creative outlets, which include writing and black ash basket weaving. She plans to return to Scotland this fall to visit friends, she said.
But while Fowler retains her sense of adventure, she is keenly aware of the value of home and is happy to be back on the Peninsula. “At the age of 61 I’m coming back,” she said. “It all goes back to being connected to nature. I’m not looking at moving on; this is where I am and where I plan to be. This is my community.”