As the Camp Arbutus centennial approaches this summer, the Northern Express sat down with camp director Amanda Macaluso, who talked about everything that makes the camp special – the way it brings kids back year after year, how some families send new campers with each generation, and the pull the camp has had on her throughout her adult life.
Macaluso, who is from Australia, has been coming to northern Michigan since she was 22. She met her husband at camp when they were both counselors and met at a laundromat on a day off. Now both of their daughters have attended the camp.
Camp Arbutus has been a girls’ summer camp since 1914. For many of those years it was owned and run by Grace MacDonald, who sold it to the YMCA in the 1990s.
Camp Arbutus’s brother camp, the YMCA boy’s Camp Hayo-Went-Ha, is also celebrating an anniversary this summer – its 110th. Camp Hayo-Went-Ha has the distinction of being the oldest YMCA at the same location in the world.
For Camp Arbutus alumni, there will be a celebration weekend this summer July 11-13, with a huge banquet for alumni of both camps at Arbutus on July 12.
NORTHERN EXPRESS: You’re a long way from Australia. How did you end up as the camp director here?
AMANDA MACALUSO: It was luck, I think. And hard work, now that I’m here. I was young. I was 22. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with myself. I had experiences in working with children, and I just wanted to get out of town, I guess.
So I applied to Camp America, which is an organization that we still use that helps recruit international staff. I got accepted at Hayo- Went-Ha and I did one year, which was my plan. And then I went on and worked in Europe. And I was going to do all these fun things in my early 20s, which I did.
But I kept coming back to camp year after year. It’s such an amazing place. We have a lot of staff that return year after year. Our camp return rate is about 65 percent, and a lot of our staff have been campers themselves.
Now I’m a green card resident, a permanent resident of the U.S. My husband actually works for me in the summer. He’s a teacher in Elk Rapids and he’s our bus driver in the summer. And I have my two own little campers, as well, who just love camp.
EXPRESS: Who comes to Camp Arbutus?
MACALUSO: We have such a fun camp community. Our campers come from all over Michigan; all over the Midwest. We have a huge group of families that come up from Cincinnati and the northern suburbs of Chicago.
We have campers from Texas. Kids fly in from California, Boston … just all over.
We also have, which is very fun, campers from international destinations. We have kids from Spain coming this year. Campers from Mexico. I just met with these three people this morning and they’re working for an organization in China, and they want to send some campers from China this year. So just kids from all over, which is great.
And our staff are from all over as well. [There are] Americans, but I’ve got staffers from the U.K., Australia, Cypress [and] Poland. There’s one coming in from the Ukraine.
We’ve had international camp staff for as long as I can remember, and even before me, the boys’ camp has had international staff, I think since the 30s. It’s a focus. It’s what we want.
EXPRESS: What about kids from northern Michigan? Do they come to camp? I bet a lot of people who are from around here think we’re already living pretty close to nature. We’re already Up North.
MACALUSO: I do hear that a lot. You know, “Why would I go?” I think some of our attraction is that we are up north, so downstate, Cincinnati, Chicago say, “Let’s go Up North and go to camp.”
But I think you’re right. A lot of our local campers are like, this is my backyard, I can go to Lake Michigan and swim. What I tell them is a camp environment is a little different. You’re going to meet people from all over the U.S. and all over the world, you’re going to get to know them, you’re going to have friends from all over the world, and it’s just a different environment. You do it as a cabin community.
Whereas local kids maybe do it with their families, with their friends from school. We’re more involved and I think more intentional in our experiences up here at camp.
EXPRESS: For somebody who didn’t go to camp as a kid who has camp-age kids, how do you sell them that it’s a worthwhile experience?
MACALUSO: That’s our hardest thing. Ninety percent of our campers have heard about our camp through word of mouth, and that includes their parents, who could be alumni. And that’s an easy sell.
For new families, camp is a place to allow your camper to be independent, to learn how to be involved in a cabin community and be part of a team. When they’re out on the trail, they only have each other. Eight campers and two staff is a cabin unit. And we drop them off at Sleeping Bear Dunes for three days. They have to work together and have to learn to get along and have to make sure they’re doing everything that’s needed. They don’t have a support system or parents to do that for them. So we’re really encouraging them to be responsible.
And I love the fact that we are unplugged.
We have no electricity in their cabins. So there is nowhere to plug in their phones. Actually there are no phones, no iPads and all the things they have now, which promotes that old-fashioned communication. You have to sit and talk to your friends. You get to know your friends. You have deeper relationships with them because you aren’t distracted and plugged in.
EXPRESS: What are your best memories from your years at camp?
MACALUSO: I love the fact that we’re “wilderness adventure.” And maybe it’s from a girls’ camp point of view, but I think the boys’ camp will say the same: Our wilderness adventures are tough. They’re challenging, but they are appropriately challenging for the group.
We don’t send our fifth graders hiking a hundred miles. But we do send our eighth graders. And the first year I was here, I hiked Isle Royale with seven awesome kids and a co-counselor.
It was hard. It was challenging. We had to figure things out and we just learned so much about each other. And we were challenged but we came back with such an achievement. You know, 100 miles – that’s a lot of hiking. Isle Royal is an absolute amazing, beautiful area of the world.
We have this great thing. When that bus drives in that driveway, those kids have been gone and they’ve hiked for two weeks and they’re dirty and tough and fit and excited to be back at camp. We make announcements, and when that bus drives in, there’s between 50 and 100 people cheering and getting excited for them to come back from their trip.
And it’s just so neat to see them get off the bus, and they’re so happy with themselves and they’re so excited to have come back after a great experience. I love it because I remember so vividly. I mean, I went 22 years ago. And now to watch these kids come back.
EXPRESS: Tell me about the history project you’re working on for the centennial.
MACALUSO: We actually have an alumna. Her name is Hadley. She’s a journalist. She started here when she was probably nine. She did every camp program and was on staff. She actually was the assistant director here as well. She’s gone on and done lots of great things and is in California working as a journalist.
When this 100th anniversary project was coming up we thought we should write a book. It’s fascinating to think that girls have been doing this for 100 years. So we touched base with her; I had a very generous donation to help us pay for it. We’re using a publisher here in Traverse City and we’re doing a lot of research.
I’ve dug up photos from all over the place. There’s a lady who, I think she’s in her 90s, Edna Sergeant, who was one of the first families involved. I went and saw her and she gave me a whole box full of photos.
Hadley has interviewed some alumni from different generations, as far back as she can. We have actually found a fourth-generation camper. And I knew that. But once we sort of looked into it a little more and we did interviews, she’s in seventh grade. Her mom and two aunts came here. Her grandma came here. And the great-grandma came here, and was also the program director, met her husband, and got married here. And we found a photo of their wedding in this building that we’re preserving just right now. So we’ve got this great history just with that one family.