Having confidence when you’re 13 years old is difficult. Sue didn’t have that confidence at that age either. After teaching middle schoolers for decades, she got connected with Laketrails as a counselor. She saw how transformative it was for young people. Her passion is still strong even after working with thousands of students over the years. As you get to know Sue, you’ll clearly see her excitement for what she gets to do as camp director.
What does a perfect day look like to you?
I’ve actually dreamed about my perfect day before, and there are really two of them – one for summer, and one for winter. My summer day would probably be my favorite, and although it’s very selfish, I’d completely indulge myself. It would look something like this: I’d get up shortly after sun-up and go for a long, early morning bike ride. (I love the summer mornings when it’s so quiet and you can hear all the birds, and the deer and other animals haven’t retreated into the woods yet.) It would be sunny and hot – maybe 80-85 degrees – and there would be no wind. I’d come home and have breakfast out on the deck, work my morning puzzles, and read for awhile; then putter around in my flower beds. In the afternoon some friends would stop by for cookies and a cup of tea. And then I’d paddle my canoe down to a quiet spot on the shore and go beach combing. After that, I’d probably wood-carve on some project for the rest of the day. The evening would be spent going for a long walk, visiting my friends on the beach, and then sitting outside on the steps reading before calling it a day.
My perfect winter day would be fairly similar, except it would be about 10 degrees, again no wind, and I’d go skiing instead of the bike ride. (Did I mention I hate wind?!)
What inspired you to get involved with Laketrails at the beginning? What was your initial draw to volunteer 20+ years ago?
It seemed that every couple years I’d have a student who knew about Laketrails, and they would always tell me I should go there. But I didn’t really “get it.” They told me it was a camp where kids went on canoe trips, so I couldn’t see how I would fit into that scenario. One year a student told me (again) that I should go to Laketrails. Just a few days later our priest at church told me that he could really “see me” at Laketrails.
About a week after that, I was visiting with a childhood friend. She told me she worked with a woman whose husband ran a youth camp on Lake of the Woods where people went canoeing. I said, “Let me guess – is it called Laketrails?” She told me they were having an adult canoe trip, and I decided at that point that God was gently trying to hit me over the head and get me to go to camp! After I signed up and did the canoe trip, I knew I wanted to go back. They had a volunteer work weekend in the spring, and I took that as my opportunity. I met so many people who I really liked. I could feel something really special was going on on that little island, and I wanted to continue to be a part of it.
Did you have any key mentors, or someone who inspired you to take the leap into being camp director?
Yes! Fr. Bill Mehrkens and Jeff Odendahl were and are definitely two special people who were very supportive to me in becoming the camp director. Fr. Bill is credited with being the original founder of the camp as he dreamed the dream that eventually became Laketrails back in 1952. When I was the program director for a number of years, Fr. Bill was always in camp, and we had many long discussions on everything from Laketrails to life in general. He was such an inspirational man. He passed away a couple years ago at the age of 92, still full of wisdom and wit. I miss him tremendously and often wish I could ask his advice and opinion on things.
And, Jeff was the camp director who I worked under when I was the program director. He’s another guy who taught me SO much! I often think of his calm demeanor and infinite patience. He has a willingness to give young people a second chance when others wouldn’t necessarily think they deserved it. His thoughtful views have always helped me see things in a different light, something I need more often that I’d like to admit. When I first became the director I called Jeff 3-4 times every week. He basically taught me everything I needed to know to run the camp. Now I’m down to calling him just 3-4 times a year on camp business. But Jeff has become a dear friend over the years, so sometimes we call just to chat.
You were a teacher for a long time, so you have a lot of experience with middle-school kids and what they’re going through. What has surprised you most about working with students in this capacity at camp?
I’ve always enjoyed kids because they can be so crazy-in a fun way-and they have so much energy. They really just want to be loved and to find themselves. But, I was honestly surprised to learn how much I enjoyed them after working at camp. Seeing kids out of the context of a school environment and seeing them be so free to really be themselves has been inspiring to me. When I would go back to school after working at camp all summer, I felt energized and like I had a much greater connection to my students. I think being at camp taught me to see kids more deeply and helped me understand their world a little better. I always enjoyed teaching, but my camp experience really made it a lot more fun for both me and my students.
What delights you and keeps you going?
There are two little memories of small incidents at camp that have always been meaningful to me. The first was a boy who was really sweet; about 15 years old. He was a little overweight and probably considered a bit “nerdy” but super-polite and genuinely a nice kid. Everyone on staff loved him because he was just so great! On his last night at camp he came up to me after the campfire and asked about coming back the following year. As we walked to the office to get the necessary papers (in a time before everything was digital!), he began to tell me how much he loved being at Laketrails.
I remember his words exactly. He said, “At home people are kind of mean to me, and they pick on me at school. But here EVERYONE is nice to me!” I was so struck by how awed he was that people could truly like you and appreciate you just the way you are. It made me really happy for him because it was like he had just made this fantastic discovery that he was a terrific kid.
The second kid who stands out was a girl who was in a foster home situation. She absolutely hated everything about camp! I remember her saying, “Nobody told me we had to go canoeing!” We struggled all week to get her out of her cabin; she wouldn’t participate in anything and just seethed resentment from every pore of her being! But finally for some reason she decided that she liked me and one of the guides. We were the only people she’d talk to by choice. At the closing campfire at the end of the session she opened up a tiny bit, but you could tell she was really glad to be going home the next day. Well, the following year she showed up at camp again! She got off the boat and I said, “Hey! Welcome back! But, you hated this! Why did you come back?” And she said, “I know, and I still hate this. But I loved the people here.” And then she gave me a big hug. Again, I was amazed by what a powerful impact a place like Laketrails can have on a kid. We had obviously touched some part of her that really needed some love and reinforcement.
When I think of those kids, I always feel like I learn so much from them, and from our staff, every summer. They force me to be a better person than I was before, and I suppose that’s what really keeps me going.
Tell me about a challenge you’re faced with right now. Why is it a challenge, and how are you working through it?
Right now we’re faced with having to hire a lot of new guides for the upcoming season. It’s a fairly unusual situation for us as we usually have at least half of our staff returning each summer. But last year an unusually high number of staff wanted to come back, and that was great.They had become such close friends and worked so well together. I knew it would make for a wonderful summer to have such an experienced crew, but I also knew it would mean basically starting from scratch the next year. Well, now is the next year. I really worried about it for awhile, but then you just have to put your nose to the grindstone and get busy finding people. I feel really excited and hopeful with job fairs and all the online staff recruitment sites out there. It’s pretty time consuming, and from time to time I have to fight off my fear of not finding enough of the right people. But, I also have to have faith that it will somehow all come together.
You’ve dedicated your life to kids in this ‘awkward’ age. Is there a meaningful story, that you’d be willing to share about how you ended up there?
I identify with young people in spite of the fact that my teenage world was light years from the contemporary teenager’s life. In grade school I was always the kid who was told to “speak up!” because I spoke so softly. My teachers must have thought I was overly timid and shy, and maybe I was. As I got a little older–in jr. high and high school–I still felt pretty insecure although I think I might have hidden it fairly well. And, isn’t that what kids do?
When I decided to go into teaching I remember thinking that I wanted to make kids feel the confidence that I didn’t feel myself at their age. I also wanted them to love being physically active, and teaching was a means to that end. I felt my strongest when I was outdoors or in the gym, so my goal was to help kids learn to love those things as much as I did (and still do).
When the opportunity came up to be the camp director full time, I stepped away from teaching after 34 years. My mom, who I was very close to, had just died unexpectedly in the fall. I could hear her and my dad telling me to go ahead and make the change if I felt it was the right thing to do. With that in mind I never looked back for a moment or had any second thoughts about it. I suppose it felt like a good choice because camp is really just a bigger classroom. The learning and the confidence-building go on, and it’s a pretty happy place to make that happen.
Since you only have campers in the warmer summer months, what does the rest of the year look like? What do you enjoy doing for yourself when you don’t have camp work?
I just read a great article about how most people don’t understand what camp directors do in the off-season. There’s an impression that the work only lasts from June through August. We’re actually doing a lot of work through what I call the “anticipation months”–Sept. through May. There is a lot of planning and always trying to stay a step ahead of the coming season. So, I stay pretty busy.
But that said, I do have a lot of hobbies, and I love spending time with my family. I try hard to give myself some time each day to do something besides camp stuff. Almost every evening in the fall and winter (when we have a lot of hours of darkness) I try to do some wood carving. I used to joke that I worked with kids all day and then went home to play with knives for relaxation! It’s truly just a joke, but the creative outlet feels so relaxing, and it gives me a chance to think of something besides work. I’m not a great carver, but there’s a satisfaction in working with my hands. I like doing pieces that reflect things in nature, and I like the challenge of improving my skills.
I also love to read; I’m kind of a history nerd and also enjoy mysteries, travel adventures, and different types of fiction. I love to go for walks and (weirdly) especially enjoy walking in the dark (no flashlight!) as it’s so peaceful and a great time to study the night sky. In the winter I enjoy snowshoeing through the woods and skiing on the lake. I’m an avid bird watcher, I like to go beach combing, take photographs, cook and bake, grow flowers, and write poetry. I also help out at school–since I retired from teaching–by tutoring kids one morning each week.
And, before I used to spend my summers on a little island, I was absolutely consumed with long distance bicycling. I did quite a few big cross-country bike rides for months at a time and still have a collection of bicycles in my garage. Someday when I retire from camp I hope to ride off into the sunset and have another two-wheeled adventure.
For those leading and serving (myself included), burnout becomes a very real threat to the health of ourselves as leaders, and to those we lead. What do you do to cope with burnout over all your years of teaching and being a camp director?
First of all, I think a person in a leadership/service role has to acknowledge the real feelings of burnout and at times, even a feeling of depression. When you’re the person in charge, you have to realize that 100% of things don’t go 100% perfectly 100% of the time. There are mistakes and glitches (hopefully not too many) and the chain of blame almost always goes upward until it stops with you. It’s not always fair, but that’s the way it is. You need to be a little tough sometimes.
For me there’s definitely a let-down after the camping season is done. It feels so final when I drive the boat away from the island for the last time in the fall. I go through a period of mulling over everything, both good and bad, that happened over the summer. I second-guess myself at nearly every turn. That’s when it’s time to “buck up” and realize that hundreds of people really had a terrific experience at camp. I’m really not helping anything by beating myself up over every little problem. I try to figure out what we can do to make things even better in the future. I’m kind of stubborn that way. Those little problems and “blips on the radar” that you had are now history. In a big way they’re actually a positive thing because they teach you how to improve, and not make those mistakes again.
Another thing that’s cool about both teaching and camp life is that every year in the classroom, and every season at camp is NEW. It’s a chance to begin again with the slate wiped clean from almost everything that previously happened. That renewal and freshness is really invigorating and fills me with hope and optimism. Whether it’s camp or the classroom, we keep learning new things, new ways of operating, and that’s really energizing.
How has your involvement in Lake Trails changed you?
I grew up on a farm in North Dakota. My parents very wisely taught my siblings and I about having a strong work ethic, which meant that I spent a good portion of my summers out in the fields. While I wouldn’t trade those experiences and memories for anything, it also meant that we had very few opportunities to go to camp. So now, being at camp is kind of like a second childhood for me.
From books, I somehow developed this sentimental fantasy of what a summer camp was like, and I often dreamed of going to a camp for the whole summer. Sometimes I have to laugh at myself because it’s not nearly the fantasy I had imagined, but it’s still pretty good. When I’m at Laketrails I’m surrounded by young people all the time, and I’m exposed to their crazy ideas, schemes, and humor. I’m almost always immersed in other people’s joyful moments, and I’m so grateful to be a part of that.
Is there anything else you might have wanted me to ask that I didn’t? Or just anything else you’d like to share?
Two things: My faith in God is really important to me. It gets me through times that are hard and makes me realize that I’m cared for in an amazing way. I keep a little journal where every day I write down three things that have been blessings in my life. It’s a good way for me to remember to be grateful for all the good things I’ve been given.
In an unexpected way, my grandparents have played a fairly big role in my desire to be involved with camp. I have this really cool, old black-and-white photo of my grandfather as a young man lounging in his canoe on a lazy river. He was a bit of a romantic dreamer and loved the beauty and majesty of the natural world. When he died I was given his old compass, something that’s always been symbolic to me of how we make choices and find our way in this life.
I also have another really neat photo, this one of my grandmother when she was in college wearing a short leopard-skin toga type of costume. The photo was taken sometime in the 1920’s when her attire would most definitely have been considered racy and inappropriate. I’ve always imagined that inside her head she’s saying, “I’m being Bold and Adventurous and Daring! And I’m probably going to get in big trouble for wearing this, but I don’t care!”
These two photos show such disparate sides of my grandparents’ personalities, yet I identify with both of them. Like my grandfather, I have that idealistic side of me that’s always dreaming of nature’s beauty. And I also have that rebellious, rule-breaking, adventurous side of me like my grandmother. I think they’d both be happy that I’m at camp.