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Onondaga Camp

The Oak Tree

A Blog by Director, Duncan Robertson

Duncan Robertson


February 1, 2017

Here’s to 2017!

February 1, 2017 | By | No Comments

Wow, 2016 went quickly.

Every year seems to go faster than the last and while all three of our kids seem increasingly more mature, our own family’s gauge of “time flying by” is seen with our three-year-old, our ‘baby of the family,’ who can now dress and feed himself and can even take part in some extra-curricular activities that aren’t ‘parent tot.’  With each passing day, we experience a little more independence on his end and a little more ‘freedom’ on ours.

In any case, because this year all three just seemed a little more grown up all around, there was a bit more time for reflection over the holidays so I spent some time thinking about new year’s goals I’d love to work on.  These goals came to me while looking back on my own year of camp and camper interactions, and from thoughts gathered from books I started reading (but never finished). Also from Tragically Hip lyrics.

As a personal aside, and as I’m sure is the same in many homes…Gord Downie and The Hip are our family’s band. Like our ‘house wine’ so to speak.  They provide the soundtrack for our day to day. I am a lifelong fan and by playing their music from our kitchen speaker at all times, I seem to have instilled the same love of song in my own kids.  Any word or phrase could trigger a full lyrics showdown from Kaiya or Crew at dinner time which I think is hilarious (it also warms my heart when they do this).

“…Let’s raise a glass of milk to the end of another day, and to the kiss that’s still intangible, the kids are alright just unmanageable, they won’t do a damn thing you say.” – Emperor Penguin

Back to my resolutions. After a long and hard think about this, I have two resolutions I want to work on this year.

Resolution Number One: To see my children challenge themselves every day.

I was recently recommended the book “Mindset” by Carol Dweck.  While I have not yet finished this book, I really like the concept, which is that there are people with fixed mindsets and growth mindsets.

Fixed mindset people “pass up the chance for learning.” They get discouraged or quit when something becomes challenging or requires effort.

Growth mindset people “take the challenge.” They may not achieve something on their first go at it, but they don’t place blame or make excuses. Instead, these folks are constantly looking forward, learning from their mistakes so as to eventually achieve their end goal. I see growth mindset in our campers all the time.  We have really outstanding campers at Onondaga.

“For a good life, we just might have to weaken, and find somewhere to go, go somewhere we’re needed, Find somewhere to grow…” – It’s a Good Life, If You Don’t Weaken

I was reminded of (and guided by) your amazing growth mindset campers last month when my own daughter tried out for her school play, which has been her entire elementary school dream to be part of.  After extensive preparation she was given the role of “Woman One.” As you can presume, this was not the lead role she had auditioned (and longed) for.  She was upset.  Her initial statement when she came home that night was that she didn’t get the part because she’s not in grade six.  While I could understand her true disappointment, instead of making excuses (and keeping of course the notes from this half-read book in mind), I wanted her instead to embrace her ‘Woman One’ status while all the while thinking of things she could do this year to try to be awarded a bigger role next year.  Again and again I see your campers, LITs and staff members learning from their experiences, taking challenges head on, conducting themselves in a mature manner, really striving to make their next experience a better one.  My hope is to instill this same growth mindset in my own kids.

“Isn’t it amazing anything’s accomplished, When a little sensation gets in your way, Not one ambition whispering over your shoulder, Isn’t it amazing you can do anything.” – Fireworks

Resolution Number Two: Ensure my kids are full of grace, empathy and grit.

I would be lying if I said that the US elections didn’t play a part in this resolution.  Now more than ever, I want my kids to realize the importance of being kind, of being thoughtful, compassionate and understanding. I want to encourage them to (continue to!) express their opinions but to always do so with tolerance and sensitivity.  I want them to be respectful, appreciative and loving (and to also eat with their mouths closed, Alyson says).  And I hope that they always use their voices for good.

In the book “Grit, The Power of Passion and Perseverance” by Angela Duckworth, she notes, “When I get knocked down, I’ll get back up. I may not be the smartest person in the room but I’ll strive to be the grittiest.”  In another great NAIS (National Association of Independent Schools) blog post I stumbled on, Ryan Feeley wrote that we need to train our children “to persist, to pause if they find themselves on the wrong path, to admit confusion, to seek fresh perspectives and then to demonstrate the humility to try a new direction.”  I love that.  This is what I want from my own kids.  This is what I already see in so many of yours.

“Armed with will and determination and grace too…Armed with skill and determination, and grace too.” – Grace, Too

My cousin told me before having kids that we could always learn from those with children older than our own.  Never have truer words been spoken.  I learn from your children all year long. When I bump into them on the street and they come right up to me, even amongst their friends, and shake my hand or give me a hug and say ‘Duncan! You remember me from camp right, I’m XX and I come for Session A1,” it never fails to impress me.  I wish for the same confidence in my own children.  I admire this so much in yours.

So there they are.  My 2017 goals.  Making my goals about my kids is by no means meant to infer that I have no personal goals of my own to work on. Just too many to list! Don’t we all just want the best for our kids… and on that note, I heard my son singing these lyrics this morning while getting dressed which I think will resonate with all parents… “I love you so much. It distorts my life. What drove and drives you, drove and drives me too.” – What Blue

Here’s to 2017! And to Onondaga’s 100th summer!





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Duncan Robertson


September 27, 2016

September Reflections

September 27, 2016 | By | 4 Comments

September is here. September is finally here? September came far too quickly.  This right here is the dialogue that bats back and forth in my head during these early days of fall.

My team and I spend all year preparing for camp, and then just like that, the two summer months pass us by and we are back in the office starting it all up again for the following year. September is finally here? September came far too quickly.

Fall is a great time of reflection for me, both personally and professionally.  It was this reflecting in fact, that made me realize I had not written a blog post since my ‘official launch’ in June.  So here I am, now home in Toronto with a hallway full of camp duffle bags still full of sandy clothes, our kids (somewhat) settled back into school and daycare, Alyson and I already stumped as to what to make for school lunches, and all of us wondering where the summer went. September came far too quickly.

It was a really great summer.  For one, our weather was truly outstanding from start to finish.  I am, as I imagine most camp directors are, obsessed with the weather. I have numerous apps on my phone and my computer and I check them constantly. We call the rain ‘Liquid Sunshine’ to the campers, but there is absolutely no disputing that REAL sunshine is what makes the camp go round. Everyone is happier in the sun. Everyone is outside, everyone is active and engaging, and my own proven fact is that kids definitely “miss home” LESS when the weather is nice.  On a side note, parents still miss their kids just as much, no matter the weather.

Let’s get back to my September reflections. Yesterday, I drove by a local high school during lunch time and saw hundreds of teenagers milling around, eating lunch, sitting on the lawn, and almost ALL of them were on their phones. All of their heads were buried in their devices while they ate with their friends. It made me feel proud about camp and our campers, and how everyone buys in to our “electronics free world” for their time with us (some take a little more convincing than others). I wonder if camp might be one of the few remaining places on earth where people still come together throughout the day and actually talk, laugh and engage with each other face-to-face, RATHER than bury their heads in their phones and disengage. Camp is amazing. September came far too quickly.

On a note of personal reflection, I saw my own kids flourish at camp this summer. I saw my daughter face her stage fright fears and get up on stage to sing for the first time at campfire. I saw my middle son (the one who is very much like the ‘childhood me’ I described in my first blog post) join a Jinci Boys cabin group at the very end of August, after a full summer of convincing and discussion. And I saw my three year old son become outgoing and courageous with people, with water, with everything! We also watched him learn to speak like a teenager…walking down the tent line high-fiving 16 year old boys and asking “Hey there, what are you guys up to?”  Camp is about celebrating victories, both big and small.

I share these personal anecdotes only because I hope, on reuniting with your own children, that you too were able to notice a change in them this summer.  For those of you that greeted your children who said, ‘I was homesick at the start!’ but continued on to tell you how they worked through it and they did it! For those campers that came to camp knowing no one and left with a friend they hope to reunite with next summer, amazing! For my own nervous son who was told by a fellow Jinci Boy, ‘What do you mean you don’t try any new activities!’ Well, he finally tried something!  And boy was he proud.  I hope that every camper came away from Onondaga with one thing they were proud of – a new friend they made, a new activity they tried, an award level achieved, something they were proud to accomplish from their own personal ‘camp bucket list.’ Something which, in turn, has made them proud of themselves and you tremendously (even more) proud of them.

My reflection has helped to emphasize the great amount of gratitude I am also feeling post-summer.  I am grateful to our extremely caring and hardworking staff for providing our campers what I hope was the summer of a lifetime. I am also incredibly grateful to you, our camp families for sending us your children, for trusting us with your children. Camp is all about the people.  Your children, our families, our staff… we couldn’t do it without you.  From the bottom of my heart I thank you.

Day is Done, Gone the Sun…From the Lakes, From the Hills, From the Skies…All is well, Safely Rest, Friends are Nigh.  Thanks for the day campers!

September came far too quickly, and June can’t come soon enough.



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Duncan Robertson


June 9, 2016

Your camper is going to be great!

June 9, 2016 | By | 5 Comments

My parents were in town a few weeks ago for Mother’s Day and as is always the case with our pre-summer visits, talk quickly turned to reminiscing about my own days as a summer camper. My kids love these stories and always have a good laugh at my expense.

I have spent my whole life in summer camp. I started at age six as an extremely homesick camper at Camp Ponacka. The middle of three boys, I was always the apprehensive one. I wouldn’t do sleepovers, I had to be forced into birthday parties and each summer on camp arrival day, I would chase my parents’ station wagon down the camp driveway crying, begging them not to leave me. My brothers, on the other hand, bounded into their new cabins. Of course these feelings only lasted a day or two and I quickly became hooked on camp. Who would have known back then, that I would choose a lifetime of camping?

Our own family ‘camp story’ was the opposite – my daughter could not wait to turn six so she could move into a camper cabin and when the time came, it was not my daughter, but my wife Alyson sobbing at her door as she said goodbye. The rest of us watched her in amazement, because of course we live right on site during the summer and see our daughter all the time.

Whether the tears are from a parent or from a child however, the tears are real. Parents are nervous about whether their kids are going to be okay.

Will they be safe?

Will they be homesick?

Will they make friends?

Will they adapt to taking care of themselves?

Moms tell me: “My child has never brushed her teeth or shampooed her hair on her own, how will they do it?” And kids are nervous because everything is new (and in our case worry about whether their parents – read Alyson – will be okay while they are gone).

As both a camp director and a camper parent, I feel I can confidently reassure families that both your child (and you) are going to be GREAT at camp this summer.

We all struggle with the question of whether our children are really ‘ready for camp.’ This past year I was lucky enough to hear Michael Thompson speak. Some of you may be familiar with his book, “Homesick and Happy: How Time Away from Parents Can Help a Child Grow.”

Thompson says that in fact there are many things that parents can’t do for their children that camp does so well. He noted that parents can’t ‘give’ their children confidence, nor can they pick and manage friendships (or at least not as children age). Situations experienced at camp, like living in a cabin with eight other children, some of whom your camper loves, some of whom they may dislike, these situations help children develop self-control and empathy.

Banding together with other campers to play a team game, to try new foods or even to overcome homesickness, all help build independence. Feeling homesick is so common, but in these new times of need, campers rely and lean on their counsellors and their new friends to help them overcome these feelings. These are invaluable experiences they might not normally have at home.

I haven’t met one parent who didn’t notice a change in their camper upon returning from camp. Parents notice that their child was better able to advocate for himself, took on more roles around the house, that he or she became more outgoing or comfortable at school or in new social situations.

Camp provides our children with an outstanding experience, which we at Onondaga feel very proud to be a part of. Some of my closest friends in life are those I made during my camper days – the same kids that witnessed me chasing my parent’s car down the road but still welcomed me with open arms because we shared a strong and special bond each summer.

At this wonderful place called camp.

I am really looking forward to welcoming all of our campers — new and old — this summer and we hope to give them an experience of a lifetime.

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