Hidden Valley Camp: During Covid-19, Staying Connected to its Communities Near and Far

Each Sunday night, through mid-August, Hidden Valley Camp is reaching out to its local community in a gesture of universal appeal with a unique twist. Pizza, of course, is a favorite. But pizza baked in an outdoor, wood-fired oven, by a small group of summer camp leaders, is far different than what most of us are accustomed to. Yet in the coming weeks it will be a norm for a camp that during this pandemic is still making service to its communities – local and global – a top priority.

Like most camps across Maine, Hidden Valley suspended its 2020 camp season. The 500 or so campers who annually travel to the Freedom camp, from Maine and around the world, remain at home. But the pizza oven, built years ago by staff members themselves, is being fired up weekly. At 5 p.m., for the next seven Sundays, free pizza will be distributed at the end of the camp road first-come, first-served. Any monetary donations will go to a local food bank.

Aileen Rosen, Hidden Valley Camp’s program director, is a year-round employee now living at the camp with about a dozen full-time and seasonal staff. They are staying isolated, healthy, and safe. They are also staying connected: to campers online, and with a helping hand to the local communit

The pizza oven, complete with a sculpture adorning one side, reflects the artistic talent of the staff who built it. And, this summer, it represents the spirit of community embedded in the words and actions of this coed camp’s mission and leaders.

Rosen says that when the camp decided to suspend its summer season, Director Peter Kassen, (who has owned and directed the camp with his wife, Meg, since 1988), immediately said, “‘I want to do something for the community.’” After some brainstorming, leadership “realized and recognized that the [pizza oven] is really unique to our community,” Rosen says.

So, instead of the pizza party to which neighbors and friends are invited at the end of summer, the camp pivoted. Neighbors still benefit, and the camp can contribute its wood-fired oven skills, pizza ingredients already inhouse, and the spirit of community integral to Hidden Valley Camp’s programming.

The dozen or so camp staff members living onsite are also reaching out to their camper community, connecting virtually to engage, support, and guide campers worldwide.

“Everything we’re doing is short and sweet,” Rosen says. Brief daily posts on social media, including a foray into TikTok, are reaching “campers everywhere,” she says.

Camp leadership is acutely aware of youngsters’ online immersion in recent months, Rosen says. With these concerns in mind, the camp’s sharing of short videos, with a variety of themes, is intended to give campers entertainment, ideas, and to launch them into their own community outreach as well as into outdoor activity.

Efforts will be across the board, Rosen says, tapping into the same passions that campers would pursue if they were on-site. Activities will range from cooking to art to fitness – including a week of Olympic-themed events with support from Japanese campers – plus ongoing suggestions for community service. “One of the biggest challenges we’re facing is how do we interact with so many [campers]?”

It’s not an easy task when trying to find the sweet balance of online vs. not online,” she says.

Community outreach is always emphasized in programming for the camp’s prospective counselors, known as AWACs (Awaiting Work as Counselors), Rosen says. Zoom calls with those campers will focus on not only how they can support Hidden Valley’s community outreach, but also how AWACs can help their own communities.

Another group of campers typically participates in Hidden Valley Adventures, a program of off-camp wilderness and water activities. Rosen says the camp is suggesting challenges for those youngsters, with hopes for reports back. The camp also seeks to engage Hidden Valley Allies – the art, dance, and theater participants who capitalize on their specific interests and abilities at camp each summer.

Regardless of their programs, Hidden Valley teens are being included in planning, Rosen says. Leadership will propose, “‘Here are some ideas we have, what do you think?’”

Leadership is also tuned into the importance of helping campers continue to understand and navigate social issues.

“With everything going on recently, we’re trying to do our part to recognize and give resources to campers and educate them about things going on in the world,” Rosen says. Camp, when in session, can admittedly be a “bubble,” and campers must not forget what is going on outside, she says. Despite the camp’s suspended season, efforts continue this summer to bring that reminder to campers, she says.

All of the summer online efforts are “a natural follow-through” to what the camp did online all spring, Rosen says. When covid-19 closed schools, the camp community sought to “step up and help kids and families now stuck at home,” she says.

“This is uncharted waters. If this were camp, we’d know what to do,” Rosen says.

Thankfully, “some younger brains in the operation,” tech-savvy young adults familiar with social media’s latest offerings, have positioned the camp well, Rosen says. And Meg and Peter Kassen have already had starring roles in several entertaining and well-received videos (for example, a comedic look at Meg’s annual “Tick Talk,” usurped by TikTok). At the same time, campers and staff are sending their own video creations to share.

“We just want everyone to be safe and healthy,” Rosen says.

Whether Hidden Valley Camp leaders are handing out wood fire oven-baked pizzas at the end of the camp road each Sunday evening, or having a social media presence around the globe six days a week, the camp’s communities still benefit. Covid-19 may continue its impact, but the virus isn’t stopping Hidden Valley Camp’s impact from continuing, either.

Kristine Millard

About Kristine Millard

Kristine Snow Millard is a free-lance writer from Portland and a fan of all things summer, including camp. She holds a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of New Hampshire, a master’s degree (communications) and a law degree from Boston University, and, most recently, earned an MFA in creative writing from the Stonecoast MFA Program at the University of Southern Maine. She is currently helping to edit The Art of Outdoor Living, a guidebook used for Junior Maine Guide candidates, and is a regular contributor to the Maine Summer Camps newsletter. She has also contributed to the American Camp Association New England newsletter. Kris has written regularly for Maine Women and My Generation, both publications of Current Publishing. She has written features for the Maine Sunday Telegram, and is also a free-lance grant writer. A parent, she is also deeply committed to the subject of emotional wellness, and has seen how camp can foster whole and healthy kids. She is working on a memoir about living with clinical depression, and an essay she has written on that topic is forthcoming in an anthology to be published by Talking Writing, an on-line literary magazine.