Hancock's Camp Killooleet has roots in music
HANCOCK — Whoever was going to marry Kate Seeger knew that they weren't just getting her, they also had to be ready to take on a hundred or so 9-14 year old kids and 300 acres in the Green Mountains every summer. Kate and tiny Hancock’s Camp Killooleet were a package deal.
Luckily, Seeger found the perfect partner-in-crime (partner-in-camp?) in Dean Spencer, and the two have been happily directing the summer camp for almost 30 years.
Kate represents the second generation of Seegers to run the camp. The camp was founded in 1927 by Margaret Bartlett and Toni Taylor. Kate’s parents, John and Ellie Seeger, took over in 1949 and directed the camp for 50 years.
Just after graduating from college, Kate decided to follow in her parents’ footsteps, and committed to taking over the camp, which she did in the 1990s. It’s now a routine she loves.
Kids arrive annually on June 29 in Hancock, population 323, from all over the world to spend the summer at what Seeger describes as “an arts camp with non-competitive sports.” A team of 30 counselors and 20 staff members help Seeger and Spencer bring camp to life.
Campers live for seven to eight weeks in rustic red cabins on the campground, tucked away between a quiet brook and a rolling green hillside. Discreetly marked with one simple sign, Camp Killooleet rests at the end of a quarter-mile winding dirt road.
The camp offers children everything from horseback riding and swimming in their private lake, to theater and wood shop.
Music plays a central role at Killooleet. Seeger comes from a musical family, which includes her uncle, nationally reknown folk singer Pete Seeger.
“Music can be a way to connect with people, it can be nourishing, it can make you resilient,” said Seeger. The camp performs a musical each summer, and other camp activities include lessons for various instruments while campers and staff bands perform at various camp events.
At Killooleet, campers have to “own their song.” At weekly evening “sings,” campers are taught to memorize lyrics to a song, stand tall in front of a crowd, lift up their heads, and sing out into the audience.
Campers also go out on hikes, bike rides, and overnight camping trips throughout the summer. They explore the Vermont wilderness as well as adventuring out to the Adirondacks, and a group of older campers embarks on a biking trip to as far north as the Canadian border.
The wide variety of activities forces campers to try new things and push their comfort zone, always with encouragement from their fellow campers and counselors, said Seeger. And all three generations of camp directors have worked to promote social and emotional development in young campers.
Independence and decision-making are two key skills taught at the camp. Each morning, campers choose which chore crew to take part in. A line of bikers headed by a counselor take off for town to pick up the mail, while others help clean the kitchen, prepare lunch, or break down recycling.
The daily schedule hanging outside the dining area is decorated in bright splashes of blue, red and yellow paint. Each day, Seeger takes a schedule from the art room, decorated by a camper or counselor, and pens in the plan for the day. Each day has 30 minutes of free time between each hour of scheduled activity.
Today, the schedule has one block of “choice.” During this time, counselors will run a variety of activities and campers will have to make decisions about how they want to spend their time. Throughout the summer, more blocks of free time will be added.
Campers are split into 10 cabins organized by gender and roughly by age. But, Seeger and Spencer are thoughtful about how they fill the cabins. Rather than simply splitting campers up by age, they craft each cabin with each camper’s unique personality and growth in mind. Each cabin has three counselors assigned to it.
Head counselor Paul Eagle, who has been working at Killooleet for 12 years, described it as “getting college skills at age 10.” Because of the length of camp, the kids must find ways to work through any conflicts and find productive and long lasting solutions.
Counselors and campers come from all over the country and the world. Learning to understand differences is a major part of the educational experience at Killooleet, according to Seeger and Spencer.
The camp staff also prides themselves on the fact that they see tangible growth in their campers and the camp community over the course of the summer. “It’s one of those jobs where you can see an actual concrete difference as a result of your work,” Eagle said.
Seeger hopes all of these efforts will empower children, and “turn out strong leaders of all genders.” She emphasized the importance of having a co-ed camp, which she believes “enables children to make actual friendships with people of all genders” and prepares children for adulthood.
Clearly, Spencer and Seeger are doing something right as almost every camper who can come back, does. Many even return to work as staff members or counselors — ready to teach the next generation of Camp Killooleet to own their song.