One summer when Kim Burgess was a girl, she took a boat to Kelleys Island for the annual Lorain County Junior 4-H camp.
She hated it.
And that’s how things stood for a couple of years.
“She kept not wanting to go,” recalls her mother, Pat Coffman, of Grafton. “Then she got to be a teenager and old enough to be a camp counselor. I said, ‘Why don’t you try that? You might enjoy it,’ and she did.”
As her daughter enjoyed camp, little did Coffman know that she would follow in her daughter’s footsteps. An adult volunteer at the 4-H camp couldn’t make it one year; the extension agent called Coffman and asked if she might like to fill in.
“I asked Kim, ‘Are you sure you want your mother to go to camp with you?’ She said, ‘I wouldn’t have given them your name unless I felt good about you being there,’” Coffman said.
That was 30 summers ago. Her daughter has long since grown up, graduated college, married and moved to LaGrange, Ga. — but Coffman continues attending camp. Burgess has returned for the past 19 summers to volunteer at the camp, and Coffman is still, after three decades, the “camp mom.”
Today, the women — along with Burgess’ daughter, Lauren — will set off to Kelleys Island for this year’s Junior 4-H camp. Lauren, 8, is going for the first time. The Burgess ladies flew from Georgia to Ohio on Saturday to attend.
“She’s very excited. For the past few years when I’ve been helping, she’s been like, ‘Mom, when do I get to go to camp?’” Kim Burgess said. “It’s just a chance to get away from the real world.”
Pat Coffman’s duties as camp mom include providing snacks, a job that cannot be underestimated when dealing with almost 100 campers and scores of adult workers. There is a reason that armies are said to move on their bellies — sessions of line dancing, nature walks, volleyball, kickball, polar bear swimming in Lake Erie, scavenger hunts and talent shows all require the power of food.
She’s famous for her puppy chow and “puddingwiches,” but Coffman is careful to point out that her role in planning and setting up supplies for campers to assemble their own snacks is a behind-the-scenes one.
“I’m kind of the silent partner,” she said. “Like the camp counselor’s assistant.
“It’s rewarding. You can go to camp and forget about everything at home. I concentrate on the kids, play games, teach them, laugh a little, help them mature a bit,” she said. “Sometimes there are tears, too, but for the most part, it’s a very nice experience.”
Coffman said she is continually surprised by the impact the smallest involvement in a child’s life can bear, even years later. She attends the Lorain County Fair every year and always runs into former campers.
“I’ve seen so many of them grow up, get married, go to college. I get a hug or a smile. So many of them say ‘Do you remember me?’ or ‘Do you remember when this happened?’”
Coffman, who’s been known to dress up in colorful outfits to bring a laugh, pack a squirt gun and play a mean game of foursquare, can still immediately pick through 30 years of memories to find her favorites.
She recalls three older campers who got in trouble one summer. “They were into something all the time, and I tried to keep them straightened out.”
Years later, she ran into the boy — now a young man in high school — and his mother.
“This fella came in and apologized to me for being so bad at camp,” she said. “I told him, ‘You weren’t really bad, you just didn’t know how to say no. The others were leading you into bad.’ That was nice.”
Snack-making is just one of her duties. Playing mom to decades of children, many of them away from home for the first time, is no small feat.
“One time I saw a little boy down by the rec hall, all by himself. I went down and talked to him and we had a nice little talk, and I said, ‘I’ll see you at suppertime.’ So at suppertime I looked him up and waved. He responded by giving me a hug.
“Now, sometimes those little boys can get rowdy when it’s time to go to the restrooms at night. So I thought I’ll just sit on this step (outside the restroom) every night and I did, and he would come out and give me a hug. Then the last night he gave me a hug and a kiss. It made my whole week worthwhile.”
Both Coffman and Burgess are quick to point out, though, that camp is for youngsters to meet new people and settle into new surroundings, even for Lauren, who will camp with her mother and grandmother on site.
“The campers are just like my daughter. They go into this not knowing anyone, but a lot of times you make friends and meet people at camp that are your lifelong friends,” said Kim Burgess, who still maintains a friendship with someone she met as a teen at the camp.
As for Lauren’s grandmother, Pat Coffman has no intention of quitting soon. Though she’s been retired for years from her job in the circulation department of Grafton Midview Public Library in Grafton, she still “trains” for camp.
“I’ve been out getting my exercise every morning. I ride my bike to get into condition,” she said. “I hope for a few more years, at least.”