As a young girl from Marietta, Georgia, Peggy Holbrook wasn't sure what to expect from her first camp experience in 1959.
"They told me we were going to eat Welsh rarebit and veggies," she says, recalling her first meal at Camp Juliette Low in Cloudland, Georgia. "I thought they said 'Welsh rabbit,' and I didn't want to eat rabbit. I wanted to get out of there and go home!"
That feeling didn't last long once she was greeted with a plate of toasted bread covered in melted cheese. She also got comfortable with taking cold showers and using an outhouse, and, by the end of her stay, she and the other girls sobbed as they said their goodbyes.
Holbrook's voice dances with excitement as she talks about her time at Juliette Low, founded nearly 100 years ago by its namesake, who also started the Girl Scouts. Holbrook spent four years as a camper and then as a counselor in training, only missing one year when her family took her out west for the summer. "I hated not being at camp," she says.
Her love of camp resonated with her daughter, Heather Holbrook Vansaint, who in turn sent her own daughter, Mary Margaret Vansaint, to Camp Juliette Low. Holbrook's granddaughter began attending when she was 7, and ultimately worked as the horseback director until she entered medical school recently.
"It gets in your blood," Holbrook says. "There's something so peaceful. It's crazy with 112 little girls; it gets noisy. But it's like the real world goes away."
Holbrook didn't get too far from the camp as she got older. In 1984, she began volunteering as a member of the board of trustees. She worked for the camp for 32 years, first as the secretary and then as the business manager. She retired about three years ago, but continues her work as a board member.
"It's just about the happiest place on Earth," she says of the 330-acre camp, home to the East Fork of the Little River, swimming holes and a white pine forest.
'Ocoee was my home'
Richard Park found that home-away-from-home feeling at Camp Ocoee. Growing up during World War II, Park says his family wasn't rich, so a summer vacation was not typical. Instead, the family ventured to Family Camp at YMCA Camp Ocoee.
"If I were to point to one highlight of my youth, it would be those two weeks each summer that we spent together at Camp Ocoee," says Park, 82. "I never wanted to go anywhere else for vacation."
Park was 5 in 1943, when he, his parents and two sisters stayed in "paradise" for the first time. When he was old enough, he went by himself to Camp Ocoee's regular residential camp, an all-boys program at the time.
"A large part of who I am today is influenced by my time spent at camp," Park says. "Ocoee gave me passion."
It was a love he, like Holbrook, shared with his children and they in turn shared with their families. Each year since the '40s, the Parks have trekked to the 97-year-old outfit in Cherokee National Forest, though, like the Holbrooks, their involvement doesn't end with the summer solstice.
Park has served on the Camp Ocoee board of managers, twice as board chair, and his son, Ricky, currently serves on the board.
Park's first job was working the camp store with his friend Bud Burns. Together they sold candy bars and soda in what Park calls the coolest spot for a teenager to hang out. For their work, they were granted free camp tuition. He lists this as one of the reasons why he helped the YMCA start an annual scholarship that still helps get kids to camp.
"All year long I looked forward to it. Ocoee was my home," Park says.
The legacy continues with his step-granddaughter, Freddi, who is 10. She's been a resident camper for the last two summers and is set to go later this year.
"Camp has been a major breakthrough for her in making friends," Park says.
Park says he felt like a "big dog" walking around the campgrounds because he had both the Family Camp and residential experience, and in a way, he still does. "It's remarkable how little has changed."
That's a sentiment that fellow Camp Ocoee-goer Sally BeVille Hunter shares. Her family has stayed in the Apache Cabin during Family Camp since she was born.
"My favorite part that has stayed consistent is that there's no cellphone reception," says Hunter, 38. "It's the ability to be with your own family for the entire time you're there. ... You don't have to worry about the image you're projecting on social media, or responding to that email."
Hunter's family is four generations deep as the camp's waterskiing instructors. It started with her Aunt Laura; then Sally, a cousin; and now, her twin nephew and niece.
Similarly, it's Hunter's children who are spending their summers amid the camp's swaying trees, though the place hasn't left her heart. "I would still do it," Hunter says of the camp experience.
She gets to live vicariously, at least. Ocoee hires a staff photographer who documents the day's events and uploads about 200 photos a day for parents to flip through. "I get to work and see all the things my kids are doing," she says. "It reminds me of my own summers growing up."
' ... Until the summer comes back'
Tim Bond lives for summer. He grew up hearing stories of canoeing and pranks from his family, and now spends summers at Vesper Point leading counselors as director of the 66-year-old outfit. He's barely missed a year at the Christian sleepaway camp since second grade.
"I'm pretty sure I've missed one summer of not being here. I scooped ice cream at Clumpies," he says. "I'm part of the furniture now."
He's been the director for eight years, but began working at the camp when he was 15, at first in the kitchen, then as a counselor.
Bond's family Vesper Point story actually starts with his grandmother, who was one of the first Bible teachers at the Presbyterian-based camp. His father, John, was the assistant director in the '80s, and his uncle became a director.
Bond and his brother, Matt, both met their wives at camp, and while Bond doesn't have kids of his own, he works with college-aged counselors who have become family, he says.
" ... By the end of the summer, [my wife] is already saying, 'Winter is coming.' I get sad for nine months until the summer comes back," Bond says.
Walking around the wooded Soddy-Daisy camp in early January, he points out some new buildings including a renovated dining hall. But while some of the quarters are new, Bond notes that campers still don't have access to their phones and the focus is on forming new relationships with the people across from you.
At Juliette Low, camp activities have changed slightly — like horseback riding expanding and the addition of tennis courts and running water in the cabins and bathrooms — but nothing major has disrupted the camp's feel for Holbrook. "The philosophy has stayed the same," she says.
"It's the one place I can share with my daughter and granddaughter that's unchanged," says Holbrook. "I can drive them all over Marietta and say this is where I lived, but it's changed so much. This hasn't."