This we know: All things are connected. My Family’s Lodge Story

This we know: All things are connected. My Family’s Lodge Story

By Sara (Bell) Clifford

When was the last time you nearly cried, you were so happy?

This we know All things are connected. My Family's Lodge Story Family The Clifford family arrives at Camp in 2019. L to R: Caleb, Henry, Derek, Sara, and Samuel

Most of my moments like that have been at Camp Ondessonk. Like the first time our son, age 2, performed on the Grotto stage, playing harmonica to “Stand By Me” with a band of guys who’d once been my husband’s campers. Or every time I hear “Prayer for Peace” at a Camp Mass: “Peace before us, peace behind us, peace under our feet …”

One of the most recent times was last summer as Derek and I were driving to Camp to pick up that little boy, who’d grown to be 14. I was scrolling through photos on Bunk1 and found a shot of him, smiling, with a white cloth around his head. “Look! He did it!” I yelled.

We had a new Lodge member in the house. Our boy had achieved one of his dreams.

I was inducted into the Lodge of Tekakwitha during girls’ season 1993. It had been my dream, too, to earn one of those shiny blue sashes. (Up until the early ’90s, even the campers got fancy ones.) I was 13 and my sister was 11, and we stayed in Lalande. This was during the days when all campers voted on two kids to be put through induction, so I may have campaigned a little – but it was stuff I would have been happy to do anyway: be the “Trashy Mama” and carry the trash bag on the all-day hike, or relocate spiders from other campers’ cabins when they were afraid to. I don’t know if I would have had the confidence to volunteer for those things without a reason, though. I was always the shy type, more comfortable to blend in than stand out.

Derek was inducted into the Lodge of Ondessonk during coed season 1992. For three years he’d come with his best friend, Jason, and both of them were “dying to get into Lodge.” “It just seemed like they were the coolest of the cool. The best kids at camp were in Lodge, and we wanted to be a part of that club,” he said. As two of the older campers in Goupil, they knew they might not both get in that week. When Jason ended up getting sick enough that he had to go home on Tuesday, 14-year-old Derek, for the first time, was at Camp without anyone who really knew him. “I didn’t feel like I changed my behavior or changed who I was; I just made sure I was a little bit kinder and a little more understanding in all situations,” he remembered. (And no, he did not make Jason sick to eliminate his competition; Jason got in the next year anyway.)

Back then, inductees disappeared at lunchtime on Thursday. A staff member tapped you on your shoulder and whispered that you needed to go to the chapel immediately and talk to no one. The Lodge Princess or Lodge Chief appeared and told us we’d been nominated for membership. To make it, we’d have to complete a series of trials, including a work project. In those days, inductees were not permitted to speak or even to smile while we wore our white headbands. We would not see our friends until we hit the showers before dinner Thursday, and we were told that other Lodge members would be watching and reporting back. If we gave in to pressure and broke the rules – and other campers would try to do this to inductees – we worried our names wouldn’t be called at the Council Ring on Thursday night. I still remember my little sister, Emily, crying and being comforted by my cabin-mates while I worked that afternoon. She didn’t understand why I’d disappeared and why I wouldn’t even look at her.

Sara (volunteer) and her youngest sister, Elizabeth Bell (CIT), practice the Friendship Dance in the Council Ring the summer of 2003.

Three years later, as a first-year staff member, I led 14-year-old Emily through her Second Campfire. And three years after that, as Lodge Princess, I placed a sash on our youngest sister, Elizabeth.

Lodge membership, to me, was permission to step up, step out, and lead when normally I would follow. I was elected Princess of the Effingham Tribe when I was 16, then Lodge Princess at 19 with the responsibility of running ceremonies, inductions and work projects all summer. I gained an immense amount of confidence through that experience. I didn’t know I could be that girl, the one everyone looked to for guidance and direction. Lodge showed me I was worthy and capable. It propelled me to accept leadership roles in my professional life and not to automatically believe that someone else could do them better. After graduating from college, I accepted a full-time job as marketing and development director at Camp – where I met Derek in the summer of 2001 – before moving on to a 20-year, multi-award-winning career in journalism. In 2003, I was surprised with the St. Jean de Brebeuf Award for service to Camp and to Lodge. It’s been an unfathomable honor to wear the black sash so many of my heroes have worn.

Derek and Sara pose in front of their Lodge Wall at home in 2012.

For Derek, Lodge membership was an inspiration to continue to be better every day. “I represent something more than just Derek; I represent a part of Camp,” he said. “I feel, even to this day, wearing a sash and walking through Camp, I still need to exemplify what an ideal camper/counselor/human being should be.” He was elected Chief of the Tri-State Tribe in 2001; in 2002, he served as Lodge Chief. He thinks adding that additional summer leadership role on top of his job as a unit leader prepared him for work life as an adult, as operations manager of a multi-state company: “the responsibility of having a job, a role as part of a larger team that, if not done, you’d be letting other counselors down, causing them more work, which ultimately would let the camper down, which meant that camper would not have the best experience they could have, which meant they wouldn’t have the experience I had as a camper.”

Sara and Derek were Lodge officials respectively in 1999 and 2002; they were married in 2003; and Caleb, their oldest son, was inducted in 2021.

To our oldest son, Caleb, Lodge membership is a family tradition he wanted to follow, and “everyone I knew in Lodge was really nice and kind.” That’s what he focused on that week, being that sort of person, which is exactly who we know him to be. He was voted in in the summer of 2021, COVID year, when so many traditions at Camp were not what they had been. His induction was individual, as he was the only camper chosen that week from Lalande, his work project was solo, and there was no big moment when he received his sash; it had been handed to him 5 minutes before we rolled into Camp to get him.

But that’s not what we’ll remember, the differences between our experiences and his. I wish I had a picture of that moment at pick-up in Le Coeur: Derek and I in our sashes, bear-hugging this big kid in his.

“I don’t know how to explain it,” Derek says. “It was like imagining him in my place, however many years ago … just so happy for him to have that same experience.”

I remember the confident smile that broke across Caleb’s face when he saw us, and the tears I had to blink away with the smile on mine.  “I was really proud of myself, really excited for you guys to finally tell me everything about your Lodge ceremonies and how you used to run it – just being able to share it with my parents,” he said.

This fall, we will come to our first Lodge Reunion together, my boy and me. I’ll sit in the back and listen while he floats to the front, learning and planning and connecting with the kids who continue to grow Camp’s Spirit ever brighter.

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