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Camp Kid Again: Unplugged summer sleepaways for adults

Heidi Checkoff of Cherry Hill recently came home from her first time at sleepaway camp - and she's still giddy. "I made friends I'll have for the rest of my life," she said.

Digital detox: Camp Grounded campers in California dance to live blues music moments before the camp flag is raised. No work talk, no watches, no devices. (Scott Sporleder)
Digital detox: Camp Grounded campers in California dance to live blues music moments before the camp flag is raised. No work talk, no watches, no devices. (Scott Sporleder)Read more

Heidi Checkoff of Cherry Hill recently came home from her first time at sleepaway camp - and she's still giddy. "I made friends I'll have for the rest of my life," she said.

But, Checkoff said, she came to the joys of bunk beds and bug juice later than most.

"I'm 46 years old," she said, "and I finally have camp friends."

The camp in question is Campowerment, a three-night retreat that's coming to Green Lane, Montgomery County, May 8 to 11, targeting women who are craving an emotional and spiritual reboot - or just a few days to let loose.

It's one of several new offerings designed exclusively for grown-ups. They merge rustic accommodations (think shared cabins and communal bathrooms) with high-power speakers, gourmet food, trendy activities, and an emphasis on unplugging from technology and reconnecting with what's really important.

"This idea would never have flown 30 years ago, because that's how we lived our lives - out in nature," said Tammi Leader Fuller, 54, founder of Campowerment. Today, though, "women have never had more on their plates. They've never had so much being thrown at them, and they don't even think about taking time for themselves."

The same goes for entrepreneurs (who next month are off to the Poconos for Brand Camp); tech addicts (who can jet to California to unplug at Camp Grounded); and singles (who pack the bunkhouses at Connecticut's Club Getaway). That's not to mention any number of truly special-interest grown-ups' camps, from Tennis & Wine Camp in Washington state to Zombie Survival Camp in southern New Jersey.

Nostalgia for the simpler days of childhood - a force that has in recent years powered everything from adult kickball leagues to a $200 million cupcake industry - is also behind this trend.

"I was kind of obsessed with camp my whole life," said Fuller, a longtime television producer. Her summertime idyll was Camp Akiba in the Poconos. "It was the happiest place I'd ever seen. I could be away from my parents, and be whoever I wanted to be."

Last year, she began working to resurrect the essence of that experience. She envisioned color wars, ropes courses, journaling, dark-chocolate s'mores, vodka-soaked gummy worms - and a slew of experts she'd met as a producer: celebrity doctors, spiritual healers, life coaches, stylists, and chefs.

After initial positive press around the time of the first camps in California and Florida - the Oprah effect crashed her website - Fuller quit her job at Extra and became a full-time camp director.

She's expecting 75 to 150 women at her first Poconos camp, and at a session in the Catskills in June. Women ages 20 to 70 will share cabins and often highly personal stories.

Phone use is discouraged, and any mention of your job is banned for the first 24 hours (by the next day, the topic rarely even comes up).

"You get to be who you want to be, not who everyone else thinks you should be," Fuller said. "Everyone is the same. Sweatpants are the equalizer."

Fuller said she never set out to create a transformational spiritual experience, but that seems to be the effect.

Checkoff, a mother of four, came home from Campowerment in Malibu energized to take her jewelry business to the next level. She said hearing other women's stories and watching them leap from a 40-foot pole onto a trapeze called the "Leap of Faith" helped put her own life in perspective.

Enlightenment doesn't come cheap, though. Campowerment is $999 a head.

For $300 more, you could opt for Brand Camp, held at Pine Forest Camp, about 150 miles north of Philadelphia. Ambler-based business writer and consultant Kristen Kalp is convening entrepreneurs and would-be business owners for four days of communal living and keynote speeches - plus campfires, dance parties, and a giant game of paint-Twister.

While many conferences tend to come with hashtags for optimal tweeting, Brand Camp is screen-free, inviting visitors to unplug and focus on the issues at hand, except for 20 minutes a day to check on the kids and pets.

"It's important to do deep thinking and strategizing," Kalp said. "To get a notification every 10 minutes that someone updated something on Facebook is not conducive to that."

At Brand Camp, letting the WiFi signal fade away is a means to an end. But at Camp Grounded, run by an organization called the Digital Detox, it's the whole point.

Camp Grounded, which launched for a long weekend last summer in California and has three more three-night sessions this June, has a hippie, do-what-feels-right vibe in a strict framework: no work talk, no age talk, no watches, and no digital technology (typewriters, however, are welcome).

Camp director Levi Felix said some attendees had tried to "detox" from technology on their own, but weren't able to follow through. At Camp Grounded, they check their devices (and real names) when they arrive.

"We take the stress of life so seriously, but there's lots of science around the benefits of play," he said.

Camp Grounded has all the activities you remember from camp, like archery, capture the flag, arts and crafts, talent shows and campfires, and some you don't, like pickling, hydroponic farming, fear-burning, meditation, and songwriting.

Fairmount resident Gavin Young, 31, went just for something to do. Instead, it transformed his whole outlook.

"I don't think I realized how much technology overloaded my life until I went to this camp," he said. He'd wake up in the middle of the night to check messages, or avoid awkward small talk by fiddling with his phone.

It was jarring to give up all that. But it set the stage for deeper conversations.

"You just have a whole bunch of people out in the woods talking about how they feel about things," he said.

If all goes well, Felix is hoping to follow Campowerment in bringing the $570 Camp Grounded to the East Coast next year.

He said the fact that campers from 28 states and eight countries had already signed up for this summer's sessions is one indication that the need is universal.

"We're giving ourselves a chance to be kids again," he said - and it's not as silly as it sounds. "When you lose yourself in these moments of laughter and connection, that's when we grow the most."