Amelia Matlack remembers a short kid with his hair parted straight down the middle sitting at the dining-hall table next to hers at Camp Dark Waters in Medford, Burlington County. It was the summer of 1981, and it was 9-year-old Amelia's first at camp. It also was the first for Jorge Hamarman, 9, the guy with the goofy hair.
So they sized each other up. Jorge recalls a girl who was "skin and bones, but cute . . . and to me at the time, she was tall." He wasn't.
During the next five years, Amelia and Jorge continued going to camp. "We had that antagonistic way of flirting that you do when you're young and like someone," Jorge remembers. And there was that first kiss, a few years later, on a log bench that overlooked the creek bank. It was short and awkward.
But things changed. Dramatically.
Today, Amelia, 36, now a sexuality educator for the New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services, and Jorge, a designer for a Doylestown interior design firm, are married - their wedding was, fittingly, at Camp Dark Waters, the place they both lived and loved.
Sure, many marrieds started their relationship as childhood sweethearts. But for those who met at overnight camp, the bond, many say, can be much more profound. Not only has each member of the partnership witnessed the other's growth (literally and figuratively), but they also understand the crazy adventures and secret codes that are part of camp. Most important, the lessons learned at their home away from home are also the ones cited as necessary for a good marriage.
For the Hamarmans, residents of Haddon Heights, it took a camp reunion in 2000 to remind them that something precious and important happened at Dark Waters.
Amelia, as she always will be known to her husband because that was her camp name (friends now call her "Amy"), emphasizes that the years at camp shaped her, especially when it came to her self-esteem.
And that age-old connection eased the scary transition from single to married, too. "There's just something so reassuring about being with someone who knew me in my gangly, prepubescent phase. It feels like we had roots before we ever started dating," she said.
That makes sense, according to Michael Brandwein of Lincolnshire, Ill., a national expert, author and motivational speaker on camps and their impact.
"If you look at the skills that contribute to relationship success, you see that they are the very same skills that are focused on at camp," Brandwein said. He cites the life lessons including teamwork, flexibility, caring about others, and problem-solving.
"Obviously, getting along with others is one of camp's most basic lessons, and it translates into other relationships, including marriages," Brandwein notes.
One of the exercises he uses in training camp personnel involves having kids work on the same art project, one picking up where the other left off. When disparaging remarks about a predecessor's work are audible - and that inevitably happens with kids - leaders are encouraged to turn it into a life lesson.
"That means instructing youngsters that we don't have to say everything we're thinking out loud, that such remarks can hurt others," he said. "And think how that life skill could work in a marriage!"
Cheryl Magen, president of the American Camp Association's Keystone Regional section, says camp is the place where young people learn respect, cooperation, and important communication skills.
"Your camp friends also have seen you first thing in the morning, with braces, and after a canoe trip in the woods," Magen said. "Romances that develop in that atmosphere get you past the artifice of 'dating.' I've seen many, many marriages that started at camp, and are still going strong."
For Sherrea and Steven "Chad" Chadwin of Montgomeryville, it all began with a glance across a parking lot at Pine Forest Camp in June 1974.
Chad, who had grown up at camps in the region, was arriving at Pine Forest in the Poconos to begin his stint as the boys' athletic director. Sherrea, an import from Atlanta, already had heard about a guy named Chad from camp director Marvin Black, when he interviewed her to be the girls' athletic director. "Marvin kept saying that I would like Chad, and I kept saying that I was already engaged," Sherrea recalls.
But watching Chad emerge from his gold VW Sun Bug that first summer morning, Sherrea felt her heart beating faster. "If ever there was love at first sight, this was it," she remembers. Within three weeks, Sherrea and Chad knew something powerful was happening. "You're thrown together a lot as staffers, and for us, it was a very strong attraction," Chad says.
Indeed it was. Sherrea broke her engagement as soon as she returned to Georgia and came back to Philadelphia, where she and Chad were married by a justice of the peace six months later. Camp friends threw them a rollicking wedding reception.
Today, Sherrea, 62, is assistant head of the lower school at Germantown Academy, and Chad, 63, teaches and coaches at Abington Friends School. For decades, their summers have been spent at Pine Forest, where the couple's two children, Jessica and Jamie, and Jamie's wife, Rachel (yes, they too met at Pine Forest), also are on staff. This year will mark the second for Jamie and Rachel's twin daughters, campers at the ripe old age of 19 months.
"Camp has been a vital part of our marriage and our lives," says Sherrea, who has had to miss the last several summers at Pine Forest because her job now requires her to work 12 months of the year. Chad is marking his 41st year there. "Our marriage was not only the result of camp - it has absolutely been enriched by our camp experiences in the years since then," he said.
At Green Lane camp in Green Lane, Pa., Rene Jacobson was a bit older than Adam Weiner, who thought of her as one of those "mean girls from the older bunks." They barely knew each other until 1993, when a mutual friend arranged a pre-camp jaunt to the Shore, just before both Rene and Adam, who had graduated to staff, began their summer jobs.
Rene remembers having spent the night talking to Adam for hours. But when camp started several days later, Adam began seeing someone else.
"That's when I realized that I had a thing for him," Rene says, "and we spent a lot of time together even though he had a girlfriend. She hated me, and I don't blame her."
The two ended up being rival captains for the camp's annual color war. (His team won.) And just as camp was ending, Rene and Adam shared a kiss.
That was it.
Several months into the next school year, Rene moved to Florida, where Adam was in college. They stayed together, working at Green Lane as counselors for the next several summers. In February 1999, they got married.
"My love affair was both with Adam and with camp," says Rene, 37, an early-childhood teacher at Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel in Center City whose parents also are Camp Green Lane alums. "I started going to camp when I was 7 years old, and it was the place where I always felt the most comfortable."
Adam, who started camp in 1984, initially cried when his parents told him in February that he was going to overnight camp. "It was the greatest gift my parents ever gave me, and the gift that also gave me my wife. Camp taught me to be a better sharer, a better communicator, and I like to think, a better husband and father."
Now Ethan, 10, the Weiners' older son, is about to begin his third year at Green Lane, and his younger brother will likely join him soon.
"Ethan didn't cry at all about going to Green Lane. But he really cried about having to leave," his dad said. "We take that as a sign that we've got another longtime camper - and who knows, maybe another couple of marriages!"