In all honesty, this blog post has been a long time coming, but it’s been harder than I can express to sit down and write it. It strays from our typical blogs, in which we strive to remain positive and uplifting, and touches upon bereavement and how we’re coping with a difficult loss in our camp family. That said, our dear camper and friend Ellen Erickson brought so much joy and love to so many of us at camp, that we feel both a privilege and an obligation to share her story. I sincerely thank Head Counselor & Volunteer Manager Victoria “Scout” Valencia for putting Ellen's impact into words.
-Erin “Sparkles” Stern
February is a month dedicated to love and friendship. At Camp Casco, love is at the center of what we do (our logo is even a heart after all). So it feels fitting in that spirit of love and friendship to reflect on the life of our dear camper and beloved friend Ellen Erickson.
I had the privilege of first meeting Ellen at a camp for children with cancer in California, Camp Reach for the Sky, when she was about 12 years old. I remember it vividly. We were at the BB-gun range, and she was explaining, with her ever-present smile on her face, that she was new to camp and she liked to be called Froggy. The moment itself was insignificant, just a casual conversation as we waited for her turn to shoot little pellets at bulls eye targets and old soda cans. Just one of any hundreds of casual conversations that happen at camp on any given day.
And yet, it is the accumulation of those casual conversations and little moments at camp that ultimately make lifelong friendships. And so it was with Ellen.
There are not enough words to describe the love and kindness that Ellen exuded. She was a friend to all, endlessly positive, and utterly hilarious. She was the kind of person that others flocked to. It could not be helped. When I say she was a friend to all, I mean she was a friend to each and every person she met.
When Camp Casco was founded, those of us on the leadership team knew how important the atmosphere of camp is. We wanted to create a camp filled with love and support, and unconditional understanding. We also knew that no matter how great our counselors could be, it is really the campers that set the tone of camp. With that in mind, we decided that for our first camp session in 2015, we wanted to have two senior campers to really help us set the tone of Camp Casco for years to come.
Without hesitation, the first person in all of our minds was Ellen. Ellen was the perfect camper role model, and we wanted her to shine her light all throughout camp. We knew the younger campers would look up to the teens, and as the oldest campers in camp, Ellen and fellow senior camper, Coral, were everything we had hoped they would be and more. They sang camp songs with abandon, dressed up for every theme day, participated in all activities and were the first to volunteer whenever one was needed. But most important was the tone of positivity, love and support they both exuded throughout the week. Not a day of camp went by when I didn’t see a child snuggling in Ellen’s lap, or someone laughing at her jokes. Ellen was the perfect combination of big sister and best friend to all. She encouraged all the younger campers to try everything and get the most out of their camp experience, and she led by example, even pushing through her own pain, because that was the type of leader and woman she was.
The first year of Camp Casco transformed a group of strangers into a family, and Ellen was pivotal in that endeavor.
A few months later, at 19, Ellen was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of breast cancer, making her unable to attend the second year of Camp Casco as a volunteer. Not long after, we lost a beloved member of our camp family.
After Ellen’s passing, some of her camp friends had charms made, with an inscription reading WWED (What Would Ellen Do). They gave them to her family and friends as a reminder to all of us to take a page out of Ellen’s book in our daily life. To laugh a little louder, be a little sillier, to see the good and to be the good. Because that’s what Ellen would have done, and that’s what she would want us to be doing right now.
While we never want to emphasize loss in front of our campers, we made sure that every counselor from that first year of camp received a WWED charm this past summer at camp. Ellen was with all of us this past year at Casco. The charms became bracelets and necklaces worn around camp. Her favorite camp songs were sung. Frogs were spotted all over camp. But most importantly, the love and positive atmosphere she helped model and create was stronger than ever.
Though camp was over, Ellen’s message and Ellen’s impact continued throughout the year. One of our counselors, Jakob “Nemo” Muhic, had been planning a climb to Base Camp on Mt. Everest, and promised to bring his charm along so that “Ellen could climb with [him].”
In October, we received the following message from Jakob regarding his journey to Everest: “A promise is a promise. It took us a week to get up there, but this was my motivation as well for not stopping. I kept pushing despite an upset stomach, some headache and heavy high altitude breathing. But at the end I knew it was nothing compared to the pain that people with cancer have to go through. And I’m sure [Ellen] would have loved to take photos there on that day, because it was the most amazing sunny day at Mt. Everest! I left it there so that she can watch climbers trying to reach the summit next year! (And keep them safe!)”
Ellen lived a brief but full life. Full of joy. Full of love. Full of impact. Ellen’s charm will forever be on Mt. Everest Base Camp watching over the climbers as they journey upward. And Ellen’s spirit will forever live on in the love and positive atmosphere at Camp Casco. In honor of that spirit, we ask you to make a promise to take a cue from our friend Ellen today. Give that compliment. Make that joke. Encourage that friend. Sing that song, despite not knowing the words. Live each day to the fullest. And if ever you’re in doubt, just ask “What Would Ellen do?”
Victoria “Scout” Valencia lives in San Diego, CA, and is preparing for her 4th year as Head Counselor on our Leadership Team. Scout loves singing, sitting, and smiling!