Owner and director, Liberty Lake Day Camp in Bordentown
‘Like many first time campers, I was forced to go to camp,” says Andy Pritikin. “So while the majority of my friends went to the local rec program or the Jersey Shore, I was sent packing up to the Berkshires for what was to become two of the best summers of my life.”
When asked what he learned at summer camp, Pritikin rattles off a laundry list: “I learned that I could thrive on my own, away from home, away from my parents. I learned that when things were challenging or scary and I only had myself to lean on that I could overcome most anything. When I got to college, I saw how some of my friends were struggling, and I felt that my two years at sleepaway camp made a big difference in how I approached life away from home, and challenging situations.”
For Pritikin summer camp also turned out to be a life-long career — one in which most of those lessons from the summer school of hard knocks get to be used on a daily basis. As owner and director of the Liberty Lake Day Camp, Pritikin oversees 200 employees in the summer.
He says people always ask him what he does during the winter (perhaps with the expectation that his answer might involve exotic travel or some dramatically different lifestyle). But his answer is all camp-related: “In the off-season,” he says, “we have four full timers, and five part-timers. Remember that we have to register 1,000 campers, hire 200 staff, book 100 picnics/special events, take care of 60 acres of property, and run the NJ Renaissance Faire [another organization run by Pritikin]. This is no small operation. If anything, we are under-staffed.”
Pritikin says that some acquaintances are envious of his summer profession: “Most of my non-camp director friends tell me ‘I wish I could have your job’ — outside playing with the kids, giving inspirational speeches to the staff, etc. But once they hear about the responsibilities and stress that I have to manage, they quickly change their mind. The helicopter parents, the wide range of behavioral issues of campers, managing modern-day teens and 20-somethings, school buses, pools, lakes, regulatory agencies, township zoning boards, rain storms, heat waves.
“I could tell you stories that make your head spin. Our former security guard was a high ranking officer in the South Pacific during the Korean War, and he used to shake his head at me during the summer and say, ‘Not for all the tea in China would I do your job!’”
But for Pritikin, who has been running Liberty Lake for the past decade, “the positives outweigh the stress and challenges. I get to see little kids grow up into contributing members of society. I meet hundreds of great new people every year, and I am seen by my camp families in a way that people often view their pastor or their rabbi — as a youth development professional and a partner in their children’s upbringing.”
In addition, notes Pritikin, who is active in several summer camp professional organizations, “children’s summer camps are a huge employer of youths and teachers during the summer months. And we are currently experiencing the worst percentage of ‘youth unemployment’ (ages 16-24) since they started keeping records 60 years ago. While the recession has made operating a camp more challenging, hiring quality staff has been better than ever, with a huge pool of applicants.”
Born in Brooklyn, raised in Caldwell, New Jersey, Pritikin grew up with parents who each have a touch of adventure in their own biographies. He describes his mother as “a nurse and eccentric world traveler — currently in Australia.” His father is an accountant who works in New York City. But, says Pritikin, “my dad was born and raised in Brooklyn, went to camp for one summer, for one week, and it was the greatest week of his childhood. He always promised himself that if there was any way he could send my brothers and me to camp, he would.”
A new accounting client, who owned a camp in the Berkshires [Camp Mah-Kee-Nac] came up with a proposal that opened up the summer camp door. “We were given a three-for-one deal, at one of the most expensive camps in the country, and it was the two greatest summers of my childhood,” Pritikin says. “Water skiing, playing tennis (two things I’d never done) and living in a bunk with a group of new friends — amazing experiences. Plus the spirit and community of camp was something I had never imagined.”
Pritikin’s first career choice was to be a professional musician — a challenge for any young person, regardless of how enriching their summer camp experience was. Pritikin augmented his music career by getting a teaching degree and working at camp during the summer.
When his band broke up 1995, “I cut my dreadlocks off (seriously) and considered getting my administrative degree, and becoming a principal.” But he was also working summers at a camp in North Jersey. Says Pritikin: “These people convinced my to leave my tenured teaching job, and at the age of 27 work alongside some legendary camp operators and leaders of the American Camp Association. I had just bought a house in North Jersey, and my wife was pregnant with my daughter. But I took the plunge and never looked back.”
He served as director of a camp in Glen Cove, NY, and then started Liberty Lake Day Camp in 2002. He also became active in the American Camp Association, as a board member for the past 15 years and as the professional development chair, overseeing conferences throughout the off-season. “What I thought was a unique experience is enjoyed by over 10 million campers each summer at over 12,000 camps (2,400 of the finest accredited by the American Camping Association),” he says.
“I officially retired from performing about six years ago as my camp career, and my family took over my life — including starting a second camp in the Boston area two years ago. I have a piano and a studio at home, but my big musical thing is what goes on at Liberty Lake. We are truly the ‘Camp of Rock,’ as we employ a stable of great musicians, teach all the rock instruments, singing, and even rap.”
Liberty Lake offers rock band classes, and campers perform every Friday in front of 600-plus campers and 200 staff. Says Pritikin: “There’s nothing like watching a band of 12 kids get up in front of everyone and perform ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ or such — with many of the kids learning how to play just that summer.”
While most camps in the central New Jersey region are day camps, Pritikin believes there is still a demand for overnight camps, but not so much for the classic camp that whisks junior away at the beginning of summer and returns him at Labor Day.
“There is a great market right now for short season (one to three weeks) resident camps,” says Pritikin. “While I went away for the entire summer as a child, there are only a handful of camps left that do that, as this generation of ‘cool parents’ actually want to spend time with their kids. Plus 50 percent of parents are divorced/separated and want to be with their kids during their allotted weeks/weekends.”
Regardless of the length of time, the camp experience is still a memorable one for most campers. Among the testimonials that Pritikin cites as he espouses that virtues of summer camp are the following:
Academy Award Winner Denzel Washington, as quoted from his press bio: “A native of Mt. Vernon, NY, Washington had his career sights set on medicine when he attended Fordham University. But during a stint as a summer camp counselor he appeared in one of the theater productions; he was bitten by the acting bug and returned to Fordham that year seeking to become an actor.
What actually happened, according to Andy Pritikin, was that Denzel’s campers and fellow counselors convinced him to participate in a silly role in the camp musical. Being away from home, and among a new group of supportive peers, gave Denzel the courage and temporary confidence to try an exciting new experience that changed the course of his life — and has enriched all of ours.
Businessman and former CEO of Disney
Author of the 2004 book “Camp,” Eisner traces how he learned much of his leadership and drive from Camp Keewaydin in Vermont (see page 1 for an excerpt of Princeton author John McPhee’s foreword to the book).
Pritikin shares the following testimonial, which is paraphrased from a speech Eisner gave at a camp conference in New York:
“I loved camp — as a camper, and later as a counselor,” Eisner says. “Every moment, every year, every ball game, canoe trip, wilderness experience, and just being a team player and I’ve long been fascinated by why this is. After all, camp takes children and separates them from their families, from their televisions, telephones, VCRs, PlayStations, and computers for weeks at a time to take them to what? To live 10 to a cabin without air conditioning or their Mom’s cooking/bed making/driving/one-day laundry service. unable to watch TV, sleep until noon or visit a mall? And, yes, they love it!
“The fact is, today’s children have amazing toys and gadgets at their command that allow them to experience everything but the real thing. I have nothing against most of these toys. Disney makes a lot of them. But at the end of the day reality is what kids prefer. Camp puts them in a world of their own creation. What could be more exciting or more empowering? No video game can compare.”
actor, who died in 2004
The inspirational actor Christopher Reeve, Pritikin recalls, told a group of camp professionals a few years ago how as a young teen he never thought he had the ability to swim to the bottom of the lake at his summer camp to retrieve the coin thrown in by a counselor (a rite of passage at his camp for the older campers).
“After dozens of attempts over the course of a few years, he was finally able to hold his breath long enough to come up with the coin. This was a life-altering experience that proved to him that he had the inner fortitude to achieve the seemingly impossible.”
Pulitzer Prize-winning author and Princeton University professor
"At Vassar College a few decades ago, I read to a gymful of people some
passages from books I had written, and then received questions from
the audience. The first person said, ‘Of all the educational
institutions you went to when you were younger, which one had the
greatest influence on the work you do now?’ The question stopped me
for a moment because I had previously thought about the topic only in
terms of individual teachers and never in terms of institutions.
Across my mind flashed the names of a public-school system K through
12, a New England private school (13), and two universities — one in
the United States, one abroad — and in a split second I blurted out,
‘The children’s camp I went to when I was six years old.’
"The response drew general laughter, but, funny or not, it was the
simple truth. As I once began a piece of writing in the New Yorker
magazine, ‘I grew up in a summer camp — Keewaydin — whose specialty
was canoes and canoe travel.’ It was at the north end of Lake Dunmore,
about eight miles from Middlebury, in Vermont. In addition to ribs,
planking, quarter-thwarts, and open gunwales, you learned to identify
rocks, ferns, and trees. You played tennis. You backpacked in the
Green Mountains on the Long Trail. If I were to make a list of all the
varied subjects that have come up in my articles and books, adding a
check mark beside interests derived from Keewaydin, most of the
entries would be checked."
From McPhee’s foreword to the book "Camp" by Michael Eisner.