Summer camp for adults

  • Carol Meredith, of Connecticut, during a archery session in Escape Camp. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • A group enjoys a game of water volley ball at Escape Camp in Amherst. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • “Social hour is the official name,” says Sandra Morgan, the camp’s founding director, “but some of us call it happy hour.” From left, Martha Craymer, Laurie Bent, Lou Ann Bierwert and Morgan. Bierwert was one of the instructors/facilitators for the camp. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Nancy White, right, takes a squash lesson from Jackie Bagwell, left, during Escape Camp, Thursday, June 13, 2019 at Amherst College. Another camp member, Carol Meredith, gets ready. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Martha Craymer, from left, Laurie Bent, Lou Ann Bierwert and Sandy Morgan talk during a social hour that was part of Escape Camp, Thursday, June 13, 2019 at Amherst College. Bierwert was one of the instructors/facilitators for the camp. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Nancy White, right, takes a squash lesson from Jackie Bagwell during Escape Camp, Thursday, June 13, 2019 at Amherst College. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Nancy White, front, takes a squash lesson from Jackie Bagwell during Escape Camp at Amherst College. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Carol Meredith, left, talks with Nancy White during a squash lesson that was part of Escape Camp, Thursday, June 13, 2019 at Amherst College. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • ... social hour. Here, from Martha Craymer, left, talks with Sandra Morgan, center left, as Betsy Rose, center right, shares pictures with Holly Parker. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Members of Escape Camp eat dinner on a patio at Mayo-Smith House, Thursday, June 13, 2019 at Amherst College. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • And improv. Here, from left, Karen Savanyu, Joel Bent, Laurie Bent, Ann Marie Superchi and Sandra Morgan. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Nancy White takes a squash lesson during Escape Camp, Thursday, June 13, 2019 at Amherst College. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Betsy Rose facilitates improv games during Escape Camp, Thursday, June 13, 2019 at Amherst College. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • An evening cookout ... STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • The vibe of Escape Camp, as one camper put it, is like “a family reunion without the issues.” Here, Carol Meredith gets instruction on how to hold an archery bow. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Laurie Bent,of Weston, learns archery during a a session of Escape Camp. Staff photoby Carol Lollis. Design by Nicole J. Chotain.

  • Carol Meredith, of Connecticut, gets instruction from Lynn Oberbillig on how to hold an archery bow correctly during a session of Escape Camp. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Lynn Oberbillig teaches a group in Escape Camp archery. Left is Carol Meredith, of Connecticut, Susan Heckler of New York, and Laurie Bent of Weston. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Phyllis Swartz, of Bellingham, gets instruction from Lynn Oberbillig on how to hold an archery bow correctly during a session of Escape Camp. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • A day at the camp may include a game of water volley ball ... STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • From left, Carol Meredith, of Connecticut, Sandra Morgan, of Connecticut, Susan Heckler of New York, and Sal LaFemina of Long Island, gets instruction from Lynn Oberbillig on how to hold an archery bow correctly during a session of Escape Camp. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Phyllis Swartz, of Bellingham, gets instruction from Lynn Oberbillig on how to hold an archery bow correctly during a session of Escape Camp. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

For Hampshire Life
Published: 7/3/2019 12:20:13 PM
Modified: 7/3/2019 12:20:01 PM

Even if you were never an avid summer camper, it’s easy to see the appeal of ESCAPE Camp, the weeklong overnight program for adults held at Amherst College in early June. Just the idea of living like a kid in your own college dorm room, eating what you want at the dining hall, and spending your days with good friends in instructor-led activities like rock climbing, archery, and tennis is enough to bring on a rush of nostalgia. But if the phrase summer camp only has you humming “Hello, Muddah, Hello Fadduh,” rest assured: This is no Camp Granada. And if you have any doubts, they’ll be gone after cocktail hour.

“Social hour is the official name,” corrects ESCAPE Camp’s founding director Sandra Morgan, referring to the evening wine-and-beer gathering, held on the porch of Mayo-Smith Residence Hall, the rambling dormitory just off the town common where the campers reside. “But some of us call it happy hour.” Morgan, a retired University of Hartford business professor with degrees from Smith College, MIT and Harvard, led the effort to rescue the program and move it to Amherst College in 2013 after it was dropped by Smith, which had offered a similar adult sports and fitness camp for some thirty years. These days, ESCAPE Camp has a core group of 15 to 20 returning regulars, and another 5 to 10 first-timers each year, mostly women in their mid-50s to late 70s. A few of the longtime campers are Smith alums, and the social vibe can sometimes feel a bit like a college reunion, or as one camper put it, “a family reunion without the issues.”

But as convivial as ESCAPE Camp may be, it also has a serious purpose: to get adults more active, specifically by introducing them to a wide range of physical activities and making the experience fun. “The real goal is lifetime fitness,” explains Chris Boyko, who took over as camp director in 2015 and also happens to be Amherst College’s strength and conditioning coach. “The main thing with fitness is compliance. You want to find stuff that you like, and if you are consistent at being active, you are going to be successful. That’s why we have such a large menu of activities. This isn’t about just a week of camp. This is a lifetime thing.”

And, sure enough, it appears to be working. Over breakfast at Amherst’s Valentine Hall, Morgan and a group of her fellow campers describe the positive impact camp has had on their lives.

“I was always the last one picked for teams,” Morgan confides. “And since I’ve been coming to camp, I’ve started kayaking, doing yoga, having a personal trainer. I mean, if you had told me that when I’m 75, which I am now, that I’d have a personal trainer I would have totally freaked out.”

The other women at the table nod, noting that they, too, now have trainers and have become far more active. “They encourage you to try new things,” explains Deb Banton, from Newton, who began attending camp at Smith in 1985. “It’s a safe space to try things you never try at home. I paddle-boarded here, which I had never done. I did rock climbing.”

“To stay fit through having fun,” says Morgan. “That’s always been the camp philosophy.”

Dottie Vine, from Bellingham, who has been coming for 17 years, agrees. “They used to call it a vacation with a purpose.”

“It’s been life-changing — and life-enhancing,” adds Morgan. “And we all think we look younger!”

If this is starting to sound appealing, that’s exactly what the ESCAPE Camp organizers want. With the core group of campers aging up, the program is hoping to attract new interest from younger campers and others in the Pioneer Valley. It’s now offering a day camp option that includes four activities, meals, and, yes, social hour, for $175. (The overnight option is $1,400 for the week.) “For the price you pay for the group lessons, it turns out to be a pretty good deal,” says Boyko, “if you compare it to hiring a personal trainer or joining a gym. And you meet some really outstanding people.”

For Morgan, that opportunity for social connection is what makes ESCAPE Camp truly special. “One thing I love about camp is the campers,” she says. “They come from all sorts of different backgrounds. We have editors and writers. We had a judge one year. One flew medevac helicopters. People have been in IT or teachers. It’s a really interesting group of people.” And the relationships that result may be how ESCAPE Camp most resembles the summer camps of childhood. Though campers come from all over New England, with some living as far away as Florida and California, many stay in touch, and even travel together, outside of camp. “Over time,” says Morgan, “you get to be friends.”

And did we mention the fitness testing? At the start of camp each year, a team from the University of Massachusetts, led by kinesiology professor Judi LaBranche, assesses any willing campers with a battery of tests, allowing them to chart their fitness level from year to year. In addition to a timed mile walk and heart-rate test, Morgan explains, the UMass team measures each camper’s strength, flexibility, and balance.

“And they pinch your fat,” adds Blanton, referring to the caliper test for body fat. “That’s very important. But Judi is very nice.”

And Judi is hardly alone. Indeed, say campers, friendliness and professionalism are hallmarks of ESCAPE Camp instructors, and a key reason they keep coming back.

Case in point: Alumni Gym on a rainy Tuesday morning. Camper Joel Angiolillo, a retired telecommunications engineer from Weston (and Amherst College class of 1976), here for his third year with his wife, Laurie Bent, works one-on-one with instructor Matt Leitl, Amherst College’s assistant tennis coach. Angiolillo, who played tennis in his youth, has the distinction of being the sole male camper for the camp’s first few days (two others would come later in the week). On the next court over, a group of women campers practices their volleying.

“This is a perfect example of how skilled Matt is,” Boyko explains. “These ladies are warming up, working on something that Matt has given them to do, and he’s taken Joel off to the side and trying to work on certain things individually with him.” Given the campers’ wide range of abilities and fitness levels, the ability to offer customized instruction at all levels is key, Boyko says.

Angiolillo seconds that. “The instructors are amazing,” he noted afterward. “There are people who might never have played tennis before and those who have been playing for 30 years, and the instructors manage to provide challenging work for everybody.”

In another space in the building, six campers circle around instructor Judy Messer, a Northampton personal trainer and yoga teacher, as she demonstrates how to massage sore muscles using a hand roller, a post-workout self-care technique. “This is really nice for the neck,” she explains, offering cautions for those with back issues or osteoarthritis. Messer has the campers return to their mats for a meditative breathing exercise, to be followed by stretching and rolling. “The best way to calm the mind is to calm the breath,” she begins.

ESCAPE Camp’s level of personalized attention is all the more impressive given its wide range of activities. This year’s offerings — a collection of some 30 sports, outings, and instructional classes that Morgan assembles based on camper demand and interest — includes tai chi, swimming lessons, hiking at Amethyst Brook, yoga, croquet, bowling, aqua aerobics, archery, boating at Paradise Pond, squash, spin class, rock climbing at Central Rock Gym and karate.

And that’s just during the day. After social hour, the offerings continue with Tuesday game night (featuring goofy team challenges), a Thursday evening cookout followed by improv theater, and a Friday night closing banquet where the week’s highlights are relived in photos and video.

“This camp is for people who want to sample everything from salsa dancing to badminton,” explains Angiolillo, who notes that, personally, he tends to avoid any physical activity that isn’t fun. “Yesterday, I did something called Qi Gong, which I had never even heard of before. I’ve never played Pickleball before. I’ve never been on a paddleboard before. I’ve always wanted to do it, I’ve seen people do it, but I’ve never had an opportunity before.”

Beyond the appeal of the activities, campers cite the draw of the Pioneer Valley, noting what Deb Banton calls its “special charms.” The hiking trails, bike paths, college campuses, and local scenery combine to make a visit to the area feel like what the camp’s name implies: an escape. “It feels like country,” says Morgan. “That’s what I love about having camp here.”

For Boyko, the valley’s many resources allow the camp to offer its wide-range of outings and activities, which in turn provide the variety that can lead campers to perhaps discover a new passion. “This kind of camp can’t be just anywhere,” he says. “To have the bike paths, the nature that we have, all the hikes — long and short, hard and easy — is special.” The Amherst College facilities play a key role as well, which is why the camp is offered in early June. “We need the whole campus to offer all that variety — the pool, tennis courts, fitness center,” he says. “That’s why we have to do it earlier before all the other camps show up at Amherst, and it gets too crowded.”

Boyko hopes the combination of top-level instruction, diverse offerings, and a spectacular setting can begin to draw new day campers from the area. “This isn’t meant to be just an older person’s camp,” he insists. “We’ve had daughters that have come and had just as good a time as their mothers. Maybe you just take a half day on a Tuesday or Thursday and do some activities.” And once you do, he says, you’ll see why so many others keep coming back year after year.

“It’s really infectious,” he says, “and you’ll fall in love with these people.”

The former editor of FamilyFun, Jonathan Adolph of Amherst is a gardener, canner and author of “Mason Jar Science” (Storey Publishing).




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