The 8-year-old boy reached the top of the Banner Day Camp climbing wall and rang the wall’s bell a few summers ago. His reaction, 24 feet above a crowd of elated, raucous, teardrop-soaked onlookers in Lake Forest? A delightful combination of excitement, pride, relief, and relentless joy.
Some had to look away. The boy’s smile was that bright.
“He had never made it to the top, until that day, and his parents were there to see it,” Stacy Schwartz Kotelov, Banner Day Camp’s owner and co-executive director, says of the triumphant moment. “He was so nervous. A counselor encouraged him, assured him that he could do it as long as he put his mind to it. As he climbed, the crowd cheered. His parents cried. Others cried. You should have heard the cheers as he neared the top of the wall.
They got louder and louder.
“That’s what Banner Day Camp is all about,” Kotelov adds.
In this year of COVID-19, chances of staging Banner Day Camp—founded in 1965, by Kotelov’s parents, Allen and Helen Schwartz—this summer were looking more and more unlikely. That was the prevailing dread for most of the spring. But the enduringly positive Kotelov and her tireless, resourceful Leadership Team found a way to responsibly welcome campers of all ages from June 29 to August 7.
“It seemed impossible, for quite a while,” says Kotelov, a Wilmette native and a Highland Park resident since 1991. “Parents kept calling us, wondering if we’d open after hearing a lot of overnight camps had been canceled. People were begging us to open. We made the decision to go for it in early June and then had much to do in a short period of time. Our maintenance people did amazing work, getting our grounds ready. It got to the point where preparing for the campers was like walking across a tightrope daily.
“But it turned out to be a truly spectacular camp, with zero cases of COVID-19 transmission,” she adds. “Our pods were 50 people: 40 campers, 10 staff members. Essentially every aspect of the camp had to be modified because of the pandemic. Kids got to play outdoors and feel normal again—interact, laugh, take safe risks, grow, and enjoy everything else about the Banner Day Camp experience.”
That Banner experience is a wide-ranging one at its 55-acre site. There’s the fun, of course, a camper’s Must Have. Also, in no particular order: opportunities to compete in sports; swim in pools; conquer adventures (climbing walls, zip lines and go-kart courses, to name a few); create art and perform art; and develop sportsmanship, teamwork, kindness, resiliency, and compassion all in a loving, secure atmosphere.
Allen Schwartz was 24 when he turned his Saturday Camp into his family’s Banner Day Camp years ago 55 years ago.
“My dad is creative and idea-driven, with a ton of energy and perseverance, and my mom is smart, with excellent business sense,” says Kotelov, who gripped the reins of the premier North Shore summer camp in 2013, when her parents retired. “They formed a great team and had a wonderful vision. You’re not going to find a person who has more stick-to-itiveness than my dad has. He grew up in camps and told me some of his best experiences in life happened at camps. Those memories inspired him to create camp experiences for children to help them develop strong self-esteem and confidence in a nurturing environment.”
Among Stacy’s early Banner Day Camp duties as a youngster was answering camp phone calls at home. Mom and Dad added responsibilities to her plate each year, to the point where she needed a flying-saucer-sized dish. She became a serial Banner Day Camp camper, followed by years as a camp counselor and any you-name-it camp title—even while attending Poway High School in S a n Diego for four years.
“I’d always head back home in the summer to help out at the camp,” says Kotelov, who earned a degree in child development and family relations at the University of Arizona, where she met her future husband, Paul, who’d serve as a Banner Day Camp staple for 20 years. “It’s a magical place, our camp, with absolutely magnificent facilities in a Northwoods-like setting. It’s empowering. It made a huge, positive impact on me in my youth. My confidence and self-esteem, my connections to adults, to children, to the world … all of that got stronger because of Banner Day Camp.”
Quick to laud her indispensible Leadership Team colleagues—including co-executive director Howard Thall, program director Niki Papak, and junior camp director Melanie Mann—Kotelov owns a leadership style ideally suited for a summer escape that captivates 3-year-olds and 9th graders and every camper in between. Kotelov is open, loving, inspiring. If you’re looking for someone who is part easygoing, part energetic, stop searching after interacting with Kotelov for a few minutes.
“I can be a little silly, too,” says the mother of Ari (25 years old), Eli (22), and Noah (19). “A facilitator working with us one year asked, ‘If you had to come up with the title of your autobiography, what would it be?’ Mine would be ‘Surprisingly Responsible.’ ”
Kotelov tells the Starfish Story to campers at the beginning of camp each summer. Perhaps you know the story.
Tens of thousands of starfish are stuck in sand, beached and helpless after a violent storm. Boy throws one ailing starfish after another into the ocean, rescuing scores of them. Man notices boy’s tosses and claims, “There are too many starfish on this beach. I’m afraid you won’t really be able to make much of a difference.”
Boy picks up another starfish and hurls it toward the watery haven. Smiling boy replies, “It made a difference to that one.”
The story’s sweet moral: A simple gesture can make all the difference in the world.
Which brings us back to our li’l Sir Edmund Hillary and his ascent to that climbing wall’s bell at Banner Day Camp. Maybe the 8-year-old without the aid of a Sherpa heard, “You can do it!” from a counselor or a camper or his parents.
Something as simple as that. Something that lifted a camper to the top of the world.
For more information about Banner Day Camp, 1225 Riverwoods Road in Lake Forest, call 847-295-4900 or visit bannerdaycamp.com.