By Suzanne McBride
Misty did lots of things this week at Camp Tecumseh for the very first time. She canoed down a river, she camped out in the woods, she ate a hobo dinner, and she walked in the rain.
Those are some of the same activities 14-year-old Kelli O’Laughlin loved doing during the six summers she was a camper first at River Village, then at Lake Village.
“It’s nice to have come here and had such a good experience,” said Misty, who stayed in Teton. “I’m sure that’s what Kelli would have wanted.”
Because of Kelli’s love of Camp Tecumseh, her parents John and Brenda O’Laughlin of Indian Head Park, Ill., decided to create a campership in their daughter’s honor after her death in October 2011.
The O’Laughlins selected 15-year-old Misty as the first recipient, and she attended Week 8.
Camp “was something that Kelli loved to do, and she made so many friends there,” said Brenda O’Laughlin.
“We thought it was really important to give someone an opportunity to go whose parents couldn’t exactly afford it at that moment, so (she) would have these friendships, too, and develop leadership.”
Several months ago after being selected for the campership, Misty and her family met with the O’Laughlins, and on her way to camp last Sunday, they called to wish her well.
“They told me to have fun and to take photos,” said Misty, who plans to call the O’Laughlins on her way back home to the Chicago area, not far from where Kelli lived.
Kelli’s older brothers and sister introduced her to Camp Tecumseh. Daniel, Ryan and Bridgette Douglas attended camp for several years starting in the 1990s.
“They all loved it,” said Brenda O’Laughlin. “She would hear the stories about it. . . . And once she got older, she had to go, too.”
“She came back with these very deep, rich relationships,” said John O’Laughlin.
It’s been those camp friends who’ve provided some of the most important support to the O’Laughlins the last 21 months.
“One of the things we noticed when we were going through our deep grief period, the people who were reaching out to us were the kids Kelli knew from camp,” her dad said.
What they did to commemorate Kelli – pictures, cards, getting on a bus to visit the O’Laughlins – left an impression. “They were just really good kids, and we really wanted to invest in that.”
The O’Laughlins tapped some of the more than $150,000 that’s been raised through the Kelli Joy O’Laughlin Memorial Fund. Each year, a camper will be chosen to attend during Week 8 in Kelli’s memory because her last year she attended that camp session.
Almost 500 children attended Camp Tecumseh this summer on a camp scholarship, available to low-income families who cannot afford the full fee themselves.
Project 441 is Camp Tecumseh’s annual goal to sponsor at least 441 camp experiences during the summer. Camper alumni and families along with other friends of camp have already kicked off this summer’s project by sponsoring about 225 campers.
The summer counselors themselves have pledged more than $5,000. Join them this summer by donating here.
“I’ve been blessed this summer to get to know many of the mentors and families who’ve received campership assistance,” said Ben Meyaard, director of camper support. “Kids get to have amazing experiences here at Tecumseh, and none can quite appreciate it as much as the campers here on a campership.”
Some families apply directly for financial assistantship and others are selected by mentors, like the O’Laughlins, who have a camp connection. Former staff members are also on the lookout for kids who would benefit from a camp experience, Meyaard said.
Misty is sad this will be her last year as a resident camper, but she hopes to return next summer to participate in the Camper in Leadership Training (CiLT) program – something that Kelli had wanted to do, too.
This summer, some of Kelli’s camp friends returned as CiLTs; it was the second summer at camp without their friend.
“We were all scared (last year) that we would get sad, especially during devotions,” said Katlyn Freeman, 16. But it ended up being a good summer.
“We need to be joyful at camp because she would be,” Katlyn said. “Kelli loved camp a lot” – and her many friends.
“Whenever I was feeling sad or having a bad day, she was happy and would just pick you up,” said Katlyn, who also attended Lyons Township High School in Western Springs with Kelli and played on the tennis team with her.
Emily Parkes, 16, also met Kelli at camp in 2011.
“I was a little nervous,” said Emily, who joined the Ojibwa cabin a week after Kelli and a few others had already been there. “But Kelli was so welcoming. She was so open to meeting us and making new friends.”
That’s the kind of leader Kelli was, says Mary Lang, who was Kelli’s counselor.
“She was definitely a camper who made sure everyone was included. . . . She was definitely one who went out of her way to make sure everyone was accepted.”
And Kelli was a jokester, Lang said.
She remembers Kelli telling a 20-minute joke as a way to prevent the girls from taking their showers. The long, winding story she told was so funny the entire cabin was laughing, then it ended with no punch line – and that was funny, too.
“She was always joking, always laughing.”
Returning to camp without Kelli in 2012 was tough, especially the final night of camp when the 15-year-old campers became Torchbearers in a special ceremony at closing campfire Friday night.
Kelli’s name was announced with the others, each of whom received a simple leather medallion and candle. Emily, Katlyn and some of her other camp friends later delivered Kelli’s medallion to the O’Laughlins.
The Camp Tecumseh spirit Kelli embodied lives on, her counselor and friends say.
“I think of her joy and happiness and how excited she was everything, and her positive attitude and energy that was so contagious,” Emily said.
“Camp is such a special place,” Lang said. “And it was to Kelli.”