Looking back at my own summer camp adventures when I was a child, I remember swimming in chilly lakes, piggyback rides from camp counselors, playing red rover, painting pine cones and long lines at the canteen.

Beyond the scraped knees and smell of sunscreen, I wouldn’t change a thing, although I wish Julia Clukey’s Camp for Girls had been around when I was younger.

Located on Maranacook Lake, the camp, led by Olympian Julia Clukey of Augusta and the Kennebec Valley YMCA staff, is designed to build self-confidence, meaningful friendships and a healthy lifestyle.

After just the first two days taking photos at camp, I noticed the impact Clukey was having on the girls. I watched as a circle of girls congregated at the bottom of a rock wall to cheer on their fellow camper Jordan, 10, who set a personal goal to reach the top at least once.

In the group of cheering girls was Sophie, also 10, who told me, “I love cheering. It makes me happy and others happy, too.”

With encouragement from the group of girls below, and a few trial-and-error attempts, Jordan reached the top. “This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” she said while flexing her fingers to rid herself of any cramps. Her display of perseverance won her a high-five from Clukey.

Jordan and Sophie are proof that this camp is not only a place to challenge yourself physically through traditional camp activities, but also to step back and unlock your own worth and see the worth of those around you.

I can only imagine how invaluable this two-fold mission will be when the girls find themselves maneuvering through the tricky landscape of middle school and high school, a time where toxic friendships flourish and self-esteem tends to plummets.

During one particular “Julia Time,” when the girls get to spend quality time with Clukey, the campers created “goal ladders,” where they had to identify a goal and outline the steps they would need to take to achieve it. After sketching on large sheets of papers, a few girls sheepishly agreed to share their goals. One wanted to be on Broadway, another to compete in high-level horseback riding shows.

One girl stood up to share that she wanted to be a better rower — to which Clukey responded, “You’re still into rowing? You talked about that last year. That’s great.” The girl was impressed that Clukey had remembered her from last year.

When I sat down for lunch with a group of girls, I asked what they thought about Clukey. One girl, who was much more reserved than the rest, piped in to say, “She doesn’t care what you look like, she cares about the inside.” As she took another bite of her peanut butter and jelly sandwich, the girl concluded, “She’s a good friend.”

At age 19, my days at summer camp are long over, but I now seek opportunities in the “real world.” Like the experiences I saw at Clukey’s camp and during my current summer internship, I have learned a lot and challenged myself. Just like Jordan, we are all climbing our own rock wall, not sure if our next step is in the right direction or how long it will take to reach the top.

The two weeks capturing camp in photographs was a helpful reminder that we have to remember that success comes from trusting our journey, working hard and occasionally falling back on those who support us, the people who are cheering from the bottom of the wall waiting to give us high-fives.

And just as I’m challenged and acquiring new knowledge at my internship by learning photography and videography skills and business strategies, these girls are challenged and are acquiring knowledge about self-esteem and confidence building, qualities that are invaluable in a world that has a bad habit of underappreciating women.

By the time I visited on the last day, the once-clean, pink shirts that the campers wore were now filled with signatures, small messages and tiny hearts placed there by fellow campers.

Spending time taking photos at Clukey’s camp over the two weeks was inspiring for me, but clearly even more inspiring for the campers who now have their lives in front of them and an Olympian in their corner.

Erin Rodrigue, of Winthrop, is an intern at Nancy Marshall Communications in Augusta and will be a junior this fall at Loyola University in Maryland.

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