In 2006, my family split up. Like our marriage, my husband and I headed in opposite directions. He moved from New Jersey nearly 2,000 miles away to study painting in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
After selling our house and most of our belongings, I packed up what was left and enrolled our son in a small nursery school in Florida. Except for a few moms at the school, I had no support system.
I felt uprooted, overwhelmed, and often lonely, but invested my energy in making sure my son felt safe and stable. Trying to start a new life, I rented a house, but didn’t feel like I had a home. Not my best move.
I was trying to fill the gaping hole in me that missed my family in New England and craved community. I became the class mom, purchased a home, and filled it with school friends for sleepovers, swimming parties, and holiday celebrations. While I had worked hard to set up a beautiful life for my child, I still felt like something was missing for me.
A Chance Meeting
A few summers later, I arrived at the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York—one of my favorite places of learning and renewal—to attend a Mindfulness in Education Conference. In the café, I was surprised to see two elementary-school-age brothers. They were both crying.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“Family Week is over,” the older boy said.
Their mother put her arms around them. “This happens every year. It’s our favorite week of the summer and it’s hard to leave.”
I asked, “What do you do during Family Week?”
The younger boy said, “We’re Little Forest People. We get to play in the woods and swim in the lake.”
The mother added, “Their 10-year-old sister is in the sports camp and my teenage son is—”
“He’s in Wayfinder!” Both boys lit up.
“What’s Wayfinder?” I asked.
The mother pulled an information sheet out of her knapsack and handed it to me.
“The kids wait every year until they’re old enough for the popular Wayfinder Experience,” she said. “I don’t know how to explain the teen game, but it’s helped my oldest son gain confidence in himself.”
I watched the little boys hug their fellow campers as they walked to their cars and read the paper. “The core of the Wayfinder program is teaching teens the value of playfulness, creativity, communication, and the ability to say ‘Yes!’ to life…throughout the camp, we train the teens to deal with the underlying themes of the game: life and death, healing, fair play…and transformation…the teens who have been coming for many years have learned valuable life lessons through the Wayfinder process that help them every day.”
I had loved Omega for decades and was excited to learn about Family Week and share it with my son. I made the decision then and there to sign us up for the following summer—not fully understanding the impact it would have on both of our lives.
In 1984, when Omega’s cofounder Elizabeth Lesser had two small children of her own, she, too, longed for community—so she created her own. Forty years later, her grandchildren and thousands of other families are reaping the fruit of her labor of love. For me, Family Week has helped me reclaim myself and offered a way to capture the spirit of family and home.
Our First Year
I remember our first year. Part of me worried that I would feel the sting of being a single mom without a supportive partner. Instead, I found the veteran families, faculty, and staff at Omega focused on the idea that our connection to people is our most important need—and our purpose.
The Family Week program cut through the distractions, the mountainous to-do lists, and the overwhelming anxiety that seem to permeate our very existence. In lieu of my day-to-day juggling act, I opened myself up to meaningful conversations with other struggling parents who, without judgment, offered me honest friendship, assurance that I’m not alone, and a week where I truly got to be a part of the proverbial village we all crave.
Family Week is that village. During shared meals at outdoor picnic tables and enjoying ice cream at the café, participants feel at home right away.
Whether we’ve come to Family Week every summer or it’s our first time, we watch each other’s kids go through not only challenges, but also emotional growth and triumphs. We get to live from the core of ourselves and what really matters. It involves a lot of laughing, playing, singing, communication, connection, and belonging.
That first year, I wanted everything to go well, but my son was shy and kept close during meals and evening activities. When we weren’t in our respective camps, we hula hooped, shot basketballs on the court in front of the dining hall, and went to the lake together. We talked late into the night about new friends and funny things that happened.
Experienced parents told me, “Just wait. He’ll be off on his own in no time.” They were right. I do miss hooping in the evenings together, but the satisfaction of seeing my son with a group of friends with their arms around each other walking up the path for lunch, and ascending the stairs to the dining hall in a connected human chain is worth everything.
The kids are immersed for the day in their camps, but there’s still plenty of opportunities to gather for family time. Omega offers a unique structure where children can eat meals with their parents (or with their peers) and come together again in the evenings for campfires, entertainment, and a musical showcase. The teens have a dance on the final evening.
For The Parents
Family Week offers extraordinary adventures not only for the kids, but also for the parents. When the world around us feels like one big complaint and competition, the grownups attracted to Family Week seem to be the lift-you-up-type.
Every year, the options for parents range from the arts—singing, dance, yoga, woodworking—to sports such as running and tennis. Joe Killian is a beloved teacher who offers the Joy of Play to help us “older kids” balance the responsibilities of being an adult.
I usually join the group of parents that love to write—some are professional writers, others just like to dabble in it. We get the top teachers in the field—Cheryl Strayed, Dani Shapiro, Maia Danziger, and Nancy Slonim Aronie. It doesn’t get better than that. There’s no judgment and no strict attendance. You can spend the week reading in a hammock by the lake or catching up on sleep if you want. No matter what you pick, we all learn ways to relax and have a family vacation with memories that will last a lifetime.
A Cherished Tradition
This tradition is my most cherished week of our entire summer. As we drive the familiar roads that lead to Omega, my son and I anticipate hearing Joe Killian’s jokes about the multiple types of milk in the dining hall and his playful welcome games. We guess who we will see first and who will be in the cabins or tents next to ours.
I know I’ll meet up with parents who root for each other, our kids, and our planet. I can count on friends who remember I have a bum ankle, that my mom received cancer treatment, or a work project that’s important to me. I welcome a week where we can return to what really matters—watching our kids enjoy the beautiful campus, fresh air, and friendships, without obsessively checking their phones.
In the arms of this community, both my son and I grow into the best versions of ourselves.
My son is now 17 and driving. When I ask him if he wants to play cards, he often can’t because he’s on his way to practice. Does he want to take a walk with me? “Nah.” When I ask him to join me for a movie, I get the same answer. “No thanks.” But when we talk about going to Family Week again and reminisce about our happy memories, I know we’ll get that precious time together, and I feel the reverberation of that one week echoing through the rest of the year.
Parenting, like life, is just one step at a time. That first step was signing up for Omega Family Week—and that was my best move.
© 2019 Omega Institute for Holistic Studies