This year, we celebrate our 60th anniversary on Old Forge Mountain. We have thousands of Camp Highlander alumni all over the world, many of whom have continued the Highlander tradition within their families. Each month, we’ll profile one family who has come to the mountain for generations and experienced the magic and long-lasting positive effects of camp.
This month, our spotlight family is the Lawsons. Dana Gross Lawson spent six years at CH as a camper, three years as a counselor in Cabin 1, and was even Brooke Harris’s nanny for a year! She has since carried on the Highlander tradition to her daughters, Jessica and Anna. You may also know Dana’s sister, Jen Gross Lara, who is one of our beloved Camp Moms. More about Jen in the coming months!
What has Camp Highlander meant to you? Why have you attended for so long?
Living and growing up in South Florida (Hollywood) was fine for nine months of the year, but to get to Camp Highlander for the summers was key to my own personal development. My husband says I am more passionate about my camp world than my college (Penn State) or my sorority (Chi-O).
CH is deeply rooted in my soul. I get dreamy when I think about it or talk about it. Every time I go back I get the butterfly pang in my stomach when I round Dalton Road, go over the bridge, by the farm, by the CH sign and up to Rec hall or land sports field. Drop-off and pick-up days are always bittersweet. I get nostalgic for my old days there, I get excited for my girls to get the camp experience, and I get sad that I have to leave. I am so envious of my sister, Jen Lara, being a camp mom! I always have a period of adjustment when I leave the mountain. I see this every year in both Jessica and Anna once their summer time on the mountain concludes.
What inspired you to send your kids to CH? How have you seen them grow from the camp experience?
We have lived in Maryland for more than 25 years. When it came time to push the idea of sleep-away camp to my husband for our oldest daughter Jess (who was eight at the time), he just couldn’t understand why I would never consider any other camp. He said, “There must be plenty of camps here, or even in Pennsylvania or Virginia. Why do you have to drive nine hours to go to Camp Highlander?”! I remember learning that Gaynell was still there (he was directing things at camp back when I first started going in 1978). To learn that he was still there was a no-brainer! Jess was going there, and, some day, Anna would, too (as well as my niece, Olive).
My daughters embrace the camp life. I love that they get to disconnect from the rest of the world and take a break from technology and social media. I see no better place than being at CH surrounded by natural beauty, friends and role-model staff. They love so many of the activities and opportunities. They adore so many of the counselors. They love getting to spend time in on-camp activities. The activity specialists, as well as other folks working on the mountain, care so greatly to enhance the camper experience. Jessica has taken a liking to kayaking with a huge accomplishment when she first learned to roll a few years back. Jess got the opportunity to kayak during Color War competitions (once she even contributed to the win on Mountain relay). Jessica loves to visit Mrs. K in the dining hall. Anna loves socializing with her friends, hanging with her cabin, cooking and getting ready for EP.
What are your favorite memories of camp as a camper and as a staff member?
My mind races to so many places on the mountain and around Asheville. My first memory is the dread I initially felt when my mom sent my sister, Jen, and me off to camp. By day 4 of Session A, we were begging the office to call home to ask if we could stay another session. By the time Session A concluded, our mom came to visit as she just had to check on us. We got to take her all around and she attended activities with us (she always enjoyed tubing!). By the time she left, we were enrolled all the way through for the summer (our Session A became A-B-and-C!!!) As a camper, I so enjoyed all the evening programs- especially the Friday night dance. At the time, specific cabins got to pick the theme and decorate. Toga and 50’s were always so popular. Nothing compared to a good square dance though!
It was always fun to go on our weekly overnight, or rafting down the river, or to the Farmers Market in Hendersonville. For some reason, I really liked the honey with real honeycomb pieces in it and dried flowers from there (gone are those days!). Or maybe it was more that we got to walk over to McFarlan’s Bakery and get a special pastry (and I always brought a bear claw back to my sister at camp). The highlight of the bakery trip though was clearly standing in line at the one pay phone at like 8:00 a.m., where we all learned how to place a collect call to our parents. We thought it was so cool to call home, even though we could barely speak a few minutes since everyone was waiting their turn.
A side note: Color War runs deep in the family. It was total relief when both Jessica and Anna assigned to the Red Devil Team. This past summer, my niece Olive experienced her first Color War. And let me tell you- thank goodness- she is a Red Devil. Such relief- our own lil society in the family!
As a counselor, I love that I pushed myself out of my own comfort zone to ensure my campers tried new things. It was great to be in Cabin 1 on so many levels. We got to play such special roles as staff mentoring the young ladies. Plus, we got to instill in the girls oldest cabin that they, too, were role models for all of girls camp. We prided ourselves to take on the big trips, challenges, and big hikes. Overnights were such a staple back then. My co-staff and I were always about finding the best place to camp, whether it was Graveyard Fields, Turkey Pen, or somewhere near the Appalachian Trail.
The counselor friendships were just as meaningful as camper ones all those previous years. I always loved a good day off- straight to the laundromat (for some reason fun to do with peers), shopping for simple staples and catching a movie. It was always great to return to camp refreshed and ready to go!
How have you seen camp evolve through the years?
I have seen great improvements while still maintaining the beauty of this special place. While it’s cool to see new activity areas and a pool, it’s great to see some things never change (at least not much). I have such fond memories of time at the lake, wilderness, horse ring and countless events in the gym. I love the Reflect at the Rock space that they carved into the landscape. I love that a bell still rings. I love seeing Mr. Harris, Big Dave, Gaynell and Leon are still there. I love that campfire still takes place and the old songs remain unchanged. It does my heart good on our almost nine hour drive to North Carolina each summer to listen to camp tunes with my girls. I think it is amazing that Karl and Shelley were able to see such a special place and continue to make it better summer after summer. What they have done, along with special people like Melissa and Gaynell, is stellar. There truly is no better place on earth in my book!
I am grateful to a place that shaped me. I am thankful the CH team does such a magical job to care so deeply for the campers. I know my girls are going to be affected for the rest of their lives having spent time here. While I still get jealous every time I have to drop them off (or when Jen tells me “Guess who got asked back to be a camp mom?”), I did attend the camp reunion last year. It was great to be with so many to celebrate the CH life (not to mention I did get to sleep in a counselor bed in Cabin 1- of course!) As Highlander approaches their 60th-year big Alumni Reunion, I hope to clear my schedule to attend. Even as a grown-up, I still get giddy just thinking about returning.
Did you attend Camp Highlander as a camper or work as staff and now you send your kids to CH? Tell us your story! Email CH alum, Julia Ade, at today, and you could be our next Highlander Family Spotlight!