Camp Ondessonk Opens a ‘Hammock Village’

Camp Ondessonk dedicated The Wolf Lounge June 3, in an area near the covered bridge that marks the entrance to camp when you arrive on Sunday afternoon. It’s the gateway to a week or more of adventure, of meeting new friends and reuniting with old, where the mystic of Ondessonk begins.

The covered bridge also marks the campers’ return to their families, not much older after a week at camp but probably wiser in ways they never imagined.

The Wolf Lounge gives campers a place to gather, to pull a hammock out of a chest, hang it up, climb in and hang out. It’s a hammock village, according to camp director, Dan King.

While visions of hammocks conjures some kind of retirement home or activity, The Wolf Lounge was created, designed and built by members of the Peoria, Ill., council to remember their friend and fellow lodge member, Devin Little.

He died by suicide April 19, 2016 at the age of 14 at his home in Metamora, Ill., near Peoria. If that was all you knew of Devin, that would cause you great sadness and an outpouring of grief for his family, but there was much more to Devin than what he did the last day of his life.

According to his friends and fellow lodge members at Camp Ondessonk, Devin was filled with energy and joy, filled with the wonder of being part of Camp Ondessonk and was thrilled to be inducted into the Lodge of Ondessonk in 2015.
That was his third, and proved to be, his final year at Camp.

What happened to Devin and why he died by suicide remains a tragedy of epic proportions for his family and his friends, but how his camp friends wanted to remember him made everyone realize Devin was much more than the last thing he did.

His mother, Heather, described him as outgoing with many friends. “He loved camp,” she said. Camp was “a good place to go; it is faith based.”

The Peoria Council, which has both Lodge of Ondessonk and Lodge of Tekakwitha for girls, remains active in their area during the winter, hosting fund raisers and participating in service projects as Council members.

As they stood in line at Devin’s wake, devastated by his loss, they wanted to do something. This project, the hammock village, gave them a chance to remember everything good and vibrant about Devin, and it also gave them a way to process their grief.

“I was blown away” by their idea to build this, Heather said. “I was so impressed because they were 14, 15 and 16 years old.”
What they did was design a project, research the cost and put together a business plan to move their thought off the drawing board and onto the grounds at Camp.

Devin’s loss was “devastating,” Dan King, Camp director, said. “The movement came from them to do something to address their sorrow and do something in his memory.”

However, Heather, said, “we built the hammock village with Devin in our hearts, but we didn’t build it for him.”
When Peoria Lodge members sought King’s advice, he thought of the hammocks campers brought with them and how they used them to relax and to spend time talking with their friends.

This new space, this hammock village would “create a place where kids can hang out,” King said. He had heard about using hammocks in other camping circles, he said.

The young people liked the idea and drew up the proposal. “They started raising money and raised more than was needed.”
The additional funds have been used to replace equipment at Camp that was worn out.

In their proposal, the Council described the members’ vision: “To come together as a Tribe to build a fun, engaging space which allows us to perpetuate Devin’s spirit and energy at Camp. Devin loved spending time with his friends in a hammock at Camp. We hope to provide a space for others to share that joy for years to come.”

Many people gathered to construct the village, including Devin’s family and members of the Peoria Council. It served as a backdrop for the 2017 Lodge reunion where Heather spoke about Devin and about teen suicide.

Devin had attended the Lodge reunion in 2016 and died two days after he returned home. Heather said Devin did not display the signs of someone thinking about ending his life, except that young people considering it were mostly male.
“Devin was a great kid,” Heather said, “who made a bad choice.”

One of the Peoria Lodge members who worked closely on the project was Isabelle Linn. “We wanted something good to come out of this tragedy.”

Linn, at Camp this summer and one of the main architects of the proposal, said seeing campers using The Wolf Lounge “makes my heart smile. It’s a place for them to hang out.”

Lathan Bower, also a member of the Peoria Lodge said he wanted to help build the Lounge, and the discussion Heather had at the reunion “opened my eyes about the subject” of teen suicide.

Katie McKee, who worked on the project, described Devin as one of her best friends. His death “shook me to my core,” she said. “He was a wonderful person.”

Looking at the hammocks as she walks through the camp, Katie said she feels “joy,” but she is quick to add, “the rule is to talk. I wonder how many kids are there that need to talk. I feel happy he’s remembered by people who knew him, but I’m sad he is gone.”

Campers enjoying the hammocks are pleased to have a place literally “to hang out.” They might not know each other when they string up their hammock, but they will probably know a little more about another person when their siesta ends. What do they think of the hammocks and The Wolf Lounge? “It’s a good place to hang out,” they said. (See photo. It seems like a good place to snack on ice cream too.)

When Tony Vrooman, marketing director at Camp, watches the young people who are now Counselors in Training — CITs — or other young adult staff members, he sees dedicated, faith-filled young people interacting and working together to make sure campers have a wonderful adventure at Camp.

“People are critical of youth, talk about their technology,” and how much screen time they have. But they aren’t glued to their phones or other screens at Camp Ondessonk. They’re talking to each other, looking for ways to make the camp experience good for young campers, taking the time to see if someone needs a hand. “These are moments of glory, with young people stepping up.”

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