The Lodge family started the Golden Eagle Summer Sports Camp 39 years ago as an all-day program located at Los Altos High School for kids ages 5-13. The play-based camp, which lets campers try out many sports rather than specializing in any one area, has also opened a location at Homestead High School.
Carly and Stefaan Lodge, a married couple who are the second generation to run the camp, form each group of approximately a dozen kids based on age, paired with a counselor and a junior counselor. Some kids come for a week, others for most of the summer. Veterans learn the routine and adopt Golden Eagle traditions, including a semi-mythical record book for legendary camper feats. For the Lodges, it’s a perk of the camp that it doesn’t tailor itself to ultimately winning your kid a college athletic scholarship – it’s a purely play-based opportunity for children to come home exhausted at the end of the day.
“That isn’t necessarily a value shared by all parents in our community,” Carly said wryly.
She sometimes asked herself if Golden Eagle should pivot to something more academic, adding a STEM approach.
“There’s a lot of that that parents are wanting, but I also think (kids) spend all year doing it,” Carly said.
In 1984, when Stefaan’s parents first dreamed up the camp, expectations were more straightforward – camp was a safe, sporty place for children to play together while school was out of session. His dad, Nelson, had experience from coaching soccer at Stanford University, and his mom, Monica, was a physical education teacher at Los Altos High (she went on to become athletic director during her more than 40-year career in the district). Stefaan has continued several aspects of the family tradition – he’s now a teacher who has coached at Los Altos High.
The entire family got put to work growing up – Stefaan remembers addressing and stamping registration forms with his brother and older sister on goldenrod-colored legal-size paper. His mother ran the behind-the-scenes logistics while his father established game-play and the much-anticipated Friday tournaments. Stefaan had stepped into a coaching role himself after graduating from college when he met Carly. He said the camp was such a huge part of his life that she came down the Peninsula from where she lived in San Francisco to see what it was about.
According to Carly, she had only known Stefaan for two months when she started observing him taking care of campers, and his affect with the children sealed the deal.
“I was, like, ‘I’m going to marry that man.’ The story got told at our wedding,” Carly said.
Family stays the same, but the world changes
Carly entered the world of camp as a 20-something after meeting Stefaan and the Lodge family. Now that she is herself a mother of three kids who attend Los Altos schools, she admitted that “there is so much I get now that I didn’t get before – needing flexible cancellation, asking all these questions about our swim program; I’m a parent now and I get it.”
She reminisces about the days of permission-slip-free sleepover camp from her own childhood. In the modern era, camps run less on the handshake deal and more on emergency contacts, doctors’ notes and sign-outs with ID in hand. Prior to the pandemic, the camp offered swimming every summer, and, as of 2022, they weren’t sure if or when it would make a comeback, Carly said, acknowledging the increase in parental concern that she herself understands.
Stefaan recalled that some of the standard fare from the old days sounds almost outlandish in the context of 2023 parenting – 12-ounce bottles of Coca-Cola as prizes during the indoor soccer “Coke Games,” full-sized bags of Skittles and M&Ms, 5-gallon jugs of Kool-Aid. Parents have put an end to all that, though Stefaan sounded downright wistful about the lost art of mixing flavor packets, 50-pound bags of ice with water and sugar for a single, Friday Kool-Aid treat during the drink’s waning days: “I will say, my Kool-Aid was amazing. I didn’t put that much sugar in it. I had a whole system.”
“Things have changed generationally since we were kids. It used to just be about having fun in the summers, but I feel like with sports, the pressure has gotten so immense that if you don’t start your kids with sports when they’re 4 or 5 years old, it feels impossible to do it,” Carly observed. “I don’t like that – I want kids to be kids, and I don’t think they know at 4 or 5 what sport they want to specialize in. Our camp is about being active, experimenting with a bunch of different things and making up games.”
That doesn’t mean sports have to become an either/or commitment for students. Stefaan remembered checking in with a club soccer player who brought a friend to Golden Eagle for a break from very demanding training.
“The whole design and structure is for play and fun,” Stefaan said of the camp’s stations that rotate through athletic activities with minimal direct instruction.
They’ve found that 40-minute sessions hit the sweet spot for exposing campers to as many different sports as possible.
“Even in the lineup, you are sitting in line chatting with your friends – that’s where the friendships would be made,” he said. “I had friends made there in camp who went to different schools as we grew up, and we still hung out afterwards.”
Sports at Golden Eagle don’t always look like conventional basketball or soccer. Campers invented paper airplane dodgeball during arts and crafts – they get enough structure to have support, but enough choice to engage with what rings their bell on a given day. Because the camp cycles through seven periods each day, choice is paramount.
Nostalgia for the games of a bygone past doesn’t preclude updates that reflect Golden Eagle’s values in a changing world. The camp has long since retired the game once known as “cowboys and Indians,” not just because the name was disrespectful, but also because the game itself involved kids pulling each other back and forth across a gym. But large-group mayhem in the gym still proves a major highlight for the camp’s older grades, who play capture the flag, suped-up dodgeball and a legendary camp specialty known as Norwegian kickball, played with a slightly deflated volleyball.
“Indoor soccer is a mainstay that takes up the gym for the first three periods of the day, and badminton is a huge draw – it’s kind of weird how much,” Stefaan said. “It’s hard to find a good wrestling coach, but we have wrestling.”
Older kids might do free-form arts and crafts such as lanyards and friendship bracelets, while younger campers work on paper-bag puppets and paper-plate masks. New last year was a gaga-ball pit Stefaan built after fielding incessant requests from campers who’d been playing it during the school year at places like Almond School, where you’ll spot a pit installed on the blacktop. An Israeli camp counselor had briefed the mystified camp leadership on the gaga phenomenon a few years ago, and eventually Golden Eagle was sold on its merits as a safer version of dodgeball (players in the gaga pit propel a ball into each other’s feet, keeping the action low to the ground). The name means “touch-touch” in Hebrew. Stefaan said he’s learned to play, but he suspects his middle-school-aged campers would blow him out of the water at this point.
Stefaan said they still treasure “goofy” traditions like the Friday scavenger hunt – during a session last July, the kids had to search Los Altos High’s gym for a hidden dime, discovered at the center of the eagle’s eye in the middle of a floor’s expanse. He presides as theatrical judge as each team’s counselor presents their scavenger hunt findings, interrogating them to the amusement of campers as they make a case for why objects meet the remit.
The business of camp
Carly said they view Golden Eagle as “mission driven” to make the camp accessible to any and every child in the region. They closed for two years during the worst of the COVID pandemic, and since reopening have been experimenting with “creative marketing solutions” that lean on Carly’s skills (she has a day job outside of athletics in design) to help rebuild their numbers. They’ve tried auctioning off a “free camp for life” prize in exchange for friends and family referrals. They’ve tried flash sale discounts. Despite some of the legendary Bay Area stories about camp sessions that book up within minutes of enrollment opening in January, many others are still working to confirm access to their borrowed summer spaces and will continue to enroll students through spring and into early summer.
“We don’t get confirmation from the school about our facilities rental until February or March, so we have to make a gamble that, ‘OK, we’re going to open,’” Carly said.
That means Golden Eagle opens enrollment later than some camps that book out in January – and interested families have to save the space on their calendars, trusting that Golden Eagle will indeed enroll again for year 39.
Last year, camp recruitment looked like Stefaan, dressed in an eagle costume, walking around local parks with Carly handing out Otter Pops and Golden Eagle camp postcards. If you spot him traversing Cuesta Park one day this spring, you’ll know to say hello. They donate to school auctions and experiment with referral discounts and PTA-benefit promo codes.
The sports camp rents out all of Los Altos High, meaning it has expansively flexible capacity and has historically always had room for a few last-minute campers, giving Carly unusual opportunities to experiment with enrollment drivers like last-minute flash sales. She said they are increasingly concerned about how to remain profitable in an era when they pay hourly for every individual space at the high school, while also meeting their focus on inclusivity.
“All the camps are upwards of $500 a week, and that is not accessible to families that don’t make tech incomes,” Carly said of what she observes in the local market. “We have an unspoken agreement that we don’t turn people down. We have an application and ask for proof of income, and I will pro-rate. (In 2022) I didn’t get many people asking for scholarships, but I would like to get the word out.”
To sign up for Golden Eagle’s mailing list and for more information, visit goldeneaglecamp.org.