Metro-East Living

Camp Ondessonk gives city kid a taste of another world

Kids give a “Heepwah” cheer at Camp Ondessonk located in the Shawnee National Forest in Southern Illinois
Kids give a “Heepwah” cheer at Camp Ondessonk located in the Shawnee National Forest in Southern Illinois

By my parent’s car, it was about a two-hour ride from my home in East St. Louis.

But for this city kid, it was a trip to another world of lakes, snakes, treehouses, campfires and horses.

It was summer camp.


Back to nature, for an East St. Louis kid who spent most of his time on a bike, or on a playground or sandlot. We were too busy playing ball to mess with nature. We picked locust shells off the tree. Killed mosquitoes. Caught a few toads in the bushes. Camped out in the backyard occasionally. Came inside when it was too hot. Or someone was too gassy.

In my childhood world, there was only one summer camp, Camp Ondessonk, located in the Shawnee National Forest in Southern Illinois.

One week most summers, we left our neighborhood and headed south to camp. Always went to camp with friends from grade school. You learned a lot about your friends while at camp. Good and bad. I was lucky. Most of mine were still friends a week later.

Camp was our first experience away from home, for a full week. I got a little homesick early in the week. Wednesday was hump day. But the rest of the week passed quickly.

Kids traveled to Camp Ondessonk from as far as Chicago, Bloomington and Evansville, Ind. That seemed so far away. But most of the campers were from the Catholic grade schools in the metro-east. Camp Ondessonk is owned by the Catholic Diocese of Belleville and has been offering summer camp experience since 1959, the same year I was born.

I was not a Boy Scout. So if it were not for Camp Ondessonk, I would have never slept in a cabin, treehouse or tent, or learned to wrap hamburgers, potatoes and carrots in aluminum foil and cooked a “hobo dinner” in a campfire.

At Camp O, there were no TVs, radios, baseballs or bicycles. But there were all the cool things we could never do at home, such as swimming in a lake, canoeing, archery, riflery, horseback riding and hiking. There was also an occasional snake or lizard, and plenty of insects and bugs.

What do I remember most about Camp Ondessonk?

There was a swinging bridge across the main lake. I’ve always had a fear of bridges. I wanted to crawl across that swinging bridge. Hands and knees. Literally. Hard to be cool when you are 10 years old and scared.

I was not very good at riflery or archery. Bad aim. Not sure I ever hit a target. I was better at games that included a ball.

I enjoyed horseback riding, but I was always a bit uncomfortable on the horses, especially when they started to wander. Seems like I always had the hungry horse. Always wanted to stop and eat some grass or hay or whatever else he could find along the trail.

We sang songs and gave cheers in the dining hall every dinner.

I liked the hikes to natural lakes and rock dwellings like “Fat Man’s Misery.” My heart always went out to the chubby kids because they were teased about not being able to fit through the tight squeeze between rocks.

The ghost stories told around the campfire at night spooked me. I heard Mr. X. in the woods late at night. Swear. The key to a good night’s sleep at camp was falling asleep first.

I wasn't the best camper, but I have fond childhood memories of Camp Ondessonk. As much as my world has changed, it’s refreshing that Camp Ondessonk is much the same today as it was when I was a kid.

There are weeklong summer camps for boys, girls and coed camps, ages 10 to 15. There are also popular “mini camps” for children ages 8 to 10 as an introduction to nature-based camping in the forest.

But Camp O today is more than a summer camp. It offers programs and facilities year round. During fall, winter and spring, there are outdoor educational programs available to schools and youth programs. Businesses can utilize conference and retreat facilities. Need some teamwork training?

There are challenge and high rope courses, and a variety of special interest weekends and open houses.

Tip Belz, of Belleville, is a member of the Camp Ondessonk Board of Directors. He went to camp as a kid. He has returned as a volunteer because of the values he experienced as a kid. He offers some advice to every adult who once went to Camp Ondessonk:

“There’s an opportunity to reconnect with your past through Camp Ondessonk,” he told me. “You can experience the same camp you went to as a kid with your own kids, or grandkids. That’s unique and special. Where else can you do that?”

Joe Werner, of Fairview Heights, also serves on the camp’s board. He went to camp as a kid. As an adult, he has been impressed with the spirit of volunteerism at Camp Ondessonk, past and present.

“You look at every building here at camp, old and new, and you know it was largely done by a team of volunteers coming together,” Werner said. “The spirit of volunteering is as strong at Camp Ondessonk as any organization I have been involved in. Anywhere.”

I haven’t been to Camp Ondessonk in about a decade, or since I dropped my daughter off there many years ago for her first summer camp experience.

I hope to return someday soon. Take a hike. Ride my bike nearby. Turn off my cell phone. Maybe check out Fat Man’s Misery. See if I can hit a target with an arrow. Cook a hobo dinner in a campfire.

Someday, I look forward to reliving a piece of my childhood where the only thing that has changed is myself. Or maybe not.

You can learn more about Camp Ondessonk at