June 26, 2012
By Katie Larsen
Eileen Little, Vasa Camp dance instructor (background left, in sunglasses) leads a group of young people in one of their activities. Contributed
More than 50 years ago, a tradition began in a park on Lake Sammamish. Today, Vasa Camp continues to offer lessons in Scandinavian culture to youth.
The camp started in the 1960s at the hands of Evelyn Nelson Norelius and May Johnson Bryan, both daughters of Swedish immigrants.
“They wanted the next generations to maintain some sort of connection with the Scandinavian heritage so it wouldn’t be lost,” Norelius said.
Along with Ginger Cox Grette and Cindy Bryan Stedman, Issaquah High School graduates like Norelius, the women continue the tradition of their ancestors. Like many other campers, Norelius and Stedman started as campers and then became counselors. Their children did too.
Grette met Norelius training on the U.S. rowing team together and her mom offered her a job at the camp. This year, Grette is registrar and treasurer. Grette’s husband Dan plays the accordion, is one-third Swedish and is part of a Scandinavian polka band. Her son Arne has gone to the camp for the past couple of years and also participates in Scandinavian dancing with the Vasa Youth Dancers.
The instructor is the same for the camp. Arne said he likes being on Lake Sammamish and swimming every day as part of the camp. He said people who enjoy doing activities should come.
“It’s really neat in this day and age for traditional things like this to keep going,” Grette said. “They cherish the family traditions but want to pass on the values that have mattered to the community for years.”
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Stedman was the director of the camp for eight years and said it was time for her to step down and let Norelius take over. Stedman is currently the chairman of Skogsblomman Lodge in Preston, which owns Vasa Park. Kris Norelius, Evelyn’s daughter, is now co-director for the camp.
“My personal feeling about maintaining a connection with heritages is that it helps us understand ourselves a little bit more and feel some sense of being part of something bigger,” Norelius said. “Psychologically, I think it’s something that gives us strength.”
The children’s summer camp runs daily from July 30 through Aug. 3 in Vasa Park. The four main activities include Swedish language lessons, dancing, arts and crafts, and drama. There is also swimming and games in the afternoons.
This year, Norelius has helped plan the camp, recruited campers and hired the instructors.
“Our diverse staff does a great job connecting with campers,” Norelius said. “We believe there is great value in learning about other cultures than our own.”
Vasa Park itself is tied to Scandinavian heritage because immigrants purchased the land and made buildings resembling those found in Sweden, using red and white traditional structures. Norelius remembers from her childhood that the stugas (Swedish for cabins) were then rented out.
The day before her mother died, Evelyn was told that one of the stugas would be dedicated to her. Remodeled and refurbished with hardwood floors, Swedish knick-knacks, Swedish furniture and photographs decorate the stuga in ode to Evelyn. There is also a plaque in Vasa Park that tells the story of the immigration of the Norelius family.
The mission statement created by the founders of the camp states: “To develop and maintain an understanding and appreciation of Scandinavian heritage by providing a culturally rich camp experience for youth.” This was the vision of the two original founders and their priority, Norelius said.
“They felt like in order for the next generations to remember their heritage, it was important to really create an opportunity to maintain the understanding of the heritage by experience,” Norelius said. “In this case, the camp is the experience.”
“It’s just a great opportunity for children who aren’t Scandinavian to participate in another culture,” Grette said. “It’s a great way for kids to interact.”
At the end of the camp, a potluck picnic is thrown where the campers show parents the knowledge learned through the activities. Stedman said she still has friends that she met at the camp.
“Children from very diverse backgrounds attend Vasa Camp because it is fun,” Norelius said. “Campers are an ethnic and ancestral mix that enjoy learning a bit of Swedish.”