Travel Stories

Phil Lilienthal

         Phil Lilienthal is an exemplary leader, perhaps an heroic person, maybe even a saint, by virtue of the lifelong, steadfast, dedicated, and visionary path he has walked and blazed in the world of youth camping, a path he has traveled with the clear notion that camping can and does make a meaningful difference in the lives of those who have the good fortune to experience its many transformative and growth inducing benefits.  This more than anything else is what compels him, the possibility of making a meaningful difference in the lives of young people, and thereby, perhaps, to make a meaningful difference in the very history of our species on the planet.
         Phil is a man who has spent his entire life in the camping world.  The son of the owner/director of the renowned all boys Camp Winnebago in Maine, Phil established the first overnight summer camps in Africa, in Ethiopia, along with Lynn, his wife of now nearly fifty years, as a Peace Corp volunteer in the 1960s.  He then took over Camp Winnebego upon the untimely death of his father and ran it for thirty-nine years before turning it over to his own son, born in Ethiopia, who now serves as Winnebego’s owner/director.  There are few who understand camping, the ebb and flow of camp life, the rhythm of the camping seasons and sessions, and the needs of a camp, its counselors, and its campers as comprehensively as such a lifelong devotee does.
         I really know Phil only through the world and work of Camp Sizanani, in South Africa, and after two weeks in his company at Sizanani I am convinced Sizanani does make a meaningful difference in the lives of those it serves and I am immensely impressed by what Phil has helped to create, what this camp actually does, what it evokes, and what it provides, based in large part on Phil’s vision, energy and, of course, an immense amount of behind the scenes leadership by him.  I wish I could tell you more, but all I know is that the guy travels way under the radar yet appears everywhere: at every activity, at every meeting, at every skit, and every meal.  And the bottom line is that three times a year for the past decade one hundred and fifty young South African kids from Soweto, a township just beyond Johannesburg, are treated to an all expenses paid camping experience at Sizanani. That’s over 5,000 young people who have been exposed to this self confidence building, positivity reinforcing program that stresses among other things how to avoid contracting HIV,and how, if one has had the misfortune of actually getting the disease, he or she can lead a normal health life. People from all over Africa come to visit Sizanani, to talk with Phil and Lynn, and to try to learn how to establish comparable camps in their countries.  It is reminiscent for me of that famous Margaret Mead quotation, the one about how all social change arises because of the initiating efforts of the few.  A person cannot help but marvel at the positive outcomes that flow from a man like Phil just doing what he loves to do with constancy and humility.  I try to describe Sizanani elsewhere, but it is hard to do justice to the reality of the experience.  What I really encourage is volunteering at the camp, it is a unique experience and a unique way to see and be part of the lives of the next generation of South African leadership.  And absent that, a check made out to Sizanani will be an affirmative act of playing it forward that will make you and a struggling African child feel good.   Please, do it now.  And while you’re at it you’ll be saying, “Siyabonga,” to  “Dr. Phil,” as the kids call him, and Phil and the children of Soweto will thank you.

 Phil and camp director Kabaelo

Phil and camp director Kabaelo

 White man dancing

White man dancing