This week we caught up with Michael Grabel, a GHS class of 2020 graduate who we interviewed during his senior year when he rallied school spirit through an inclusive Cardinal Crazies effort after an injury sidelined him from playing sports.
Today, he is finishing his freshman year in college, studying for finals at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business from home in Greenwich.
This year was unlike any other for college students. Covid wreaked havoc on plans. Many students were sent home to study remotely. Others were invited to live in dorms but take classes online. Some colleges offered in-person learning. Some combined in-person and virtual instruction.
Grabel, who had offers of admission at University of Indiana and McGill University, opted for Indiana when McGill closed down, and he thought that with Indiana open he’d be able to attend in person.
It was not to be.
In fact, he said to this day he has yet to step foot on the Indiana University campus.
Instead, Grabel did a wide detour, starting with a semester at Norwalk Community College.
“The decision to not go (to Indiana) was a tough one because there were so many people committing to go to campus, but me and my friends were saying we didn’t want to spend the beginning of college locked up in a dorm room,” he recalled. “And it’s so expensive to be at school. So the decision to take the first semester off was tough.”
Grabel said enrolling at NCC saved a lot of money.
“It’s crazy to think about the gap in price between NCC and Indiana, but that was definitely the right call for first semester,” he said.
Grabel recalled how he and his GHS friends had swapped stories of being cooped up doing remote learning.
“We thought, let’s do something cool,” he added. “We went on AirBnb and found a place in Santa Monica by the pier. It was me and four other friends who are all attending different schools in different situations.”
He said friends attending University of Pennsylvania and and Stanford, both computer science majors, were both fully remote.
When Grabel and his friends first arrived in California the city was still shut down, except for restaurant take out, but the water beckoned and they were eager to go surfing.
But first they needed surf boards.
“We went on Facebook Marketplace and bought the cheapest surf boards we could find,” Grabel said. “Honestly, it looks a lot easier than it is. We didn’t know what we were doing.”
Not knowing beginners are advised to use a 9 ft long board, which is easier to ride, they bought a board under 6 ft, which is considered an expert board. And they quickly noticed they were the only surfers without wet suits and the early mornings were chilly.
“We’d never surfed in our lives. We spent a lot of time not even standing up, just trying to ride a wave,” Grabel said. “Toward the end I got a surf lesson and felt a lot better. We all gave it a shot.”
The group had fun sightseeing as best as possible given shops and restaurants were shut down due to Covid, except for takeout.
Describing Venice Beach as a carnival for adults, Grabel said in addition to surfing, they enjoyed visiting the busy skate park, checking out street art and listening to musicians.
Another hurdle, meal time.
“Feeding a group of guys is not easy. We went from the leisure of having our parents to do that for us to having to cook pretty abruptly,” he recalled. “We went from burgers every night to making lasagna and chili and fancy meals.”
Grabel said his friend Matt Jester became the de facto head chef for the group.
“He was on the phone with his mom all the time, learning to create pasta dishes. He even made lamb one night.”
While their AirBnb three bedroom was nice, after a couple months the walls began to shrink. The group was sharing a small space and taking remote classes on different schedules.
“Still, it was five times nicer than a college dorm,” Grabel said emphatically.
Back in Greenwich this week, Grabel said moving from the warm weather, with surfing and excursions to the beach, to taking classes in his childhood bedroom has been a rude awakening.
“It’s been tough because you’re learning material on your own. It’s not like you can tap your buddy on the shoulder in math class and ask, ‘How’d you do question 4?” he said, adding that teachers officer hours were all online and some of his classes have 300 students in them.
Never one to be idle, Grabel said he is repeating an entrepreneurial effort he and his friends pioneered last summer with the launch of Camp 2 You, a series of camps in private homes.
Based on a “pod” model, Camp 2 You tailors the camp experience to groups of 4-10 children in private homes.
Grabel, who had gone to sleepaway camp since he was 7, and worked as a summer camp counselor for several years as a teen, said after his 2020 camp job didn’t pan out due to the pandemic, the idea of Camp 2 You was the perfect compromise.
He said many of his friends’ summer jobs also fell through, and they were looking for work. Camp 2 You hired high school and college counselors, and Camp 2 You brought camp to the campers’ houses.
“We bought bubbles, chalk, footballs soccer balls, hula hoops, tie die kits, slip & slides, you name it,” Grabel said. “The whole premise was that we customize the camp to the customer – it’s whatever you’re interested in.”
“We had a lawyer write up waivers so the homeowner assumed no liability,” he explained. “You put together a group you’re comfortable seeing – maybe a lot of close friends and neighbors.”
“I had a mom calling me almost every day. We employed about 30 counselors and still we ran out of counselors,” he said.
This week Grabel said he is already working to get Camp 2 You up and running.
“I’m in the process of putting groups together. Some families are sending their kids back to traditional camps, and traveling, but I think there’s still a market,” he added. “The beauty of Camp 2 You is its flexibility. You can book for 3 days and then book again. It’s ideal to fill a gap between other camps and family trips.”
“I’ve got to stay busy. I go crazy cooped up at home,” Grabel said, adding that he is taking on more of a managerial role for Camp 2 You this summer and is busy creating an “after program” from 2:00pm to 5:00pm since many camps end at 12:00 or 1:00pm.