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No Greater Investment: Changing Lives One by One
I would like to tell you a story about what it means to be a “finder” and a “funder.” At 12:00 p.m. the bell would ring to signal the start of my freshman world history class. John, Sam, and Tim would walk in less than excited to learn about history for the next ninety minutes, but very excited to visit with their friends and hang out. They were each uniquely charming and charismatic. They were the life of the party, despite the fact that my history class was not supposed to be a party. None of the boys were strong academic students; yet, they each had an obvious curiosity about the subject and a desire to learn that they kept on the “down low” from their friends. They struggled to stay motivated and out of trouble, but they each had an old soul, a caring heart, and a special purpose in life yet to be discovered.
When I first met the boys, John was seven-teen, Sam was sixteen, and Tim was fifteen. Their names have been changed for this article even though all three of them are very excited to know that I am writing about their story. As the semester pressed on, I began to learn more and more about the boys’ stories. It hurt my heart to hear about some of the challenges and struggles that they were forced to endure at such a young age. They had seen and experienced dark and ugly things. They had often been forced to live without things that others take for granted, which just made me all the more impressed with their sense of determination and strong, loyal character.
As the summer approached, I knew the perfect idea would be for them to go to camp. I knew camp would be a safe place for them away from some of the dangers and negative temptations of the neighbor-hood. At camp, they would be able to step away from some of the burdensome worries they carried each day — they could just be kids for a while. John and Sam were unconvinced. Going away to camp was not something that many, if any, of their friends did, and they were not sure what to expect. However, Tim found the courage and agreed to go as a junior staff person to a small, coed, for-profit camp.
Despite the fact that the open, green valley with limited phone service and a nondiverse community was a tremendous change from Tim’s more urban and asphalt environment, he immediately found his place. He was fast to make friends and learn the daily routines and rhythms of camp. He picked up the ins and outs of his job responsibilities and quickly became one of the most respected and dedicated workers on staff. He was dependable, honest, and pleasant to work with. What more can a camp director ask for? As one of Tim’s supervisors, I could not believe the transformation unfolding before my eyes. The unmotivated, off-task, and worried-with-the-burdens-of-life student in my world history class changed into a focused, joyful, empowered young person.
As the summer came to a close, Tim taught me a very important lesson that I will not forget. Tim and I were on a “camp mission” riding around on the golf cart, and I asked him, “What have you learned this summer?” I was ready for a typical answer involving his new favorite camp song or a new hidden camp talent discovered one night at campfire, but instead he said, “I learned that if you show up on time and work hard, people will respect you.” I slowed the golf cart down, and I asked, “So how are you going to use this new information when you head back to school?” He said, “I’m going to be more motivated.” Then I stopped the golf cart, and I asked, “So how do we convince everyone else (other students back at home) to be more motivated?” He said to me, “You have to show them.”
These words are now plastered in large letters on my wall in my office as sage advice for us all to remember. We have to show young people that the world is bigger than their street corner and living room so that they will be inspired to hope and empowered to pursue their own dreams. Tim continued to share with me all the new people he had met from all over the world and how he had learned something different and special from each of them. Some of them had stories similar to his and looked like him, and others had stories that were very different and they did not look anything like him at all.
But they had all had one common experience together — summer camp. They had lived and worked together for eight weeks. They had laughed, cried, and got angry together from those experiences, which could not have been duplicated in a class-room or anywhere else. Tim had learned lessons that would change his world view, and consequently his life, forever.
Tim came home and shared the stories about his summer experience. Other students began to take note not only of the fun that Tim had, but the way in which he carried himself a little bit taller with more confidence and a renewed sense of something that could not be defined. The next summer John and Sam agreed to head to camp as well. John went to a Christian camp to work with the maintenance staff, and Sam went back to camp with Tim as a counselor. They were all grateful for the opportunity to work hard and learn new things in an environment very different from their own. They came home with great camp stories about ghosts, bears, and snakes, oh my; stories about new friend-ships with people that were outside of their own bubble; stories about their newly learned skills in driving, mechanics, group facilitation, communication, problem solving, and conflict resolution.
John, Sam, and Tim are a part of a diverse, urban, community-based, holistic outreach program in the mid-Atlantic region of the United States sponsored by a local Methodist church and organized by a dedicated group of volunteers. Most of the students in the program have grown up in a single-parent household. Most of them have never met their biological father. Many of them come from families that receive government assistance. Some are strong academic students and some are not. They all have caring and compassionate hearts, an inner strength and a sense of perseverance that is inspiring to anyone who meets them, and a bucketful of hopes and dreams that their future will be better than their families’ past. The church was so inspired by John, Sam, and Tim’s camp stories that they agreed to sponsor eight other students to go to camp for a week as campers in a unique counselor-in- training program.
The church worked to support those students who went away as campers and those who went to camp as staff. As a sponsor, the church not only funded the students’ costs for camp, but they also worked behind the scenes with the camp and families to ensure a successful experience for everyone.
Volunteers from the church helped families and students complete the registration paperwork accurately, including health physicals. The volunteers worked with families who were unfamiliar with the camp experience to explain the process, procedures, and details. The volunteers provided transportation for the students to and from camp and any supplies that the students needed. The volunteers worked with the camp to inform the camp staff about students’ unique and diverse back-grounds. The volunteers also made them-selves available to the camp staff and the parents/guardians while the students were away to assist in the event of any questions or emergencies. The volunteers sent cards, letters, and goodie boxes to the students to encourage them during their stay. Finally, the volunteers also celebrated with the students when they came home and helped them process their great experience to cement the learning outcomes.
While at camp, the eight campers/counselors-in-training were given the chance to work and gain knowledge about each area of camp, including the camp store, the kitchen, the barn, etc. The campers were taught how to be positive role models and mentors to the younger campers and were given the opportunity to participate in other traditional camp activities. Each camper was also given the chance to interview for a junior position next summer.
The eight came home with dozens of stories about duck wars, dance night, and younger campers that they met and influenced. Parents called to say what a difference they saw in their children and how grateful they were for the chance to send their child to camp. They were thankful for the chance to take a deep breath and rest knowing that their child was safe and having fun learning new things. The kids were excited about the potential job opportunity in the future and their new adventure. The church was ecstatic with the opportunity to reach out into the community and build relationships with young people and their families while fostering personal growth through the camp sponsorships.
The kids that attended camp and those that worked at camp came home looking at the world differently. It is so easy for young people to fall into a rut and not realize their potential or the opportunities that are available. Camps provide youth a chance to shake off the negative aspects of life and immerse themselves in a com-munity that is focused on personal growth and empowerment in an emotionally safe environment — supported, encouraged, and uplifted.
In addition to teaching in public school for ten years, I have been both a camper and a camp professional almost my entire life. Although I no longer work at camp, thanks to a new chapter in my life, it is still my honor and privilege to help find potential campers, camps, and funders and match them together. We know the transforming power of camp for campers. The stories of the young people in this one community outreach program are a testimony to the magic of camp.
The Real Opportunity
There are many things that we could choose to spend our time and money on, but I believe that there is no greater investment than one in a child. The chance to invest in the growth of a young person is a real opportunity to invest in the future and change lives one by one. As funders, we have a distinct opportunity to change a young person’s world view, encourage the development of his or her purpose in life, provide a safe place, foster lifelong relationships that impact a young person as well as our own personal growth, and contribute to the development and sustainability of our world.
The value of camp is so significant and meaningful to young people that there should never be an empty bed in a tent or cabin or an unfilled spot on a roster at any camp. The wasted space is a wasted opportunity to make a difference in a young per-son’s life. Camps have a unique opportunity to reach out to the community to help find campers to fill their spots so that no child is left without the chance to go to camp. Camps also have an opportunity to pro-vide job opportunities to dedicated young people who are looking for someone to give them a chance to learn something new in a new environment. Camps can work with churches, teen programs, community out-reach programs, homeless shelters, domes-tic violence shelters, transitional housing support systems, local and state housing authority projects, service organizations, traditional and nontraditional schools, and other unique local resources to help build partnerships in order to meet the American Camp Association’s 20/20 Vision.
Imagine what kind of world it could be if more of our kids, our next generation, go to camp to learn how to solve problems, be creative, resolve conflict diplomatically, tolerate people from different backgrounds, find confidence and self-efficacy in them-selves, and be empowered to make a positive change in themselves and those around them. Finders and funders have an important role to play in this mission. I am proud to be known as a camp finder and a part of a community organization that is committed to being a camp funder. I hope that you will join us in thinking creatively about how we can make connections and partnerships that ensure all the cots and rosters are full of deserving kids every summer.
Wendy Scott, MEd, has worked with for-profit and nonprofit camps as an administrator for over ten years. She is currently pursuing her doctorate at Old Dominion University full time in curriculum and instruction with an emphasis on working with under-resourced students. She is a former board member of ACA, Virginias and a current member of the National Council of Social Studies. E-mail the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Originally published in the 2013 September/October Camping Magazine.