Breaking Down the Walls: Camp/School Program Brings Diverse Communities Together

by Elizabeth Jeffrey

Recent acts of violence in U.S. schools have increased public awareness of the difficulties schools face in dealing with profound feelings of alienation for those perceived as different from the norm. The issue of diversity is not confined to the school-age population and is increasing in the United States as the latest census shows at least 25 percent of the U.S. population now belong to racial minority groups.

Schools are the central experience in children’s lives where they will learn to address the differences they feel and see in those around them. Whether this is a positive or a negative experience depends on the lessons they learn in their homes, schools, and communities.

What’s Camp Got to Do With It?

Camps share a unique expertise in meeting the social and interpersonal needs of individuals who come together from a wide range of backgrounds and expectations. Camps traditionally merge recreational adventure with education in a nurturing community of peers, role models, and caregivers. A camp’s success in creating positive interpersonal experiences and the expertise that is developed along with this success have the potential to provide a solution to the problems of intolerance and alienation faced in our schools and communities.

It is certainly true that camps achieve some diversity education during the summer if it is a purposeful element of the program. However, the opportunity to serve even more children and address diversity more thoroughly is as exciting as it is worthwhile.

Discovery Center Collaboration

For six years the Hole in the Wall Discovery Center in Ashford, Connecticut, has facilitated a model diversity program that partners the best of camp and school. During this period, the Discovery Center brought together nearly five thousand fourth- and fifth-grade students from twenty racially segregated schools to work toward the goal of mutual understanding. The Discovery Center was developed as a camp/school program for pre-adolescent students, designed to provide a positive diversity experience through the use of experiential education in an outdoor, residential setting.

The Discovery Center was formed as a collaborative effort between The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp (THITWGC), the University of Connecticut (UConn), and participating elementary school systems. Each of these partners provided a unique element that contributed to the success of the program.

THITWGC’s administrative role
THITWGC, a summer camp for children with cancer and blood diseases, has a rich history in providing a caring and exciting environment for its campers. The experienced summer-camp administration took on all administrative responsibilities for the residential aspects of the Discovery Center. The camp’s program director became the residential director for Discovery sessions, providing the camp structure and appropriate staff training, as well as working with all facility staff.

Although the Discovery Center brought a slightly different clientele and program, THITWGC also offered a valuable resource in providing a base of experienced staff. As THITWGC staff is made up of college graduates, many staff members were available during the spring and fall. They were happy to extend their work season while remaining in the camp business. This key staff was able to offer a strong foundation of trained and talented leaders to bring the life of the summer sessions (songs, attitude of caring, and safety awareness) into this new program format. The Discovery Center, in turn, offered the summer program a means of retaining some of their most experienced staff with the opportunity for long-term employment and increased responsibilities in the Discovery Center program.

Academic expertise
UConn was brought on board to create a program to meet the academic expectations of the classroom teachers and administrators. Since the Discovery Center’s inception, a UConn graduate student, with an advising faculty member, took responsibility for the creation of a meaningful multicultural curriculum, including the coordination of the residential program with attending schools. The graduate student also worked as the academic director during Discovery Center sessions, developing the staff’s academic training. The connection with UConn and other area universities also offered a significant connection with college student volunteers, part-time staff, and recently graduated students who became full-time Discovery staff. During various sessions, the universities also brought in students and faculty from UConn’s School of Education to help develop short lessons, teach small groups, and organize field trips to the university’s cultural centers, museums, and sports facilities.

The participants
The other crucial partners in the Discovery Center collaboration were the members of the participating elementary schools. Principals and teachers known at UConn for their creativity and positive leadership were contacted to identify those interested in a diversity partnership, involving a full-year commitment and a residential program for students and staff. The program included at least two joint field trips for both grades with a five-day camp stay for the fifth grade classrooms. School faculty and administration took responsibility for most of the academic and social preparation of the students before and after the residential stay. Teachers also worked as auxiliary staff during their classroom’s camp sessions. This residential schedule required a good deal of flexibility among the teachers, but they were vital as models to their students in this new environment and helped to take the positive lessons learned back to the classroom and community. At various times, teachers assisted in labs, in cabins, and offered some of the center’s free time activities.

Funding the project
The silent, but important, members of the partnership were the funders. Although students paid a minimal attendance fee, it was kept low so that all students could afford to attend. The bulk of Discovery Center funds were raised from state and foundation grants secured by the academic director from UConn and the THITWGC office. Although the funding process was often arduous, it helped to keep the Discovery Center in touch with programs in the area that were working on similar issues of diversity and education. These connections brought important and diverse staff members to the program and contributed to the ongoing development of cutting-edge curriculum.

Turning a Camp into a Better School

THITWGC programs are known for their exuberance and caring energy, and they provide the perfect starting point for creating a program to insure the interest of each student coming to the Discovery Center program. Using the camp’s existing programs and emphasizing experiential education as the foundation, Discovery further developed each activity to guarantee two fundamental aspects for its diversity program: mixing students between the school groups in positive and personal ways, and developing a curriculum based on the customs and history of at least four cultural groups.

Mixing it up
The camp setting made a natural blending of separate groups much easier. The camp was generally a new environment for most of the students, and neither group felt previous ownership of the space. This shared feeling of entering into something new and a bit challenging was a great unifier from the start. This advantage was followed up by organizing all residential and academic activities to provide the structure for mixing peers between the school instead of reverting back to their more familiar classmates.

For each Discovery session, students from the participating schools were carefully mixed for all cabin and lab groups before arrival at the center. Both lab and cabin groupings were structured to include an even number of students from each school. Cabin groups included four or five sets of pen pals who had already been communicating between the two schools through letters or videos. These mixed groups stayed together for all planned activities throughout their week together. Sharing meals at cabin tables and whispering between bunk mates after lights out were natural means to ease the awareness of surface differences while getting to know each other personally. Sharing the joint work of an engaging lab activity supplemented these personal connections with an important awareness of the varied skills and knowledge diversity can bring to a task. A little thoughtful organization here offered huge opportunities for expanding the student/campers’ horizons.

Multicultural labs
Lab activities filled the academic portion of each day with broadly engaging, multicultural learning opportunities. Each of these labs was an experiential lesson built upon an already existing camp activity. In this method of multicultural education, various cultural histories were not studied as isolated lessons taught separately, but the various cultures were used to present a fundamental perspective for each lesson taught.

Diversity Lessons

The Discovery Center approach called for small groups guided by energetic and interested young adults. The activities at the challenge course, woodworking, and at all other camp areas were retooled to fit the goal of comprehensive diversity education, while maintaining the essence of the camp experience. From the first informational meetings with families and students to each session’s final night potluck with the family and friends of attending students, the goal of mutual respect and understanding was the clear message. This was done consciously in lessons and instruction, as well as in the camp songs, opening campfire activities, free choice games, staff modeling, and evening cabin chats.

Camps have long recognized the need to create engaging and challenging adventures to a wide range of campers who come with a variety of backgrounds and skills. Although these efforts are not unique to camps, camps are uniquely successful in bringing these individuals together into a caring community. This ability was profoundly important to the Discovery Center cause.

Students in fourth and fifth grade are ripe for the new experiences of camp, but it is important for a diversity program such as the Discovery Center that the students are able to internalize the lessons learned at camp and make them part of their life-long philosophy. To promote such long-term benefits, the students needed to be taught the central purpose of their experience and, indeed, they had to become committed partners to this objective. The success of the program was found in the pieces the students added to the daily living experiences of the diverse community and in the attitudes they took back to their communities and schools.

A Far-reaching Influence

Many of the problems facing our diverse communities today seem unmanageably large and too varied to address for any one group. However, the camp industry’s expertise in creating an exciting and nurturing community that allows all individuals to flourish, can have an important role to play. Camp and school partnerships have the potential to positively influence participating students and staff, the schools they come from, and the families to which they return. It is hoped that the structure, curriculum, and experience that was gained during the development of this program can provide a model for other camps to meaningfully utilize their facilities year round. To that end, all Discovery Center materials are available upon request, including lesson plans, training materials, process and procedures, evaluations, and grant applications, etc. It has never been more important to bring students, school communities, and families from diverse communities together to instill mutual respect and friendship.

Elizabeth Jeffrey went to summer camp each summer from third grade until becoming a camp counselor during college. After ten years of teaching in elementary and special education classrooms, she returned to camp as a counselor during the Discovery Center’s pilot session and continued as the academic director for the next five years. Jeffrey can be reached at Jeffreylonning@worldnet.att.net.

 

Originally published in the 2001 September/August issue of Camping Magazine.

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