We have all experienced bullying in one form or another, either as a victim, an observer, or as the bully. Learning from our past experiences and using them to effect change in the lives of the children we interact with is only one part of how Camp Sewataro goes about creating a place where children don't have to worry about being made fun of, chosen last, or being on the losing team. Camp Sewataro has created an atmosphere in which everyone is a winner and the focus is always on safety, unity, togetherness, spirit, friendship, good sportsmanship, and of course, fun.
When I was a camper in upstate New York, I experienced bullying and the memory of that has stayed with me always. It was a morning just like any other at my childhood day camp in upstate New York, when Tommy Fox started his routine of name calling and making fun of me. Most of the time it was just because my mom was a teacher in the school. He and his friends would make going to camp a living nightmare. I remember not wanting to go to the bus stop and praying that Tommy was out sick that day so I could relax and just enjoy my day. On this particular day, my shoes became the focal point of Tommy's bullying. He mocked me all day for wearing ugly sneakers, and at kickball he and some other kids decided they would "get me." Two older and bigger boys (I was seven) came around from behind and tackled me to the ground; they held me there while Tommy Fox pried my shoes from my feet. I was squirming and kicking as he successfully achieved his mission. While yelling and flailing around, the two boys finally let me go as Tommy proceeded to throw my shoes into the nearby stream.
This happened almost twenty-five years ago, and I remember every detail as if it just happened yesterday — as is the case for most victims of a bullying incident. And now that I have grown up to be a parent and a camp professional, I have to ask myself, where were the counselors? Why didn't anyone stop this or talk to us afterwards? Why weren't the counselors trained on how to prevent this kind of thing from happening? Why weren't my parents informed? Why didn't anyone, especially Tommy Fox, apologize for what he did to me? Well, I'm happy to report that twenty-five years later, all of my questions have been answered — not at my childhood camp, but at Camp Sewataro, where bullying prevention is taken very seriously and to new heights.
Sewataro's Staff Training
Part of Sewataro's training and general philosophy for the past forty-five years has been teaching counselors to be proactive
In the summer of 2000, Camp Sewataro invited Lisa Sjostrom, a bullying prevention specialist, to come to camp to train our staff on how to recognize the early signs of bullying and more importantly, how to prevent it. "Through a variety of her exercises, Lisa helped me remember what it was like when I was bullied as a child," shared Beth Hoodlet, a general counselor in her third year at Sewataro. "Her workshops trained us in how to establish a positive group dynamic that supports the individual while promoting spirit and unity through the use of positive reinforcement. We also learned how to recognize all types of bullying and meanness and how best to handle each situation so we, the counselors, could create a tribe that would have zero tolerance for these types of acts."
Bringing the Training to the Campers
During the first week of camp, the counselors at Sewataro introduce their campers to Bullysaurus (a paper drawing of a bullying dinosaur). The counselors then help the campers define what a bully is — as they share their own experiences with bullying. The campers then pass Bullysaurus around the group and share something someone has said to them that hurt their feelings or made them feel bullied. After each camper shares his or her comment, each puts a crinkle in the paper. After some discussion about the permanent harmful effects bullying and meanness can have on someone, the campers pass the picture, which is now a tiny little ball of paper, around for a second time. This time the campers share something that they would like to hear said to them that would make them feel good about themselves. After each camper shares, each undoes a fold in the paper. By the time the paper reaches the counselor, the paper is open and flat.
The counselor goes on to explain that even though we took the time to compliment and build up the person that was torn down and crushed by the insults and name calling, the scars (represented by the folds and lines still in the paper) are still there. The campers leave the exercise agreeing to have a tribe that is bully-free and that they won't tolerate any acts of meanness to one another.
A Visit from Bullysaurus, 2004
Camp Sewataro's spin on programming got all of their 550 campers and 140 staff active in a combined initiative to put an end to bullying and meanness forever. The week started with a camp-wide challenge to earn 10,000 points throughout the week. The thirty-four groups started off by finding their buddy-tribes that they would be paired up with for the week. These tribes formed great friendships as younger and older campers united at juice and cookies each day to bond, sing songs, and create new cheers and skits. Later in the week the campers were introduced to Bullysaurus, the bullying dinosaur who needed to be taught how to change his mean ways. Counselors taught campers how to give and receive compliments as they filled out Compliment Cards that covered over a paper drawing of Bullysaurus at Compliment Corner. The week continued with more fun and meaningful challenges as the tribes had to search for a miniature Bullysaurus hidden around camp to earn fifty points per sighting. The campers were excited to check the Bully-Free-O-Meter each day to see how the camp was doing at reaching its goal. By Friday the camp had earned 7,200 points.
To end the week focused on kindness, inclusion, and unity, Sewataro brought some of the campers' favorite storybook characters to life on Friday for a day of fun and laughter as the campers traveled around camp trying to get the signatures of the characters (Cat in the Hat, The Grinch, Three Little Pigs, Little Red Riding Hood, Arthur, Alice, the Queen of Hearts, and many more). The real Bullysaurus (a counselor dressed in a dinosaur costume) was also visiting camp, and when the campers found him, they had to write him a message giving him suggestions on how he could be nice and not bully anymore. The day ended with everyone uniting to hear Mother Goose tell a new fairy tale about how all the storybook characters agreed to put an end to their bullying ways — all the way from the Big Bad Wolf and the Grinch to the Cat in the Hat and Arthur.
The counselors then took turns at showering Bullysaurus with praise by reading out the campers' suggestions on how he could become a nicer and friendlier dinosaur. The counselors joined the newly changed Friendlysaurus for a final sing along of Don't Laugh at Me to earn the points that put them over the 10,000 mark to rid the tribes and camp of bullying and meanness forever. Each camper received a special Bully-Free camp pin to wear — bringing an end to what will always be a truly memorable week and a lesson to carry with them for life.
An Educational Partnership Among Camps and Schools
As part of Sewataro's annual philanthropic initiative, we funded a professional staff development day in October for the Sudbury Public Elementary School teachers and administrators (grades K-8). The training, provided by Lisa Sjostrom (also the principal author of Bullyproof: A Teacher's Guide on Teasing and Bullying), focused on bullying prevention in the classroom. The grant included a parent evening seminar to help parents understand what their children are experiencing and how they can help support what their child's school and camp are doing. Sewataro is pleased to spearhead this initiative and to facilitate reaching out to as many partners in education as possible to help put an end to bullying, meanness, and exclusion forever!
Joshua A. Schiering has been involved as a camp professional for more than ten years, has been a member of the American Camp Association since 1998, and has been serving as Camp Sewataro's assistant director for four years. He lives in Stow, Massachusetts, with his wife and three children and is dedicated to helping children learn and grow in a healthy, inclusive environment full of praise, spirit, and fun.
Originally published in the 2005 March/April issue of Camping Magazine.