In a recent summer, ACA received a copy of a letter sent to a camp director, excerpts of which follow. Perhaps it should be required reading for all staff when talking about the aims and goals of your camp and the outcomes you want each camper to experience. No director wants this to be said of any staff member. Will your training and supervisory practices withstand this kind of scrutiny?
The purpose of this letter is to bring to your attention, what I perceive to be, a serious lack of supervision on the whitewater trip. My son, Tom, was physically and emotionally abused by other campers, counselors, and course instructors. The frequency, intensity, and duration of these grossly insensitive actions were enough to cause him to have nightmares every night since he came home. What was intended to be a nurturing, esteem-building experience has all but shattered the little self-confidence and esteem he [my son] had. Even now, if asked to talk about his experience, he breaks down and cries, sometimes uncontrollably.
We were confident that your camp would be the perfect place for Tom to be away from home to camp and enjoy his first, actual outdoor experience. We were also confident that there would be sensitive, caring counselors who would foster camaraderie, team-building, ethical behavior, and that any third-party instructors associated with the organization would be of similar demeanor. As it turned out, nothing could have been further from the truth. To market your camp as a summer camp where there is "the strong desire to provide a healthy and quality experience for all participants" is, to say the least, so grossly overstated it’s ludicrous.
In the sections that follow, I will share some of the "healthy" experiences my son endured during what he calls, without question, "the longest eleven days of his life."
The counselors on this trip with whom I have issue are: Peter, Jake — the kayaking instructor, and to a lesser extent, Amy.
Prior to actually signing Tom up for the whitewater trip, my wife telephoned and asked the director to clarify exactly what was meant by the term "intermediate." In all instances, my wife was provided with information which reassured us regarding his ability and potential for this to be a positive learning and growth experience. It was also at this time that my wife told Peter that Tom has a severe hearing impairment and that we were concerned about it with regard to him hearing directions and instructions, particularly when on a noisy, fast-flowing river. We were, again, reassured that our concerns were misplaced and that he would be taken care of. You can imagine how excited we were for Tom to be taking part in this activity.
Conversely, when we picked Tom up, I looked at Peter, who looked away as I approached. I immediately sensed that something was wrong. So too did my wife. As my wife greeted and hugged Tom, tears started to streak down his face. When my wife asked him if he’d taken some good pictures, he told us that the other campers threw his one-time-use cameras (two) into the river. When asked if he’d like to use her camera to take a picture "with his friends," he said that he didn’t have any. To not have developed multiple friendships, let alone one, after eleven days in activities, which by their inherent design achieve this, usually in spite of counselors and programmed activities, is incomprehensible.
Almost from the beginning Tom was bullied by his tent mate, Cameron. Tom brought up the fact that he was being slapped and hit by Cameron to Peter. The three of them sat down and discussed what was acceptable and unacceptable behavior. Cameron admitted that he had hit Tom, simply because he "wasn’t feeling himself." After their talk, Cameron, who is considerably bigger than Tom and almost two full years older, intensified his abuse and bullying. Inasmuch as there had been several disciplinary "threats" none were followed through with by this time. Tom realized that if he mentioned it to Peter again, it would worsen still.
In order for Tom to participate in this "adventure," we signed a waiver of responsibility for injuries sustained while kayaking, rafting, or mountain biking. I don’t believe the physical bruises he obtained at the hands of the other campers or instructors were included or covered by the release. Question: where was the supervision? Once or twice, I fully understand how it’s possible to "miss" or be unaware of such goings-on. However, when such abuse occurs repeatedly over a prolonged eleven-day trip, I fail to see how it could go unnoticed if there were any type of supervision taking place at all.
Throughout the experience, vulgarity was commonplace and little was done about it. Although he denied it when confronted, according to Tom, Peter himself was guilty of foul language, as were Amy and Jake. Not exactly the type of role modeling that should be taking place.
It seems that the camp has rules and regulations; it just seems that no one bothers to enforce them. The curfew was at 10 p.m. every night. As the counselors went to their tents, the campers, of whom there were eleven, eight male and three female, would leave their tents and come in much later. According to Tom, some of the more active heterosexuals made the best of the beach available to them right from the outset and evidently some sexual activity took place. This isn’t the type of extracurricular activity (morally or ethically speaking) that I wished to have my son exposed to at a summer camp.
As it turns out, to the best of my knowledge, Tom was the youngest and certainly the least experienced in the group. With regards to the kayaking experience, these factors, along with the fact that he was one of the weaker campers, became evident almost immediately. Jake, the kayak instructor, proved to be Tom’s nemesis from the outset. According to Tom, Jake "hated me from the beginning." Evidently, because of his size, Tom had extreme difficulty in "rolling" his kayak, so much so that he never did manage to do it. However, instead of being given words of encouragement, he was badgered, bullied, and belittled with taunts of "f _ _ _ you Tom," shit, damn, and hell constantly from the instructor. This "f _ _ _ you Tom" happened on several occasions. Regardless, every time Tom would flip his kayak, he would be greeted with the aforementioned words of encouragement. When I confronted Peter and asked him about this, he claims to have heard nothing. This comes as no surprise as Tom said that Peter was frequently "off on his own" kayaking, as he states Peter is an excellent kayaker. Again, according to Peter, this didn’t happen. I can easily see how an accomplished kayaker would become bored with total neophytes and want to move ahead with the more experienced and proficient students.
Supervision? On one occasion, as Tom, Jake, and a few others were sitting in their kayaks, Tom commented that Jake’s kayak was different from the others; essentially asking what was the reason for the difference in design. Jake’s response was "why do you ask so many questions," at which time he took his paddle and overturned Tom’s kayak, forcing him to wet exit. Again, the others chided, laughed, and ridiculed Tom.
Cameron opened the plug on his kayak, allowing it to become heavy with water, making it very difficult for Tom to paddle, causing him to lag even further behind the group as he was the weakest paddler already. When he’d attempt to stop to empty the kayak, the others would go on without him. Afraid to be alone on the river, he attempted, in vain, to keep up. At one time, he states that he was about a hundred yards behind the group, frantically paddling to catch up. As they were about to enter some whitewater, the others in the group stopped and listened as Jake gave them instructions on how to negotiate the upcoming rapids. Tom is still paddling, attempting to rejoin the group. Let me remind you that this is the child with the severe hearing impairment, on a rushing river in an activity in which he was obviously having extreme difficulty and experiencing severe social discomfort. As he reaches them, instead of Jake being responsible and informing him of what he told the others, he (Jake) and the others all paddled off down river. Not knowing what was coming up with regards to the whitewater, understandably, scared Tom to death. He said if he’d had the strength at that point, he would have taken his kayak out of the river and walked. Instead, he felt "forced" to go down the river, unaware of the best route to follow or of the dangers ahead.
Moreover, whenever Tom failed to negotiate a maneuver properly or as quickly as the others, Jake would say to him that "you didn’t turn out the way your mother and I wanted you to"; implying that Tom is a big disappointment to us. It could also be implied from the comment that he fathered Tom. Who does he think he is? What type of demented verbal abuse is this? Is this encouragement? Does this build self-esteem and camaraderie?
Jake and Cameron joined forces to give Tom a "sternal noogie." Evidently, the camper grabbed Tom’s arms and held them behind his back while Jake gave Tom a hard noogie on his sternum. Tom’s sternum was bruised when we picked him up. What right does this instructor have touching my child, let alone inflicting injury while the victim is restrained by a stronger, larger camper? This and the aforementioned are deplorable actions for which I certainly cannot find an excuse.
During the rafting portion of the trip, Tom evidently did better. However, the abuse continued. Apparently Tom and Cameron were in one raft with kids from a different group, while all of the other campers were in two other rafts. Evidently, he heard that the other rafters were plotting to "get Tom and Cameron" at which time, the group said something to the effect of "lets leave Cameron alone . . . just get Tom!" Evidently, they were all in on it, even the counselors.
With the mountain biking portion of the trip, here too, Tom was the least experienced and proficient. As he lagged far behind the group and couldn’t negotiate a hill, he got off his bike and walked, for which he was ridiculed and verbally abused by the others.
What kind of staff do you hire? What training do you give them? Is this the result I should have expected when sending my son off to camp?
Originally published in the 1999 Spring issue of The CampLine.