A Career Defining Moment

A Testimonial by Sam

To whom it may concern,

Summer camp is not a nine week, one off experience. Summer camp is the single most important character defining experience an18 year old in the United Kingdom or the world over can undertake. To think that this could be in jeopardy is simply wrong. I don't feel I can express this anymore emphatically.

I am the Vice Principal of a High school in the United Kingdom and a long time returning staff member of Camp Loyaltown, NY through the AIFS Camp America programme. For 11 summers I have worked in a truly special world - a special needs camp. This was an experience that as a nervous 18 year old defined me as an individual and cemented my career path in education. I have been rated outstanding in my teaching and leadership by three separate government inspections and I place most, if not all, of my successes in the classroom down to the opportunities and experiences provided to me by Camp Loyaltown through Camp America.

This is a programme which I encourage all my senior students to apply to. It is fair to say that a number of them are not ready for the special needs experience, but the character building results achieved from any summer camp cultural exchange are so huge, that I truly believe there is a camp for everyone where value beyond the placement can be determined.
America is an iconic country. In Britain we grow up with Hollywood on our TV sets and cities like New York and Las Vegas idealized. In 2008 and 2012 more Brits watched coverage of the US elections than the 2010 British General Election. We live for the Oscars and love the Old West. Whilst this may be wandering into stereotypes, the passion for experiencing this first hand is high. But, and crucially important, after 11 consecutive summers in New York, I have learnt that similar feelings are felt from our US counterparts regarding London, Cambridge, Edinburgh and everything iconic about a good old cup of British tea! This is where the exchange of cultures plays such a huge role. It's also worth remembering that this is not just Anglo American cultures. My own camp for example provides amazing summers for staff all over the world - 14 counties last year and this is true for a majority of summer camps.

To quantify just how camp has changed me would require a lot words and I am conscious of time to the audience reading this comment. Put simply, I was given the opportunity to experience religious, ethical and social diversity; be put out of my comfort zone more times that I can remember; challenge myself to do better for those around me; see the world of special needs in a new light and most importantly, I was provided the opportunity to invest and repay America for opening her doors to me for nine weeks each year. I and my fellow international counsellors provided a service year on year to the most vulnerable and fragile of families. We dedicated our time, working often in excess of 18 hours per day, serving our campers because we wanted to. Because we were passionate and enthusiastic and because we were grateful for the opportunities presented. We created a family at camp. A family which reached out to parents, uncles, neighbours and whole communities. To this day, I still receive Christmas cards thanking me and my staff for our compassion and dedication to children, now themselves grown up. I had the joy of watching one of my campers, a severely autistic nonverbal little boy grow up at camp to become an inspirational marathon runner. I also waited with intense agony to hear how he was after the devastating events at the Boston Marathon where he and his trainer were running. (He was thankfully unharmed). Over the past decade I have also adjusted to the uglier side of special needs when campers do not return the following summer and somewhere in New York, a family are grieving for the passing of a loved one. I have attended memorial services but also bar mitzvahs, relationship blessings and even an engagement party for two of our adult campers. This is not experience which can be bought and certainly something that cannot be lost.

When I walk onto camp, I am at home. Whilst my physical home will always be in the UK, I am at peace with the world when I'm in the main office, the dining hall and the upper cabins of Camp Loyaltown. This is a happy, good place. When I order a drink and wings and sit down to chat with the landlady of Macgregor's, the local town pub 1/4 mile from camp, I am having a conversation with an old friend. The cashier at the Wal-Mart in Catskill, who loves my accent and tells me that our brief conversation has really cheered up her shift along with the clerk at the Village Hardware store still laughs at me with a long term fondness at my inability to remember which screws I need to order for the wood shop programme all go to show, in their own unique way, just how big this programme is and how many people out with the camp itself it can touch. When the town one over to Hunter flooded as a result of the horrific storms in the wake of Irene, I was honoured to be able to help bag up spare blankets and toiletries left over from the summer programme to donate.. Our staff and the local community also take part in a join Walk for Life relay each summer to support the work towards irradiating cancer. We are a community which learns from one and other and thrives from the experiences this programme can offer.

For me, this a programme where positive cultural experiences should continue to be made. Future generations of 18 year olds cannot be denied such an opportunity.

I thank you for your time reading my thoughts on camp.