It was the first night. Somewhere in the middle of the wilderness in the intermountain west, I lay in a tent with two other teenagers tossing and turning next to me. In tents around us were teenagers from around the country, all, I suspect now, having identical experiences. I lay with my eyes wide open, staring at the darkness, thinking, longing for home, wondering what I’d gotten myself into. As I thought of my parents, my siblings, my dog, even school in that darkness, one thought kept going through my mind as I lay on my borrowed sleeping pad in my oversized sleeping bag:

I can't get comfortable

The next month of adventure for me has come to define my life’s direction. We hiked peaks, canoed rivers, dealt with mosquitos that I swear were as big as birds, worked in teams, and debriefed all of our highs and lows during my first camp experience. I was perpetually exhausted, excited, dirty, and sun-kissed. During that month I laughed harder, cried harder, and learned more about myself than I ever had before. I was supported and nurtured by peers and staff that I still, to this day, look up to. All the while, though, I constantly had the same thought that I did on the first night: I can’t get comfortable. 

As I look back on that month I was lucky to experience as a youth, I know it was one of the single most formative times of my life. I learned who I was during that experience, and each of those moments led me here to this one. The discomfort I was feeling made me evaluate who I was and where I was going. It made me re-evaluate some “givens” I had just embraced as second nature. With the support of those also on the journey, the discomfort set the foundation for the people we all would become.

Some years after the experience, as I trained to become a teacher, I came to know it is in our moments of apprehension and discomfort that the brain is most charged to learn and grow. With that knowledge, it all made perfect sense. This is what the camp experience is. We supply the perfect combination of support, care, nurturing, and a bit of discomfort to get the very most growth out of a participant. We take campers out of their comfort zone to maximize their potential.

As an association, I think we all need to take a page out of our own learning formula for our participants to maximize our collective potential.

We can't get comfortable

For years, we have all described the camp experience as one of America’s best-kept secrets. We are superb at proving its value to those who have lived our programs, but we have struggled to reach new audiences, broaden our demographics, and to have camp be perceived by many as a truly valuable learning experience in the life of a child. If we are to genuinely grow, if we are to raise our collective voice in the world of education, expand our horizons, and ensure the opportunity of the camp experience is offered to more and more children around the country and the world, then comfort is not an option. We must be willing to embrace the discomfort that will help us to grow as an industry. As we ask of our participants, we must be willing to re-evaluate who we are, re-examining longstanding “givens” and reassessing our strategies to realize our voice.

It is with these thoughts in mind that I have titled my column “Leading for Tomorrow.” In it, I will strive to highlight the leadership we see within our own programs that can help advance the tomorrows of not only our industry, but all who participate in our programs. It will not always be comfortable, but history tells us that, in camp, sometimes that strategic, forward-thinking formula is the one that works best.