I grew up a camp kid. I started going to camp when I was eight years old, participating in Camp Ondessonk's "Mini-Camp" program. Back in 2003, the program was Sunday–Wednesday, four days and three nights. I went with my best friend from school, and between the bugs and the heat and the being somewhere new, I hated it. I told my parents I would never go back, ever again. (They love telling this story now.)
That was the first time I can remember being wrong about camp.
Summer rolled around the following year, and I decided to give it another try. Having aged out of the Mini-Camp program, I attended Camp Ondessonk for an entire week. This time, not only with my best friend from school, but with my older sister and her friends too.
As it turns out, the more time you spend at camp, the more cool things you get to do — and the more opportunity for the cool stuff to outweigh the bugs and the heat, I guess.
That summer, being somewhere new changed from being scary and uncomfortable to being adventurous and fun.
I continued going back to Ondessonk as a camper for a decade. I spent my formative summers there. I was a counselor-in-training, and then I worked many summers as a wrangler and an adventure staff member, helping to create space for campers to have experiences similar to my own.
If you remember the American Camp Association (ACA)'s "Because of Camp . . . " campaign (ACA, 2014), my story fits right in. My experiences at camp guided me through college, years of working seasonally in the outdoor recreation industry, graduate school, and right back to working for camps as part of a research and education team geared toward learning and improvement.
My Experiences at Camp Guided Me through My Adolescence and Emerging Adulthood
I highlight my journey for one very important reason. Think back to your teens and early twenties. They were most likely a time when a lot of being wrong and making mistakes happened. And if we leaned into it, a lot of learning and improvement happened too.
I got things wrong all the time at camp. As a camper, I'm positive I got the square boondoggle stitch wrong more than once. I missed countless archery targets, messed up my lines in skits, and I absolutely could have done things differently when building relationships with other campers. As a staff member, I could have used different language to talk a camper through homesickness, been more intentional about learning all campers' names, and handled the late-summer burnout better. But every time I made a mistake, I knew I was in a safe place. There were other people there to help me learn from my mistakes and to improve for next time — even when the consequences might have been pretty high. At camp it was OK to get things wrong.
Camp gave me something with that safe space that overcame any shyness and self-doubt to lean into learning. That something shows up today as me speaking up when I think there might be a learning opportunity. I now call it my "improvement driver."
My identity really impacts how my improvement driver shows up. I am a white woman with a master's degree and a whole lot of privilege that allowed me to attend camp in the first place. I acknowledge that I have a lot of learning to do in terms of when to use my voice and how to use it. I'm hoping this background will not only create space for others to learn from my experience, but also for me to continue to learn from you.
A few months ago, I was diving into a project and wanted to reference my organization's strategic plan. As I scrolled through the webpage, I noticed that it referenced a quote from an Ivy League university president in the late 19th century. I'll be honest, the quote really sounded great for the camp industry, especially coming from an educational leader highly respected by that era's dominant culture. All things considered, my improvement driver started to ping because of what I know about that time period and the history of summer camps (Petrzela, 2018).
Personally, I'm not hardwired for trivia unless it's about Harry Potter or The Office, but I sure can use search engines. So I googled his name. I found that this man had a lot of thoughts about women, particularly around their role in society and his strong disagreement about their participation in higher education. I was not psyched. If this guy had such a perspective about a group I and many others in our industry identify with, do we really want his name attached to our strategic plan? Attached to what we know to be good about summer camp?
What to do? Anybody could make this Google search, learn what I did, and associate this individual and his viewpoints with our organization. Knowing that we've made a commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion, I thought a change in line with our forward thinking was in order. So, guided by my improvement driver, I spoke up.
In an honest email, I took this issue to my supervisor and our executive leadership team — the parties in the organization that I knew had power to create this type of change. I made my argument, citing my sources, sharing my personal and relevant feelings, and asking them to lean in and learn with me. I knew it could have been as simple as asking for the quote to be taken down. But my improvement driver said, "Small potatoes." What was the point if we weren't diving deeper and learning along the way in making improvements? I left the email open-ended, handing off the information I had in order to give the higher-ups an opportunity to process and decide on a path forward.
The quote ended up being taken down across our website, and I am sharing my experience with you.
This story is important to me. On a personal level, I cherish vulnerability. The biggest moments in my life, the moments that provided me with the most growth in the backcountry during Ondessonk Adventure Camps were those when we, as a group, were vulnerable. The same was true in graduate school and is so in my personal relationships and experiences. My improvement driver has pinged in so many different contexts, and the outcomes of leaning into it have been so wildly positive that I hope sharing it with you can lead toward learning and improvement in the camp industry. I hope my bit of discomfort in being vulnerable here might make you more comfortable being vulnerable in the contexts you exist within.
One of the most pivotal mentors to my professional and personal development, researcher Deb Bialeschki, always signs her emails off with "Speak Out. Do Good. Be Kind." I acknowledge the amount of power that I hold in my position at work is more than some and less than others. Speaking up is being vulnerable. It is scary. Something that doesn't always go hand-in-hand with my improvement driver is my rooted fear of being too much. This fear is easily overwhelming in the workplace (when this position is my lifeline, giving me the ability to eat, pay rent, and make sure my emotional support Covid cat stays healthy). Without my job, not only would all of those things be made much more difficult and stressful, but how often do you find yourself in a position that you adore? One that ties all the way back to your 8-year-old, your 15-year-old, your 24-year-old selves and allows you to support the space that fosters the experiences you had at those ages? I'm willing to bet not often.
For myself, and many others, Bialeschki's signature line has been engraved into our being. Her reminder to "speak out" shared her power to "do good" with me. Through kindness and explicitly being vulnerable with those with more power than me, I was able to create change. Perhaps small potatoes change, but I promise the process of acknowledging the power you do have, knowing that you can speak out in order to do good through "being kind," can continue to improve our camps, the camp industry, and ourselves.
- American Camp Association. (2014). Because of camp . . . ACA. ACAcamps.org/because-camp
- Petrzela, M. N. (2018, September 1). Why fear of big cities led to the creation of summer camps. A&E Television Networks. history.com/news/why-fear-of-big-cities-led-to-the-creation-of-summer-camps
Jessie Dickerson is the American Camp Association's manager of program quality systems.