The Silver Lining

Penn Henthorn
July 2020

Camp Fire Heart of Oklahoma's Camp DaKaNi is a unique space in the Oklahoma City metro area. In normal years, 33 acres of woods, creeks, fields, and a pond offer amazing outdoor experiences to youth. By teaming up with other nonprofits and local organizations, we bring homeless youth, foster children, LGBTQ+ youth, children with Autism, and children with incarcerated parents to camp. But what would those youth do this year without the healing power of nature and connection with their peers?

Online was the move for most schools during the pandemic, and it seemed our best option too. To keep in line with our inclusive values, activities were designed so, whether a camper has access to a green space or not, they can participate in our scavenger hunts and other activities.

We ended up with two different camp programs. One was more flexible and allowed for activities to be done on their own time, our "Camp in a Box," while the other resembled the structure and peer connection of on-site camp, "Camp at Home Live." Both programs included a box of a particular week's activities being shipped to a camper containing everything they might need, even the basic supplies like scissors, glue, and tape. It was important to never assume that campers were going to have certain items.

Youth who are homebound or have limited mobility who would not originally have been able to be as involved at Camp DaKaNi can now be included through this online interface. We have also welcomed campers from outside our immediate vicinity. When geography is not a limiting factor, we have the chance to reach youth from across the country. Having geographical diversity, as well as diversity in ability and background, allows youth to connect with new people and learn about different perspectives. It is crucial for children to connect with others outside their families as they grow and develop because it allows them to play a different role and not just be a sibling or someone's child. Interacting with new people in this way, children learn more about themselves, who they want to become, and that they matter and bring something unique to the table.

Every afternoon during the more structured program, small groups meet virtually to reflect on the day's activities and practice mindfulness. It's a safe space for deeper conversations and self-discovery. A group of pre-teens recently discussed the impact COVID-19 and protests have had on them. Connecting back to our values of respect and open-mindedness, we provided ground rules for open, appropriate, and constructive discussion. At Camp Fire, we believe youth should use their voices regarding issues that matter to them and to become advocates for those issues in their community. We hope these quiet times will not only help youth connect with one another, but also with themselves.

Youth are resilient and adaptable, but this time of isolation, cancellation, and disarray, has put their resiliency to the test. Providing the fun, intentionality, and encouragement of camp to youth where they are has been tough, but the work we're doing is imperative. This pandemic will make its mark on our youth's memory and mentality. We must use our ability to connect youth and build them up to help them heal.

In-person camp will resume someday, and we will see our campers and counselors in person and do the things we love at our campgrounds. But this learning experience has shown us that we can reach even more youth, and we are grateful for this chance to broaden our impact. With technology, we have every opportunity to build our youth up, no matter where they live, their background, or their abilities, and we plan on using it from here on out to help kids thrive. Perhaps this generation of youth will have an affinity for adaptability because of this pandemic, but they may not realize they do until they see their role models — their camp counselors — blazing that trail with them. Yes, camp this summer looks different, but different is not always a bad thing.


Penn Henthorn is director of programs and camps for Camp Fire Heart of Oklahoma.


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