“Camp is the only place anywhere where we get to decide how the world is going to be,” explained one camper to me. The story repeats itself time and again–kids making sense of their place on earth and understanding where they fit in.
That’s been my experience as a camp director over the past thirty years as I have watched tens of thousands of children belonging, contributing, and being a part of something bigger than themselves.
For me, the affirmation of our youth invariably occurs late at night on the cabin porch, in the silence of the country night and in the privacy of a heartfelt and intimate conversation. The chat revolves around a looming dilemma and consistently resolves itself when a youngster realizes his or her own empowerment to change a predictable outcome. In that instant, the transformation in me is equally profound.
How does it happen? There is a sense of compassion, connection, and collaboration that can only be imprinted from having to flee a cabin for an intruding bat or an overflowing toilet–only to huddle on the porch with collective and commingled screeches of camaraderie! There is an unspoken agreement that arises from living by the same codes and being accountable to the same consequences. There is a secret orderliness related to the life lessons resulting from the ongoing drama of unraveling a predicament in the cabin or crossing the “Nitro River” on the challenge course.
You see, camp is a safe little planet–its own constellation–with its own language, its own traditions, its own rules, its own consistency and predictability, and sometimes, even its own uniforms–all of which shout out: we are a community, we care about each other, and about the world. Camp is, after all, the best demonstration of democracy, of moral and spiritual order because no one thinks they’re too cool, everyone knows they can re-invent themselves, and coaches and cheerleaders (otherwise known as counselors) provide unconditional support.
It doesn’t matter if you come in last. At camp, you are not defined by your standing, but rather by your involvement. No one cares if you are not the best at something. Just be in the audience at a camp talent show to understand that!
Ask anyone who went to camp–and they will recall that competition was irrelevant and personal best was celebrated. Camp was the one place on earth where you could succeed, where your track record was irrelevant, and where life felt like heaven on earth.
Summer after summer, I watch children arrive with tears in their eyes because they are leaving the security of home. Summer after summer, I see those same children sob uncontrollably because they have to go home! They know that paddling in tandem across the lake or sleeping under the stars together or cheering the winning goal have left an indelible mark on them, helping to define who they are and to influence who they may become.
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