I have come to camp every year ever since I can remember. It has always been the place I imagine when I’m told to go to my “happy place”. I imagine strolling down Nazarian Way beneath towering trees, and holding a glass mug filled with warm tea. The plum trees along the side of the road are blossoming and there are kids yelling and screaming all over the big green field, in the gaga ball pit, and on the playground. Laughter is everywhere.
This is where I’ve spent a lot of my life growing up. I’ve gone through grief, joy, friendship, and frustration; all of it here. When it was all too much, there was always someone waiting to listen. When the joy was too much, there was always someone to laugh with. Camp for me is a sense of belonging to a group of people called “camp people”. We’re teachers, pastors, students, and really anyone with a heart full of love. Summer Staff is about sharing the threads of your life with a group of people for 6 weeks and weaving something beautiful.
But the skills we learn, the people we become, the courage we store up; it doesn’t all stay here when we leave. We take our experiences working with different age groups, abilities, cultures, and ways of thinking into the real world with us. That’s why I keep coming back: to kindle the same spirit in the lives of every camper I come into contact with. To encourage them to keep coming back and learning more about themselves and God, and what it all means in the real lives we live. As great as a week at summer camp is, we spend most of the time trying to prepare them for when they leave. We try to give kids a real, honest, and practical Christianity that they can understand in the context of their daily lives.
When I graduated high school and left the day after my ceremony to show up for our Summer Staff orientation week, I was incredibly excited but really nervous. Did I really have what it takes to be a summer staffer? There was no question in my mind that this was how I wanted to spend my summer. But, I didn’t know what it was like to spend 5 weeks straight doing camp. Would I be able to counsel all different ages? What about Friendship Camp, our camp for developmentally disabled adults? Would I be patient, responsible, and sensitive enough for their needs? My first Friendship Camp came and while there were hard moments, it was all worth it because friendship campers are filled with joy! While all campers have struggles, not every camp has this unbridled sense of happiness and belonging. That week I learned that the secret to Friendship Camp was love.
Over two years after my first summer on summer staff I was flying to California for a part of my winter break from college. I noticed one of the passengers on my flight was guided over to his seat and he was talking loudly to his attendant. I recognized a lot of his language patterns, like when he got stuck thinking in loops, “I get off the plane in San Fransisco, right? I get off the plane in San Fransisco, right? Then I get on the plane to Houston to see my brother? Then I get on the plane to Houston to see my brother?”. The passenger reminded me of my friendship campers: I thought there was a strong possibility that this man had some sort of developmental disability and he was being cared for by the airline attendants. It wasn’t any of my business, but I was surprised that I hadn’t ever remembered seeing an adult with developmental disabilities flying on a plane by themselves before.
I went to use the restroom before the plane took off and through the thin plastic wall of the airplane bathroom I could clearly hear sobbing. I washed my hands and left the bathroom. When I turned the corner I noticed a flight attendant comforting the man, “It’s okay, Evan,” I heard in passing. He was clearly upset, and I knew that having a buddy sit with him might help with the anxiety that may come with flying. When the flight attendant passed me, I pulled her aside, “Hey, I don’t know if this would be helpful, but I’m trained in working with Developmentally Disabled adults, its part of what I do during the summer, and if you’d like I’d be happy to sit with Evan and see if I can cheer him up!”. All my words came tumbling out of my mouth. I was nervous. I didn’t want to seem like a know-it-all and impose, but I did want to help if I could. The stewardess jumped at my offer, “If you wouldn’t mind that would be so sweet”! She began to tear up, “He has had such a rough morning”.
As I moved my backpack and myself to the back of the cabin and sat with Evan, I wanted to get to know him. I introduced myself, and he returned the favor. As I asked Evan questions about his life, I told him about mine. When we took off, I told him that it was just like a roller coaster, “We’ll go really fast at first, but then fast will feel normal. There might be some bumps, but the pilot is the best pilot in Alaska Airlines whole fleet, so he’s got us covered”.
The rest of the flight was smooth sailing. When I read, I looked up from my book every couple minutes just to double check that all was merry, but Evan had quelled the sadness within him. The only thing he asked me for was help opening his coffee cup because the lid was too tight! The rest of the flight went easily, including the surprise turbulence and the roller-coaster hands-up landing!
Sitting with Evan was no big deal, and it allowed me to truly be present on a plane ride I probably would have wasted otherwise. However, such a simple thing as sitting with someone wasn’t so easy for me two years ago. When I graduated from high school, I no doubt would have had empathy for Evan, but I don't think I would have been comfortable or courageous enough to offer my services to go sit with him. Working at The Woods gave me those things, but more importantly The Woods gives similar experiences, skills and courage to everyone who sets foot across the bridge. Camp gives us the ability to go out into our communities and change them for the better.
So yeah, summer camp is exhausting but there is also this feeling that no matter where we came from, who we are, or who our parents are: we all are God’s children. This is what is so crucially electrifying about Christian youth ministry. Christian ministry is about creating a family of fellow believers, of people trying their best. We walk with each other so that nobody has to walk through life alone.