A handful of inspiring and motivated campers had already stepped to the front of the crowded room, filled with smiling parents, siblings and loved ones, to share about their experiences, realizations, and plans to make a difference in their community after camp. It was the closing ceremony to the Massachusetts YEA Camp, and campers were asked to share with both our visitors and the camp staff and attendees what they had learned throughout the week, and how they intended to better the world with their newfound knowledge.
“I’ll go,” I heard a small yet clear voice from behind me say. The room swelled with a particularly strong wave of rapid snaps, YEA Camp’s preferred way of showing appreciation for each other. I turned to see who had incited such an overwhelming response. Stepping into the center aisle in just a few smooth steps, one of our most quiet campers stood center floor in front of the crowd. The warm August sun saturated the walls of the room as Chloe shared, with a strong, booming voice, the memories she made, the knowledge and skills she would be going home equipped with, and the confidence she has gained. “YEA Camp brought the me out of me,” she proudly shared.
“Who is this girl?” I laughed to myself.
It was not more than five days prior that Chloe shed tears longing for home, engaged only shyly with her peers, and doubted if she would make it through the week. Homesick and fearful, Chloe rarely raised her hand or actively participated in workshops throughout the week and called home regularly.
Many staff members and campers had encouraged Chloe throughout the week, encouraging her and also challenging her to think about what she wanted to accomplish out of being at camp and to move beyond her comfort zone, but it was just the day before that we saw a real shift in Chloe.
We do a workshop near the end of camp called Being Unstoppable in which we challenge campers to look at the things they tell themselves that stop them from expressing themselves, following their dreams, or being themselves. Different campers and staff courageously shared some of the mean things the nasty voice in their head tells them: that they’re not smart or that nobody will listen to them.
At the end of the workshop, Nora asked campers what got out of the activity and specifically asked to hear from someone who hadn’t spoken a lot throughout the week, urging “Whatever that little voice is telling you that is keeping you from raising your hand right now is the voice we want you to stop listening to.” It was like Nora was speaking directly to Chloe – and soon after Chloe raised her hand. We were thrilled and knew instantly that what she would say was less important than her raising her hand to say it.
I can’t say I was prepared or even expecting this moment or my reaction. Seeing Chloe up there sharing so confidently, warm tears began streaming down my face. A camper sitting to my right wrapped an arm around my shoulder.
“Its okay. You don’t have to cry,” she said reassuringly.
“No, that’s alright. I’m crying because I’m happy.”
Like many experiences in my life, I don’t always know their significance until they’re gone. YEA Camp provided so many moments of rejuvenation, tears and laughter. In less than a week we built bonds and relationships that would foster a loving and supportive community for a lifetime. For some, it was the first time they connected with someone who truly understood them. Or perhaps for others, they had asked questions and sought answers they never considered seeking. I know for myself, it restored a hope that is so easily lost when you consider all that is worth fighting for in our world that can be so abused and fragile.
We shared our pain and frustration about injustices in the world and turned those raw, painful emotions into the fuel to power our activism. Whether campers arrived with a fiery passion to protect the environment, to advocate for gay rights, or maybe they hadn’t quite figured out what their activism looked like just yet, we all took away an abundance of knowledge from the stories and sharing so many campers enthusiastically brought to the space.
YEA Camp is built around four areas: knowledge, skills, confidence, and community. Many people need to develop greater self confidence to speak up about issues of importance to them, as well as a sense of community to feel supported. But with these as a foundation, change-makers need knowledge and skills to make a difference too.
From campaign planning to effective communication, arts activism to fundraising, the variety of workshops we provided in skills training helped the most seasoned activists as well as those who had just begun to consider ways in which they could be a more effective advocate with the greatest impact for their causes. I took great pride in my fellow staff members and all they have accomplished in their activism and the way their stories helped shape our conversations.
The impassioned conversations weren’t just limited to the classroom either. Whether over shared meals, lying on the grass during free time, or well past lights out, I had the pleasure to engage in such thought provoking dialogues. Campers and staff expressed and explored the ways in which they identify, how their privileges or lack thereof affect their activism and the ways in which they interact with each other, and made many parallels when recognizing ways the issues or oppressions they combat share many commonalities.
As I sat listening to Chloe speak with such strength and wisdom, I reflected upon the journey we embarked on just a week before. I came to understand what every second and minute meant for us that week: transformation. I realized that the person standing before us was very different from the girl that first arrived at camp just a week prior, crying as her mom was leaving, unsure of herself, and believing whatever that little voice in her head had been telling her. The same could be said for every one of us who all took risks, shared ourselves, and committed to growing as people and as activists working to make the world a better place.
I can’t wait to see what these folks do in the months and years ahead as they step into their leadership and make an even bigger difference. Watch out world!