By Maggie Berke
I had never been to sleep-away camp. Even as a child, the thought of spending a week with strangers in an environment tailor-made for sharing and vulnerability made me nervous and fearful.
But I’ve spent this past year trying to reorient my life towards service and acts of good. I became involved in local Planned Parenthood activist groups, and learned about effective organizing and volunteership. I have always been committed to social change, but in our current timeline of such extreme terror coming from what feels like every direction, I struggled to stay tuned in to it all. I struggled to see where I may fit, how I could best contribute and though I am ashamed to admit it, these feelings overwhelmed me, sometimes leading me to do nothing but sit at home cloaked in anxiety.
I was desperate to find a productive channel for my fears, to not be paralyzed by our current situation, most importantly to make a real difference, no matter how small.
It was my partner who told me to give YEA Camp a try. She arrived home from work excited about an ad she saw on Facebook for an activist training camp for adults, sure that this would be a great opportunity for me.
I was more skeptical, immediately worried about how I would make connections in this environment and scared that I didn’t have the credentials to seem legit amongst other activists. I recognized the anxiety cloak settling in, and realized that was reason enough to apply.
I was pretty certain that this camp experience would be cost-prohibitive to me anyway, so with that safety blanket I began to poke around the YEA Camp website, content to say that I had given it thought, but wouldn’t be able to go anyhow.
Then I saw that YEA Camp offers a sliding scale on the honor code for anyone who wants to participate. It was in this moment that I realized camp was going to live up to its social justice ideals, and I had no excuse left but to push myself out of my comfort zone and give it a shot.
After packing my bags and squeezing my dogs goodbye, my partner and I drove the 30 minutes to Woodstock Farm Sanctuary, laughing the whole way about how genuinely nervous I was to spend time with people who would, in all likelihood, actually understand me!
The New York session of YEA Camp takes place in a truly idyllic setting, replete with baby pigs, friendly cows, free land to roam, and a night sky full of stars.
I was expecting camp to be made up mostly of locals, people like me, who could drive up and get dropped off, but quickly came to see that I was the only Hudson Valley camper. Almost everyone else had traveled from far away to take part. Arizona, California, Illinois and Texas were represented amongst campers.
The atmosphere was immediately friendly, relaxed, caring and compassionate. We were implicitly invited to be children again, to introduce ourselves and connect with strangers in a way that is almost impossible to find as an adult.
There are plenty of adult summer camps, but YEA Camp is special.
Most of the other adult summer camps I’ve found center almost exclusively on socializing and drinking, giving adults the freedom to play and party and meet people like we dreamed of as teens. But YEA Camp contained a mission. We came to learn and to grow, to develop the toolkit necessary to be the activists we want to be, to be the activists that the world needs right now. I found that this mission lessened my social anxiety because I knew that if nothing else, we were all passionate enough to show up to a week long (pretty intense) learning retreat.
The YEA Camp experience was filled with joy, and its fair share of sorrow and confusion. The experience was not without its challenges for staff or campers. As most activist spaces are imperfect, so was ours, but what many activist spaces lack — transparency in leadership and a commitment to non-violent communication — YEA Camp had in troves. We dealt with tensions regarding how to best navigate our personal identities and privileges, and while these tensions exist everywhere in the real world, out there we are taught to ignore them, to put our heads down and shoulder on. Yet, at camp, we were able to collectively decide to talk about these things. To confront what made us uncomfortable, what may have pushed us away from being brave in the past.
When we realized our collective stake in this experience, we also realized our shared ability to be honest, to try communicating in an ideal way, without the fears and anxieties that make us too timid to share our truths in the real world.
A space like an adult summer camp is almost necessarily experimental. YEA Camp accepted the fact that we don’t always know the best way to approach challenges and integrated the campers into this experience.
During the day I was learning about grassroots techniques and lobbying, and in the evening, I was getting a first-hand lesson in how to run an organization with integrity and heart. I was shown how to find strength in vulnerability, by bearing witness to a dedicated team of staff who were the first to admit that they didn’t have all the answers either.
Our world is scary right now. For many of us, this world has been scary for a long time, and the escalation of our fears can quickly drive us into isolation, into small safe spaces, secured from the outside world.
I was sustained daily through the work of talented vegan chefs who were integrated into our community. I was sustained through an environment that encouraged all people to ask questions. I was sustained because I was shown that long after camp ended, we would still have each other to rely on. And it is true. When I am scared, sad, when I worry that I am being ineffective, now I have the wherewithal to pick myself up. To remind myself that small steps are still steps, and the world needs more changemakers.
If you are scared, you are not alone. If you are scared and want to work anyway, YEA Camp is the place for you.
You will harness your ability and meet and connect with people that remind you of all the goodness we still have left.
Deciding to go to YEA Camp 2019 was one of the most important decisions I made this year.
I left not only with a revitalized sense of commitment to the causes I care about, but the tools to make my commitment more impactful. And perhaps most importantly, I left full with a current of hope where there had only been doubt, with a sense of possibility, and the want to reconnect to myself.
Maggie Berke is a postpartum doula invested in the fight for comprehensive reproductive justice. She has a background in LGBT+ advocacy and education, and currently spends her days surrounded by dogs and babies in the Hudson Valley. In her free time, she is writing poetry or participating in theatre projects. You can find her @goldenhourpostpartum and @maybemaggiewill on Instagram.
Interested in joining us for a future session of YEA Camp for youth or adults? Join our email list or follow us on Facebook or Instagram so we can let you know when we announce our locations and dates for next summer!