Teaching boys and girls the power of self-advocacy at our sleep away camp in NHNovember 21, 2017
Our sleep away camp community had a really fun party for our returning and new campers ages 7-12. This special event was about giving our veteran campers a chance to see their camp friends and counselors, while also providing our new campers with the opportunity to begin meeting and making new camp friends.
New and veteran campers having a blast with Head Counselor David at our party
Children get very excited about joining the Kenwood and Evergreen community when they visit our campus during a summer camp tour, or meet with one of our directors in a fall or winter home visit. And as excited as they remain weeks and months later, fears and doubts often begin to creep in. One we hear quite regularly is “how am I going to make friends if I don’t know anyone already there?” This is why it’s so important that we have 4 events each year where new campers can come and meet their peers and lots of our counselors. I love seeing how happy and excited new campers are after they leave these parties!
Just as it’s natural and normal for children to wonder about making friends in a new place, it’s perfectly natural for a child to think of new questions about what this camp experience is going to be like, and even become a little anxious when parents don’t have all of the answers. It is for this reason that we track the questions new camp parents ask us when they call the Camp office, and then mail all of our new families both the questions and our best answers throughout the school year.
Just a few weeks ago we sent our new families Answering New Camper Questions, and just after the New Year we will be sending home the Official Camps Kenwood and Evergreen Encyclopedia, which will contain a short explanation of every event and tradition in our 7 week summer experience, pictures and a blurb of every member of our leadership team, and even photos of every building on our campus. Later in the year we’ll be emailing each new camper the lyrics to our favorite camp songs and cheers, and mp3 recordings of each — just in case anyone wants to learn and practice them before opening day!
We do all of this because even though we haven’t been campers in many decades, we still remember what it’s like to embark on a new adventure. We know that new campers feel more prepared for sleep away camp — and thus more excited about going — when they feel like the leaders of their camp are anticipating their needs, questions and even anxieties! We also know that when we create a camp culture where asking questions is the norm it teaches our children the valuable life skill of self-advocacy.
Which leads me to this very brave young lady in the photo below. Her name is Sophie and she was at our fun camp party this past Sunday. The entire camp community loved meeting her on her summer tour and she had a blast taking part in our Rookie event in July. Not long after our party on Sunday began her mother, Erica, took me aside and said “Sophie would like to sit down and ask you some questions about Camp and this summer”. I was thrilled and sought her out immediately.
After we sat down together she unfolded the paper in her pocket and began to ask me what were for her crucial sleep away camp questions:
- How much space do we get [in our bunk areas]?
- Can we do pillow fights?
- What if we get up early in the morning?
- What bunk am I in?
- Who is in my bunk?
- What is my bunk called?
- I want a bed next to a counselor and not a bunk bed. Can I ask for those things?
I happily answered all of her questions (for the record, at Camp Evergreen for Girls you get a dresser with 4 drawers and there’s also a closet in your lodge for linens and things you want to hang. At Camp Kenwood for Boys you get a large cubby area with the same amount of storage space. Some campers also bring a Rubbermaid bin no more than 7 inches tall to store stuff as well; we strongly encourage pillow fights as long as they are fun and friendly!; at Kenwood and Evergreen every girl and boy cabin has space to hang out with friends without waking others up if you get up before the rest of Camp; at our sleep away camp we announce which bunk you are in and who your bunkmates the moment you arrive on opening day; and if you have any special bed requests please make sure to mark them on your Bunk Request Form in the springtime).
After answering her questions I got to have one of my favorite conversations that I ever have with campers. I looked at Sophie and told her how incredibly proud I was of her for writing these questions down on paper, and for having the courage to ask one of her camp directors to go over them with her. I explained to her what self-advocacy was, and how her ability to do it even before her first day as camper tells me that she is going to be a happy, successful camper…because when things aren’t going the way she wants them to she’s going to have the courage to talk about it with a counselor. This is a pretty important life skill when your parents are miles away!
This is the dynamic we want to foster with all of our campers — that they feel empowered to speak with any adult, whether counselor, coach, chef, or camp leader, about whatever is important to them or on their mind in the moment. You can imagine why self-advocacy would be so important during a child’s experience at overnight camp. Imagine if they aren’t feeling as connected to their peer group as the want to be? Or that something unexpected is making them anxious? What if they are more homesick than they anticipated? Creating a culture where children know that their voices and ideas will be heard is pretty crucial to them coming home saying “I loved sleep away camp!”. And it’s why we insist that every child joining our camp community have either a private tour during the summer, or a face-to-face visit during the school year.
This in-person time together helps us create an individual understanding of each child, which include their likes, dislikes, personality, goals, sense of humor, fears, favorite sports teams and everything else that we want our counselors to know about their campers on day #1. It also is the foundation of our leadership team‘s lifetime relationship with our campers, and likely why Sophie felt so empowered to ask for private time to get her important questions answered when she hasn’t even started her first summer at our sleep away camp in NH.
Minutes after this fabulous exchange with Sophie, a returning Kenwood camper named Max pulled out his own list of questions and asked me to sit down to discuss them with him. Just as with our new camper friend, the questions Max asked were of the utmost importance to him, and crucial for him feeling excited about returning for his second summer. His questions included is my favorite counselor returning because if so I hope I get to live with him and how do I go about requesting who I want to live with this summer? And as I did with Sophie I let Max know how proud I was that he felt like he could ask me these questions, and that I hoped he always felt like he could approach any member of the K&E team to discuss anything that was on his mind. I remind him that when I did his home visit two years ago we had discussed the importance of voicing his opinions, and that this was a fabulous example of him learning to advocate for himself.
These children are just two examples of what we saw at Sunday’s camp event: campers arriving a combination of excited and nervous, and both leaving smiling and reassured that this was the right place for them to spend this coming summer. This is the result of our team’s year-round efforts to make this a camp experience unlike any other, and why a small camp like ours — where you really are known and cared for on such a deep level — creates such a different, fun, transformative experience for children.