The Role Camps Play in Society: How we drive social change and community engagement at our camp
Wekeela for Everyone
The following passage is a reflection on the power that open communication, conversations, and skilled leaders can have on children and young adults in a summer camp setting. The references to policy or social issues is not a political statement, but a reflection on how events can be perceived in various different ways. This writing is to reflect the role camps can, and we believe should, play in the role of assisting and helping their community.
The camp community is a special one. Summer camp is a place that children and staff alike make lifelong friendships, memories, and experience growth unlike any other. Camp also provides a place, especially over the last 15 years, where children can unplug from their cell phones, social media, and pressures from the outside world. At Camp Wekeela, we have started to call this experience of unplugging – real face time . The power of sitting down with others and having real conversations with peers and role models is as important as ever. As the COVID-19 pandemic took children out of school and onto their screens for hours on end for virtual programming, the break from the screens is paramount.
The past year has been challenging, unexpected, and explosive in many ways. During the pandemic, the United States and the world has seen a combination of a global health crisis and a reckoning with racial, social, and political unrest, social isolation, and anxieties that will stay with us & our children for decades. More importantly, social media has also amplified what children and young people are exposed to and what they experience in real time. Children could see the horrifying and gruesome images of police brutality that killed unarmed George Floyd, spurring inspirational, nationwide protests in support of Black Lives Matter. These peaceful protests sparked conversations on social media and – hopefully – in the classrooms. Children were very likely exposed to a barrage of political ads on social media platforms like Instagram, TikTok, and Youtube during the ongoing and bitterly divisive 2020 Presidential Election. The January 6th attack by domestic terrorists on the United State capitol left the United States – and the world – in shock, mainly on social media where it can be easily digested, shared for the world to see. As I scrolled through my own social media on January 6th, one staff member texted me his own reaction, “as I’m looking through Instagram, it is so good to see so many of the campers I follow posting about everything going on at such a young age. They’re going to be some great leaders our country needs one day.” The time of thinking of our children as naïve, too innocent, and unable to have difficult conversations, is over.
At Camp Wekeela, we believe that engaging our camp community in these challenging conversations is as vital a part of their growth and development as the real face-time they get by laughing and joking with friends and learning new skills. While camp is a place where kids can meet new friends, engage in new activities, and even escape temporarily from the pressures of the everyday world, it can also serve a larger purpose, one that enriches a child’s knowledge and resilience. Removing a phone does not mean you can remove the thoughts, feelings, and fears that come from disturbing events that a child has seen on social media or the news. Providing a fun experience while also addressing difficult topics prompts many different questions about the role that, as a camp, we can play to help our community at large. To address this question, I spoke with Dr. Robert Brooks, a clinical psychologist on the faculty of Harvard Medical Center and author of numerous books, including Raising Resilient Children. We examined the many ways in which camps can be a “therapeutic” environment to help children understand and process traumatic events, especially as these events are conveyed through the lens of social media. We discussed this main question: should summer camps provide a place for kids to discuss what is occurring in the world rather than escape from it? Ultimately, according to Dr. Brooks, the answer comes down to the staff and several key elements.
One common misconception or argument against camps taking on this role is “camp shouldn’t tell kids who to vote for or what political view to take.” The beauty of camp is that the community will have varying different views on things, including politics, and this does not mean telling campers how they should vote. According to Dr. Brooks, “For kids to hear that they have some of the same questions and concerns as their peers can be very therapeutic – it helps them to feel they are not alone and it validates what they are experiencing. How effective this conversation will be ultimately comes down to the staff.”
Staff must feel comfortable having these kinds of discussions and must be able to empathize with, listen to, and have compassion for others. This raises the important questions: How well trained is the staff? Is there a system in place where staff can ask their own questions if they aren’t certain what to say or how to respond to the comments and questions of campers? What is the support, supervision, etc. for the staff? What are the issues that are worth talking about, stimulating conversation, not arguments? If the staff is anxious, it will make the kids more anxious. While camp and school environments are different, Dr. Brooks has heard similar questions and concerns from teachers about what topics are permissible to discuss in classrooms and if they need special training to do so. Some teachers believe that such discussions at a middle and high school level are best confined to social studies and history classes. At all grade levels, some teachers are concerned that discussions about these topics will open up a variety of emotions among their students and that they weren’t “trained as therapists.”
At Wekeela, we aren’t asking our staff (or in schools of their teachers) to be therapists. We are asking them to create a positive environment that lowers anxiety and creates cohesion. As Dr. Brooks puts it, “If you have an elephant in the room that no one is acknowledging – it’s still there and will interfere with learning and experiencing joy in different activities.”
How did we put this into practice?
We felt it was important to address 3 major concerns during the summer of 2020.
1. COVID-19, anxiety, and concerns related to it
Our staff was trained not just to implement the safety measures that were important to stopping the spread of COVID-19, but also how to speak to their campers about any trauma or fears about the virus. When our campers arrived in July 2020, many came from what many considered (at the time) to be “hot spots” – New York, New Jersey, Florida, California. It was not lost that many of our campers and staff may have had a friend or family member contract the virus or get seriously ill, possibly die. Combined with the months of isolation (at the time), campers had their own fears about coming to camp and leaving their family at home. I had one child tell me he felt “guilty” for coming to camp when he doesn’t know if his parents will get sick from COVID. Being able to empathize with and speak with these campers about those concerns, especially when they left camp to go back to the real world, was challenging. In the case of this child who felt guilty leaving his parents, it was important to be in constant communication with his family, provide updates to the child, and ensure that anxiety did not impede on his camp experience.
2. The racial equality conversation
In our 2020 Staff Training, we grappled with two ongoing dilemmas in the United States. Our staff arrived for a two-week mandatory quarantine period due to COVID-19 and health concerns. They also arrived at camp shortly after the U.S. was sw
ept over by nationwide protests for racial equality. Many of our staff hadn’t had an outlet to discuss these issues with others, due to the pandemic. We felt it was important to allow our staff to have these conversations. To do this, we set aside a few hours for our staff to have conversations about race and inequality in America – as part of our staff training.
The session was incredibly successful – allowing our minority staff to illuminate and illustrate their own feelings and concerns that other staff members may not have
realized. It led to a wonderful conversation and a great opportunity for our staff to know the “point people” to talk about this with. This allowed the staff to have a basis of understanding if and when their campers brought up similar issues when they arrived.
3. The 2020 election
Using the Wekeela voice as a platform was more important than ever. Due to international border closures, the majority of our 2020 staff was American. This presented an interesting opportunity for discussions about the 2020 U.S. Presidential election. Research suggests that young voters (ages 18-30) vote far less often than any other generation. By serving a community of staff that largely makes up this age group, we felt it was the responsible duty to at least educate and engage our staff on their rights and options to vote. Never discussing actual personal beliefs or political debate between candidates; it was important to help our staff understand simple and important things such as: how and where to register and when their deadlines to vote were. We ultimately hoped that our staff would register during the summer (which many did).
We tried to explain to the staff that their vote was their voice to be heard. We ultimately started a “WekeelaVotes” campaign urging our staff, alumni, and parents to commit to registering and voting in the 2020 Election. This was not to espouse political beliefs, but to encourage our community to participate in the most important franchise in our society – exercising their right to vote.
Ultimately, it is our belief that camps should at least consider giving the members of their community a place where they can ask questions about pressing current issues and have a “council” of help, if you will. While parents are essential in teaching campers to be resilient and setting them up for success, schools and camps can also play a significant role in this process. According to Dr. Brooks, a key feature of resilience is housed in what he calls “personal control,” that is, focusing your time and energy on what you have influence to change rather than on things beyond your control. While we may not have had control over the appearance of certain events such as COVID, we have more control than we realize over our attitude and response to these events, including wearing face masks and social distancing.” Camps can help kids to see that there are possible solutions to many problems with which they grapple—even kids who have experienced past trauma and feel even more vulnerable when confronted with current disruptive events. Fostering a community where campers and staff feel they have a voice—a voice that is listened to and respected—can be incredibly uplifting and, sometimes, life altering. Camps, just like any other business, have a platform and a voice. It is important for camps to use this voice as a force of good and change.