“So, who wants to eat a termite?” asked our guide. I was standing in a jungle in Belize this summer with a group of high school students, just hours off the plane. He broke open a brown nest hanging from a tree and we watched the bugs crawl out and swarm over each other.
“I’ll go for it!” I volunteered, as everyone else took a step away. People looked at me like I was crazy. Before I could change my mind, I squished the termite with my finger, and quickly put it in my mouth.
“It tastes a little like mint,” I ventured, and after that others were curious and tried one, too. Over the next two weeks, these 14 strangers became my close friends as we experienced the wonders of the diverse nature and marine life in Belize, home to The Great Blue Hole and the second largest barrier reef in the world, as well as the ultimate destination for divers and marine biologists.
When I was six, I started going to Gold Arrow Camp, a two-week sleep-away summer camp, where I not only developed my love of nature and adventure, but also my courage to try new things, and connect with new people. I was excited to experience all the outdoor activities, friendships, and fun that I’d heard about from my older sister, but I was also a little nervous and very shy. After a six hour bus ride, I was greeted by my counselors and cabin mates, who had arrived earlier. Everyone was cheering and I felt self-conscious with all the attention on me. We hiked up a hill to our cabin, which was surrounded by trees and was actually a wooden deck with a green canvas tent for a roof and walls. There was no electricity and the rustic bathrooms were a half mile away. I felt far away from home and I was definitely out of my comfort zone.
We headed down to the waterfront for our first activity – canoeing.
“Climb in,” exclaimed my counselor enthusiastically, handing me a wooden paddle that was taller and heavier than I was. I sat down on the bottom of the canoe into a puddle of cold water, which quickly soaked through my shorts. I could barely pull the paddle through the water, let alone synchronize with my cabin mates. My counselor called out, “Paddle! Paddle! Paddle!” Tears formed in my eyes.
Gold Arrow Camp is located in the Sierras on the shores of Huntington Lake, so the camp has lots of watersports, including waterskiing and wakeboarding, as well as canoeing and sailing. When I was younger, I was really afraid of the water because I thought fish were going to bite me. The first time I tried to water ski, I wore bright green goggles so that water wouldn’t splash in my eyes and so I could watch out for those fish in case I went under. I lost my balance and wiped out. When I wanted to get back in the boat, my counselor threw me in the water and made me try again, but I vowed I would never go in the lake after that.
Then, in my third year, a counselor encouraged me and inspired me to attempt to conquer my fear of the water and fish. He explained, “The fish are more scared of you than you are of them.” I was tentative, but admired the counselor and wanted to live up to his expectations, so I jumped in the lake and got up on my water skis! I discovered that I wasn’t thinking about the fish once I was skimming across the water because I was having so much fun! It was a huge breakthrough for me and I now love all water sports, and water in general, whether lake, pool, or ocean. As the years have gone by, I have gotten better and better at water skiing and wakeboarding. I can even slalom ski and do lots of tricks on a wakeboard like doing a 180 degree turn while getting air on the wake. I find it easier to conquer my fears and go for things even if they are scary because of my experiences at Gold Arrow Camp. And I’m not frightened of the fish anymore. I actually love fish and want to be a marine biologist!
This summer was my 10th and final year at Gold Arrow, so I wanted to take advantage of every opportunity I could. I jumped into the *40 degree lake without hesitation and cleared the wake on a wakeboard; I sang at the top of my lungs and danced like no one was watching; I welcomed the newcomers with cheers and whispered into the night across bunks with my cabin mates. I even went backpacking in a hailstorm. We hiked five miles to the campsite with rain dripping down our heads and soaking our backpacks, but I didn’t mind because the scenery was beautiful and I was getting to know some new friends. When we arrived at our destination, all the wood was too wet to start a fire, so we had to run all over to find some dry sticks. We were miserable, but laughing. The rain and hail cleared up just in time for us to cook dinner over our campfire and then watch an amazing sunset. As we sat together on a rock overlooking the golden lake, I reflected on how far I’d come since my first year.
Gold Arrow Camp is such a special and meaningful place to me that I wear a bracelet stamped with its longitude and latitude coordinates. I’m too old now to return to Gold Arrow as a camper, but it will always be in my heart, wherever I go. My experiences at camp are how my journey to Belize all started and why I traded in those bright green goggles for a professional snorkel mask.
So now you know my story and how I came to be balanced on the edge of our small white boat off the coast of Belize, watching the sleek dark forms gliding in the clear water below me. I touch the bracelet on my wrist and tighten my mask before diving in. Under the water, I am surrounded by curious nurse sharks. Cool, I’m swimming with a school of sharks! I’m not even worried that they will bite me.
*Editor’s note: Huntington lake is brisk, but the summer water temperature ranges from the 60s to 70s. Shaver Lake water temperature typically is in the upper 70s.
“A profound gap exists between the knowledge and skills most students learn in school and the knowledge and skills they need for success in their communities and workplaces.”
-Partnership for 21st Century Skills
“Having started at Gold Arrow as a little seven year old, I have grown up here. Camp has become my home away from home, and I can honestly say it has shaped who I am today. It has given me confidence and taught me skills far beyond learning how to wakeboard or horseback ride. I am comfortable with myself, I am patient, and I have learned how to become a leader.”
-Katie “Rascal” Baral, 10 year Camper
Parents, educators, and youth development professionals are well-versed in the phrase “21st Century Skills.” The phrase encompasses our current understanding of the urgent need for our children to be learning more than how to read, write, and do math. There are many other skills needed to grow into productive, successful adults. As I look at the list of 21st Century Skills, I am struck by how many of the skills are intentionally modeled and taught at camp. Following are five specific 21st Century skills that children learn at camp:
1. WORKING CREATIVELY WITH OTHERS
Campers learn to work creatively with others through working towards goals with their cabin group. Even something as simple as collaborating on a skit, song, or dance requires being open and responsive to different perspectives and incorporating group input. An important aspect of creativity and innovation is being able to “view failure as an opportunity to learn.” At camp, with every new and challenging activity, campers are encouraged to challenge themselves and persevere past failure. They learn that “creativity and innovation is a long-term, cyclical process of small successes and frequent mistakes.”
From the moment they arrive at camp, campers have the opportunity to practice and hone their communication skills. Gathered around the campfire on the first evening, campers talk about themselves in front of their small cabin group. They also listen to others share about themselves. At meals, campfires, and while walking around camp and participating in activities, counselors guide discussions about deeper issues and make sure all campers participate, even those who are less outgoing. Listening skills are addressed and enhanced through practice. Without the distractions and escape of technology, campers practice articulating thoughts and ideas and listening to the ideas of others throughout their time at camp.
When working together at Team Building, during cabin clean up, or while preparing fora performance, campers learn important collaboration skills. They learn that they need to be flexible. They often learn another important collaboration skills, which is that it is often necessary to make compromises to accomplish a goal. Counselors encourage campers to share responsibility for tasks and work together. Campers are also encouraged to value and acknowledge each individual contribution made by team members.
4. SOCIAL AND CROSS-CULTURAL SKILLS
Learning to interact effectively with others is an important social skill that doesn’t come naturally to all people. At camp, counselors guide campers to learn when it is appropriate to listen and when it is appropriate to speak. Counselors also require that campers respectfully listen to others’ opinions and treat others with respect.
For many campers, their time at camp is their first opportunity to meet and live with people from other cultures. Camp offers the opportunity for kids to form friendships with staff and campers from other countries. Camp provides the opportunity for campers to gain a respect for and work effectively with people from a range of cultural backgrounds. On International Day each session, we celebrate and learn about our international campers and staff.
5. LEADERSHIP AND RESPONSIBILITY
Guiding and leading others is an important 21st Century skill. In campers’ early years at camp, they learn basic responsibility for themselves and those around them. Even our youngest campers have the opportunity to lead others in a song or game. As they get older, campers gain more of an understanding of how their words and actions influence others, and they learn how to positively use their leadership skills.
While academics are important, children need other skills to be successful. Camp offers an ideal setting for campers to learn and enhance many of the non-academic 21st Century Skills. One line of our camp song says, “I sure did learn much more here than I ever did at school.” And, when learning is viewed as more global than the subjects listed on the report card, that is an incredibly profound and true statement.
Read about all of the 21st Century Skills at www.p21.org.