By Chuck “Woody” Radke, GAC Historian and longtime staff member
I’ve had the unique privilege of spending parts of 21 summers at Gold Arrow Camp, where my twin, 13-year-old daughters—as well as my 7-year-old son—have had the even more unique opportunity to attend as campers. Recently, I had a chance to talk with a young woman (nicknamed, “Tango”) who works at the camp as a head counselor. I’d heard great things about a “friendship academy” for teenaged girls she’d started at Gold Arrow, the goal of which was to find ways to mitigate negative behavior like gossiping and introduce opportunities to build positive relationships.
Hmmm. Did I mention I have two teenaged daughters? I was intrigued.
Tango started at Gold Arrow a few years back as a group counselor for oldest girls, and though she loved the experience, one thing that troubled her was the formation of cliques within her cabin groups and those of others who worked with older girls. “The social dynamic was always an issue for me,” Tango said, “especially the gossiping.” For her, it was more than just basic teen girl talk; in such a small group (8-10 campers), it was a dynamic that had the potential for being very hurtful, and she wanted to do something about it. So, when she returned in 2015 as a head counselor, she had her chance. At the beginning of the summer, she designed exercises and games for what she called “Tango’s Friendship Academy.” She called her curriculum Creating Positive Friendships at Camp and shared it with the counselors at Gold Arrow assigned to older girls’ cabins. “I wanted a way for counselors to create strong foundations,” she said, “so I started with these tools.”
Tango’s program is chock-full of exercises adapted from Susan Fee’s Circle of F.R.I.E.N.D.S., a curriculum designed to help girls develop self-awareness, confidence, and skills in five core areas: positive self-image, healthy friendships, conflict resolution and communication, emotional strength, and stress management. F.R.I.E.N.D.S. is an acronym for Feeling Respect, Independence, Encouragement, Nourishment, Determination, and Sisterhood, all of which Tango knew she wanted girls to experience during their stay at Gold Arrow. In one module, Tango incorporated variations of Fee’s “Circle Talk” questions into an exercise for counselors to share with their cabin groups around the evening campfire. They were questions like “What’s one thing you wish your friends would stop saying?” and “In your school, what’s it like for a girl who doesn’t have friends?” Good questions, and plenty of them, all meant to encourage girls to dialogue honestly and respectfully with one another. For me, they are the types of questions I could easily start asking around the family dinner table once camp is over.
During my first week here, Tango introduced her friendship academy to a group of girls at the Shaver Island waterski outpost. She circled them up on the beach with their counselor and asked the girls to practice positive, genuine compliments, beginning with words like “I appreciate when you…” or “You’re special because….” Tango’s goal with the exercise was to direct girls to a specific, “giving” vocabulary, something beyond superficial statements like “That’s a nice shirt” or “I like that color on you.” Another goal was to teach girls about giving intangible gifts, which is the foundation for strong friendships. Such exercises also teach girls working through one or more of Fee’s five core areas how to overcome problems themselves. Girls struggling with self-esteem, for example, will grow from opportunities (like those offered at Gold Arrow) to develop their unique abilities, skills, and interests, which they can better identify when they learn to both give and receive genuine praise that highlights internal strengths. Some of the girls I talked with after the academy’s Shaver Island installment were so enthusiastic, they immediately wrote their parents and friends at home. Their message? We’re bringing these skills back with us. Said one participant, “It felt really good to make others feel really good.”
Of course, as a parent, it feels really good for me to know that Tango and other counselors are pouring themselves into my teenaged daughters, providing them with tools they can use once camp is over and they get back to their everyday lives. My job then is to help them use those tools and provide additional support as they navigate the highs and lows of their journeys after they get home.
Bravo, Tango! Your friendship academy is a smashing success!