Written by Audrey “Sunshine” Monke
I have to admit, I was caught off guard by the profound revelations shared at our closing campfire for our “graduating” campers. These are high school kids heading into 10th grade, and they were emotional about completing their final year as campers. The campfire started with counselors calling up each camper and presenting a wooden paddle commemorating their time at camp. Each paddle was engraved with the camper’s name and included as many black notches as the years they had spent at camp. Most of the paddles had at least four or five notches, but some had as many as nine or ten. These were experienced campers who loved coming to camp and returned year after year.
We thanked them for sharing a piece of their childhood with us and told them that, although this part of their Gold Arrow life is over, camp will always be a second home for them, that we’ll always love them and consider them part of the GAC family, whether they make it back as counselors or not. We also told them what amazing kids they were to choose sleeping outdoors over sleeping in and sitting around a campfire instead of sitting in front of an XBox. We urged them to be positive leaders at home and take the lessons they learned at camp to teach others about making healthy and happiness-boosting choices in life.
After their counselors spoke about each of them and shared words of affirmation and encouragement, I asked the kids if they wanted to share anything they had learned at camp they might use throughout their lives. What they shared astounded me. I knew we had a special gig going here, and that we were focused on providing a positive, healthy community where kids could have fun, make friends, and grow, but I guess I hadn’t heard – straight from the campers – the specific life lessons that they learned at camp in such direct and heartfelt words.
I wasn’t recording them, and I was tearing up so I may have missed a few, but here is some of what our graduating campers shared about what they learned at camp.
“I learned how to be happy.”
“I learned to be myself and not worry what other people think.”
“I learned the beauty of simplicity and simple living.”
“I learned how to make friends with all different kinds of people and that anyone can be your friend.”
“I learned to live in the moment and just enjoy where I am now rather than worrying about the future.”
“I learned to take risks and challenge myself and not worry about looking stupid if I fail.”
“I learned how great it is to put away my phone and connect face-to-face.”
After the first time we had the kids share, I told them I was amazed at their words, and that they had just shared wisdom that many adults haven’t yet learned. Truly, I was blown away by what they said they learned at camp. And that was just the first session of the summer.
There were four of these Paddle Ceremonies this summer, and similar expressions emerged from each one. I asked for the kids to share – only if they wanted to – what they learned at camp, and so many of them shared personal, wise lessons they had learned over their many years here. There were lots of tears and hugs, and the counselors were moved by the campers’ wisdom; it made them sad to say goodbye.
As I look back on those memorable campfires, I am left with a profound sense of gratitude for our graduating campers. I am sure I am not the only adult who learned something from them, that what we do at summer camp is so very important.