I recently spent a week volunteering as a camp counselor. I've never done anything like that, and I was really nervous about the experience beforehand. This camp was for kids with chronic or severe illnesses. I had never really worked with kids outside of Reading to Kids, and in particular I had never done a lot hands-on in the medical world.
I ended up learning a ton -- about medicine, kids, philosophy, and myself. It was a lot of fun, and I'm sad it went by so quickly. Below are my top 10 lessons learned from the experience.
1. All kids share something unique and human in common.
I was initially afraid of the kids, worrying about what they'd be like and how I could possibly "lead" them. It turned out that all the kids were silly, playful, and interested in the same things: sports, art, creativity, imagination, cars, video games, and super heroes. We had a group of boys aged 7 to 11, and there was something core that they all shared as boys and connected through.
They bonded as boys and as friends, not as kids who were sick. They were happy, optimistic and interested in having fun. That was so awesome to see and facilitate.
2. Treat people as people, not as illnesses or ideas.
The entire experience was about having fun at camp, doing everything you've wanted to do, and having all your medical/physical needs met behind the scenes. While the medical stuff could've been front and center, it rarely emerged or was discussed. Everyone was having too much fun.
I recently saw the movie The Intouchables. Not only was this movie awesome because it was in French, but it was a deeply moving story (I'm not ashamed to admit that I cried at the end for a while and am still thinking about the movie). It was about an amazingly authentic and honest man who took care of a handicapped man and treated him like a person, not as a handicapped person.
It's so easy and natural for us to label and categorize and generalize. It's much harder but much more effective to deal with the facts of each person's situation and approach each individual as a human with desires and a separate experience, one that might be very similar to your own in many ways.
3. Spending time among men doing manly things is great.
I got to spend a week bonding with guys and spending time as men together. it's not something I'm lucky enough to do on a regular basis, and it's something that I've learned is important in a man's development and growth. It was fun to beat our chests, play competitive games, and jointly write our cabin's "Man Laws" which we enforced with vigor and pride.
Because the camp was pretty much technology-free for a week, I learned that I can survive perfectly well on 30 minutes of email once per day. That was pretty liberating.
4. Finding your inner kid isn't so hard; you just have to be open to it.
When the camp started, I realized how out of place and inside my head I felt. We were doing cheers and games, and I kept worrying about how silly I looked. I wondered how I could let myself be more free, how I could let myself yell and sing. I found that just by practicing some of the camp cheers and being around others who were already more "loose" and open, I could open up too. Doing art and sports helped as well.
I'm naturally so much in my head that I found I had trouble relaxing at times, and I kept thinking that my own personality wasn't as funny or silly as some of the other more funny counselors and guys in our group. It took practice and intention, but I found that I could accept myself and feel silly like a kid too if I let my guard and shell down for a bit. It was interesting going through the experience of being a kid while also being an adult.
5. Counselors at camps can have a lot of fun, for the kids and for themselves.
We played awesome games, did improv activities, sang lots of funny cheers that I still repeat to myself at home for fun, and ate lots of s'mores. It was awesome. Even during training, with no kids around, we were doing cheers and games. I learned a big lesson about camp culture: everyone at camp is positive, happy, open, and (literally) cheerful all the time, and that's a cool way to be.
Maybe this "fun" wears off after a while, but I hope not. I know this "fun" can also get tiring for the staff and takes a lot of work, so I feel very appreciative of and impressed by all the staff who works at camps all summer. I can see the dedication and endurance that requires, and I applaud it. I was so impressed by how down to earth, respectful, energetic, positive, and smart all my fellow counselors were.
6. Kids are great at taking care of themselves, and sickness can force them to grow up quickly.
I was really impressed how most of the kids knew about their conditions and knew how to deal with their own treatments very well (keeping the adult nurses on their toes). I can see how experiences cause them to think about "adult" topics like health and medications earlier than one would have to if one didn't have a condition, and I acknowledge what's in them that allows them to grow up quickly in this regard.
7. in dealing with kids, tone of voice and parenting tricks help a ton.
In dealing with the campers in my room, I quickly learned that adult tone of voice and reason/rationality don't work that well. I needed to learn a special tone of voice, and I found myself emulating some of the more experienced counselors' words and tone, and that worked much better. It felt to me like the tone sounded more female, higher pitched, which makes me wonder how a modern "man"/father can raise kids without mimicking a mother. I realized that camp is a good place to learn parenting.
8. Games and daily rituals help teach lessons.
There were lots of little games and rituals that occurred that gave kids a good structure for the day and also taught them valuable lessons. I thought it was cool how they were learning in such a casual way. For example, there was a song when a meal ended, and it meant everyone would dance and clean up their own dishes. There was a game to see who would get to wash their hands first (and a song for hand washing). There was a ritual of making a wish before a meal. There was a song for drinking water and hydrating. There was a Book of Firsts that announced the proud moments of "firsts" of the various campers' accomplishments for the day. There was also the concept of "warm fuzzies," which were written or oral acknowledgements of each other, good vibes people would send to each other with special hand gestures or little notes placed in individually-designed bags. That was such a cool ritual.
If people acknowledged each other in the real world and sent each other warm fuzzies like we did at camp, the world would be a better place.
9. Daily quiet rest hour in the afternoon and cabin chat at the end of day were a great way to collect one's thoughts and lessons learned from the day.
A time to rest in the middle of the day and a time to process the day's highs and lows provided some great opportunities for reflection, introspection, bonding, and learning about each other and ourselves. This ritual has direct applications for business and adult relationships.
10. Camp life -- 24/7/365.
The lessons and ideas from "camp" can be applied to real life, every day. Cheers can be great even (maybe especially) for adults to relax, cheer up, and drop our pretenses. Camp makes you ask yourself, "How can I practice giving love fully?" Camp is good practice for this, and so is real life. Can you keep an attitude of being in camp all the time in the real world, acknowledging others around you authentically and being positive? I think you can; it just takes some trying and being silly.