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Out of the Woods

In the summers of 2007 and 2008 I worked at a summer camp in central Michigan. It was an amazing place, sitting on hundreds of acres of forests and fields and centered around an enormous lake, accessible only to the camp itself. Those summers I was in charge of the Counselor-in-Training program along with another staff member. Every two weeks a new group of CITs would arrive, mostly former campers between fourteen and sixteen years old. The majority had been going to camp for years, and often camp spanned generations with parents and even grandparents being alumni from summers long past. These CITs knew the songs and skits, the trails and cabins, the official camp history and the (often more entertaining) gossip from previous years. And here they were, ready for two weeks of training to be a camp counselor and, arguably more importantly, ready to be the very cool, very mature oldest campers on camp. To wit, teenagers.

My co-counselor and I kept the CITs busy as we alternated between specific leadership training times and leading different camp activities, such as archery or swimming. As each day progressed, we gave more leeway to the CITs, letting them choose activities they would lead or cabin groups they wanted to assist with. One of the biggest lessons we tried to impart was that of responsibility for campers. They were the top priority in activities, in safety, and in care. Staff needs, while not unimportant, always came second to the children assigned to us. By the end of the two week session, we had a clear feeling on each of the CITs and whether they’d be a good future fit for a coveted camp staff position. Over the course of ten weeks each summer, we would instruct and assess around forty to fifty CITs, and each year there were only two to three junior counselor positions available, so competition was fierce.

It was almost halfway through my second summer that the incident happened.

The incident began when a camper from a younger cabin, around eleven years old, had been pushed by another camper, causing him to fall to the ground. He responded by attempting to push back, but was reprimanded by their counselor who hadn’t seen the initial interaction. In his frustration, he bolted, running off into 600-some acres of Michigan wilderness. There were a few dirt roads, but very little signage, and it was a hot summer day.

The two counselors and Scott, the CIT assigned to them for the afternoon, were quick to respond, with one staff making an emergency call, and the other keeping the other campers occupied. They were surprised when Scott jumped into action. “I think I know where he went!” he exclaimed. Then, he dashed off through the undergrowth and was similarly gone.

Other staff arrived, and over the course of fifteen minutes had begun to spread out according to search protocol, calling the camper’s name. After a tense time, a shout was finally heard. It was Scott, emerging from the pines with the camper on his back.

Later that night, around a s’more fire, I asked him to fill me in. How did he find the camper, and how did he get him back so quickly? Scott told me it was relatively straightforward. A few days before he had been with the same group for a hike through the same area. It was then that he first saw this camper having a hard time socializing. Scott had done his best to cheer him up in that moment, including showing him how certain low growing eastern hemlocks were really good for shelter from the rain. A few days later, when the boy ran off, Scott took a gamble and was proven right when he found him in the same stand of trees. They chatted, the boy complained, Scott listened. It turned out that there had been bullying throughout the week, hidden from camp staff, and frustration had boiled over. After listening to the camper’s side of the story, Scott was able to convince him to rejoin his group. As the pair started over a hill, Scott heard the calls and yelled back.

“It’s really weird,” Scott told me as we roasted our marshmallows, “I didn’t know that kid a few days ago, and I swear I didn’t even think about going to find him, my legs just went.” His face was a study in concentration as he seemingly grappled with caring about a person who was not a family member or a friend.

As individuals who work with children know, there are so many disparate ways in which we are responsible for them: their educational growth, their mental health, their physical well-being. That day at camp, Scott learned that a position that initially seemed easy (lead fun activities, make sure they don’t get hurt!!) was actually an enormous responsibility. Educators (in and out of schools) are asked to be responsible for lessons and activities, safety, supplies, communications, and a host of other things, but it’s that sense of responsibility for student well-being that brings a school or organization together.

We had shared responsibility with Scott throughout the session and helped him to understand our shared purpose; when an incident arose, Scott felt empowered by that sense of common purpose to act. He also demonstrated a trait that we looked for in all of our future counselors: an innate understanding of the power of connection and relationships. Scott had noticed a camper having a hard time and had responded to it. A few days later, that relationship helped prevent a small incident from becoming something larger and much more serious.

How do you develop a sense of shared purpose in your classrooms or schools? How do you prioritize relationships? We’d love to hear from you!


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