Summer camp is a time for both kids and staff to head up to the mountains. It’s a break from the day-to-day life back down in the valley. Camp de los Niños is a week long camp nestled in the Santa Cruz Mountains for kids 8 to 17 who have diabetes. It’s a place were they are no longer the only one who has diabetes. They are amongst their peers along a similar journey. It’s also summer camp in the truest sense: hiking, swimming, archery, and campfires. A bit of diabetes ed is tossed in throughout to help the kids learn good diabetes management skills.
This is my thirteenth year at camp (I counted wrong last year :)). I’m thankful that Atlassian has Foundation Leave so that as employees we can invest in philanthropies close to our hearts. Each year the mountains teach me something new about life – this year was no exception.
Usually a word, term, or a phrase resonates throughout the week. Last year it was all about “equipping and empowering,” This year at camp for me was really focused around people around me – campers, other counselors, the medical team, and the executive staff. We all have a place at camp but it’s the relationships between us that truly make the environment what it is.
Focusing on Unity
As a camp counselor your primary focus really is on your cabin. My co-counselor, Alex and I had 14 teenagers all between 14 and 16 years old. We definitely had our work cut out for us! As camp starts, counselors facilitate campers getting to know one another, making everyone feel welcome, and setting the tone for the week. It’s important that the cabin “gels” in those first few hours. Many of the kids (and the staff) come back year after year. It’s a tight knit group, but one that’s always open to new faces each year.
In 2008 Alex was a first year camper in my cabin. It was cool being co-counselors as we knew each other quite well and had a fair amount of camp experience between us. Teen camp at Camp de los Niños is a camp within a camp. Since the age range spans such a large group for the entire camp (8-17), it’s important to have activities where the teenagers feel like they have the camp of their own and the younger kids have something to look forward to as they get older.
Alex and I talked a lot about unity and cohesion over the week. While it’s important that each cabin establishes its own identity, it’s equally important that “teen camp” has its own identity as well. There were 40 teens and staff amongst 180 in the larger camp. We had to build unity within our own cabin, but also a great partnership with the girls’ cabin as we shared activities all throughout the week. That shared identity builds the foundation for teen camp.
All of the activities at camp are designed to engage the campers and unite the cabins. The game of cities is a camp favorite. It’s played at night and each cabin must travel around camp to find the cities in order represented by lights flashing in morse code. Sydney was well represented. It was located by the pool at the far edge of camp. Not quite a 14 hour flight, but a hike for the campers though!
Telling Great Stories
As many of you can imagine one of the big challenges comes with getting everyone settled back into the cabin at night. Everyone all across campus wants to share that last moment, experience, or joy before the counselors say – “lights out!” Last year my co-counselor had an outstanding idea of creating a running story each night involving both the boys and girls cabin. As an added bonus, rotating the location gives each cabin incentive to keep it clean as well! The story each night was about a half hour and completely extemporaneous. What surprised me was how the teenagers took a deep interest in the story. We just told them they had to be completely ready for bed by 10 PM as the story would begin on time. Needless to say, we always had a full crowd.
Because it worked so well last year, I wanted us to share the same tradition. Teen camp gets one night to sleep out of doors. There’s no tents or cabins. Everyone has sleeping bags out under the wide open sky. We kicked off the story out under the stars.
The story is titled and takes place in Montrose Parish, Louisiana. Think of it as a parody on One Tree Hill, Dawson’s Creek, Party of Five: a teenage melodrama. As the story begins, we meet Mitch and Chloe who are longtime friends that go to the state fair each year. Mitch is a high school senior, plays on the baseball team, and headed to college next year. Chloe is a year younger, very much into being active, and has big dreams for herself. Time sneaks up on both of them as they wonder if they are a couple since they’ve known each other a long time and do a lot of things together. They’ve been going state fair together for the past 10 years as family friends. This was the first year they were going alone.
Mitch just got a car earlier in the summer and was looking forward to taking Chloe to the fair. Halfway into the drive they had some major weather. The first night of the story ends with a loud BANG! No one is sure what happened to the dynamic duo. They’d have to wait for the next installment..
The fact that the storyline was extemporaneous really helped the campers engage – both the girls and boys. I’d have conversations with the campers during the day along the lines of:
“So, what’s going to happen next to Chloe and Mitch?” from one of the campers.
“I don’t know. What do you think should happen next? What’s something you’d like to see happen?”
“I think that…” and I got just about everything under the sun. Teenagers have incredible imaginations!
The next night opens in everyone realizes that Mitch and Chloe got into an accident due to the rough weather in their car was sinking in the swamp. Mitch’s shoulder was hurt and was unable to move. Chloe puts her lifeguard skills to full use bringing Mitch to safety on shore.
After recovering from the long swim, the dynamic duo hears a loud snort coming from the forest (provided by well-placed counseling staff). team camp called their bluff and the entire cabin burst into laughter. At this point we had to quickly backpedal and change the nature of the story to complete satire. Both Kerry and I narrating the story could barely keep from bursting into laughter.
Obviously since Mitch had a hurt shoulder, Chloe would have to go back into the swamp and retrieve Mitch’s crossbow to deal with the wild boar. It was fun narrating in such hyperbole to keep the campers’ attention and laughter going. Chloe single handedly saves the day. The marketer in me was just trying to get the kids interested in archery, which was our activity for the next day.
Once the boar was behind them, they saw Riley’s truck off in the distance. Riley was a character misunderstood and ostracized by the townspeople. Mitch knew being miles from cell service and no one expecting them for hours, he needed to connect with Riley to have a chance at getting home. The second night ends with a discussion between Mitch and Chloe if it’s better to wait or see if/how Riley might help them in their dilemma.
Kerry, who played Chloe got a lot of feedback from the teen girls that she wasn’t “engaged enough” in her character. Since the last night was moving quickly into satire we made a casting change that Kerry was now Mitch and I was Chloe. As the narrator made the announcement everyone burst into laughter.
The duo decided to have Mitch connect with Riley and it turned out that both of them shared a connection from being diabetic. We addressed some of the points they talk about in diabetes ed in the conversation between Riley and Mitch. At this point in the story I didn’t quite know how to bring it to closure so I went big.
Mitch and Riley met Chloe and they headed back into town. As they went into town they saw a big beam of light coming from the sky… They were snatched up by a spaceship and well camp would have to wait until next year to find out what happens to the dynamic duo.
For those of us who grew up in the 80s, you recognize the clear homage this story plays to the film, Flight of the Navigator.
Being a staff member just never gets old. Where else do you get to spend a week up in the mountains being a kid telling crazy stories? I’m already looking forward to next year!
A word of thanks…
Atlassian’s hands on approach to philanthropy is one of the key reasons I was interested in working here. We are unique in our commitment in making the world, our world, a better place to be. All Atlassians are encouraged to use Foundation Leave to spend 5 working days to make the local community a better place to be with an approved organization. How do you know you found the right place? Find your greatest joy and match it with one of the world’s needs.
Also, philanthropy can be a great place to learn new skills too. I didn’t think I’d be great with kids when I first started working at camp. Turns out that I had a knack for it and still doing it some 11 years later. 🙂 You never know unless you try.