Campers Speak: New England youth share ideas on societal issues

by Bari S Dworken, Ed.D.

What do teens think about things that affect their health and well-being? What role does camp play? To find out, members of the American Camping Association New England Section, in conjunction with the University of Connecticut Cooperative Extension System and the C. Everett Koop Institute at Dartmouth College designed and conducted a project called "Conversations with Campers." Inspired by the Presidents' Summit for America's Future, the project asked youth attending New England camps in the summer of 1998 to participate in a series of focus groups. The campers were asked questions related to the topics of mentors, safety, nurture, skills, and service.

What They Said

Campers were asked specific questions in each of the five areas. The facilitators recorded the campers comments, some of which follow.

Mentors come in many shapes and sizes
Participants freely shared information about the mentors in their lives. Campers were clear about who their mentors were, why they admired them, and what their mentors had taught them.

A wide variety of people were mentioned as mentors. Parents, grandparents, sisters, cousins, stepparents, and aunts were the family members mentioned most frequently. Teachers, coaches, youth group advisors, pastors, guidance counselors, camp counselors, and friends were also important mentors. Some youth mentioned their belief in God or Jesus and the important qualities that biblical figures possessed and trials they encountered.

Participants mentioned that their mentors taught morals, respect for others, sharing, and honesty. Campers commented:

  • "My teacher's attitude toward life was that he knows what he loves and doesn't care what others think. He is content despite mistakes he has made in life."
  • "[Mentors] always make time for you."
  • "You can tell they understand even when they don't talk a lot."
  • "They let you take risks to grow. When you mess up they let you sort it out."
  • "A camp counselor taught me it was okay to be myself, serious and funny."
  • "My mentor showed me that I can lead a different life."

Participants mentioned that they admire many things about their mentors. They appreciated their sense of humor, ability to listen, personality, kindness, intelligence, respect for all people and privacy, trust, and understanding. Many of the mentors had healthy lifestyles, were mentally and spiritually strong, were able to express themselves well, and were fun to be with. Several had lived through adversity or were dealing with chronic illnesses in positive, uplifting ways. One camper said, "[A mentor is a person who] you respect so much that you'll go the extra mile to be like them and act like them."

Campers briefly mentioned heroes, describing them as people who seem to have achieved impossible goals. They mentioned that they don't really know their heroes. They may want to be like them, but they know they never will. The relationship that seemed most important to campers came only with a mentor, someone who they could relate to and get close to.

Safety a top concern
Safety was the most difficult topic for many participants to discuss since they had very strong feelings. Recently, physical safety has been a huge issue in U.S. school systems and communities. Youth are also very aware of situations that threaten their emotional safety. Many participants were able to compare the camp environment to that at home and in school.

Youth who participated in the project felt least safe at home when they were alone. A few wished that their parents were home more often. Those who lived in small, tight-knit neighborhoods for long periods of their lives basically felt safe. They knew that people watched out for them, that people were there to help them, and that there was mutual respect. The more people they knew, the safer they felt, even if the area was known as a "tough" neighborhood.

Some youth mentioned their fear of gangs, fires set next door, dogs that bite, and traffic. Church was considered a safe haven, and in some neighborhoods police made youth feel safer.

When asked how to make the community safer, most youth had few answers. One participant responded, "There isn't much you could do to change people to be nicer. All the security in the world can't hold some people back. If someone wants to harm you, they'll find a way."

Schools were considered safe by about half of the participants. The smaller the school, the safer it seemed since everyone knew one another. Those in private or parochial schools mentioned feeling physically safe. Some had older brothers or friends who looked out for them. Of those who felt unsafe, guns, weapons, drugs, fights at school dances, school cliques, intolerant people, and threats were mentioned most often as the reasons why. School security, guidance personnel, and diversity training increased feelings of safety.

The camp environment was considered a safe place for almost all of the campers. Campers commented:

  • "Lots of people care about you, and you don't have to worry about material or emotional needs."
  • "The world at camp is a lot nicer than on the outside."
  • "Safety is number one here!"

Most felt very safe with their counselors and felt that they would be there if anything happened. There were a few exceptions, including feeling that, at times, the camp nurse was not meeting their needs. Campers mentioned that they enjoyed a structured atmosphere with some familiar routines and benefitted from working in small groups.

Those who felt unsafe were most often anxious at night. They were unfamiliar with the darkness, animals, sounds of the night, and the isolation of many campsites. They had fears that someone might be in camp who was unsafe. A few thought that losing connection with the world outside of camp was a negative and that they should be able to call home at anytime. Some participants felt that they would feel safer at camp if they had a chance to meet everyone, tour the camp property more widely, and if communication was enhanced.

Emotionally, camp was a very positive environment for campers. Campers responses included:

  • "Camp is different than school in that we can be honest and get honest answers."
  • "At camp we don't need to impress anyone and there isn't the peer pressure."
  • "Here it is safe to be different, express myself, wear whatever I want, and say whatever I think, to be who we are."
  • "Actually, why I love camp so much is that it is a haven for a short period of time where you don't have to deal with all the emotional junk."

Balance key to health
In this topic, campers were asked questions, such as "What does it mean to be strong and healthy?" "How is it achieved and who helps you?" "What has camp taught you about being or staying healthy?" These questions were clearly understood by participants in the project.

Participants felt that health clearly encompasses both physical and emotional components. They believed that exercising and eating healthful food, in addition to getting appropriate sleep, practicing proper hygiene, and not abusing their bodies with drugs or alcohol were key. Most agreed that a healthy body was linked with a healthy mind.

Emotional health was achieved through several ways, such as playing music, reading, being socially active, laughing, having time for oneself, receiving encouragement and love from others, and having a positive attitude. Participants thought it was important to manage their own limits, do challenging activities and handle obstacles, be able to express what is on their mind, and be true to themselves and honest. They commented:

  • "You have to find a balance of when to be social and when to be alone."
  • "It is important to have confidence in myself and not always doubt myself."

While campers recognized that they needed to take responsibility for their own health, the person who was most often mentioned in helping them stay healthy was Mom. Other people who were important were family members, friends, parent's friends, and neighbors. The school system provided teachers, coaches, nurses, and counselors. At camp the counselors had a major influence, and the camp nurse was mentioned often. One camper said, "[It's important to have] someone believing in you and pushing you to the limits."

Many participants said that they were actually healthier at camp. They ate better, exercised more, were outside in the fresh air constantly, slept better, and enjoyed the pace of life. They believed that living in the camp community provided an environment where they were not judged as much and that they were accepted for who they were. Comments included:

  • "At camp everyone sees to it that we stay healthy."
  • "At camp we all watch out for each other."

When asked their opinions on the responsibility of society or the government in providing health care for those who cannot afford it, there was little response. Some knew of community clinics, and others said that the government should take care of it.

Camp teaches people skills
The skills section of the project focused on campers learning marketable skills. Campers were asked to what extent does this happen at camp, which skills in particular are emphasized, and whether this should be a priority for camps.

Participants believed that camps should be places where youth learn marketable skills in the area of people skills. They recognized that people skills are critical to function effectively in the world of work. The skills mentioned most frequently included:

  • expressing yourself and public speaking
  • tolerance and learning how to work with large groups of people
  • leadership skills
  • cooperation, compromise, and learning to deal with others
  • acceptance of self and body
  • conflict-resolution skills
  • communication skills
  • working in a diverse environment
  • budgeting
  • independence
  • trust and patience

Many of the campers felt that it was important to be "well rounded." They believed that camp taught this through the many different activities offered, such as sports, arts and music, outdoor adventure and hiking, and nature study. A few participants mentioned specific activities that might directly lead to career choices, such as outdoor education, teaching, working with young people, or starting a crafts business.

The youth believed that camps should focus on skills in moderation, having a structure that is flexible enough to allow for opportunities for learning. Campers commented:

  • "There is so much competition in the world we need to learn skills."
  • "I think it is very important that you set goals for yourself and work for them."
  • "I think a good camp's purpose is to give you marketable skills in a fun way so you don't necessarily realize that you are doing this to build for your future."
  • "Camp is a place you go to in the summer to have fun and learn new things and meet new people."

Community service helps campers feel good about themselves
The service section was the last component of the project. Several of the groups did not have time to complete it. Members of the groups that did showed a good understanding of who could use help, what makes people help others, what prevents people from helping others, the ways in which people help at camp, what is learned or experienced at camp that teaches people to help others, and how these experiences might be brought home to help the community.

Many participants felt that everyone needs help at sometime in their lives. One camper mentioned a friend who needed help, "Cindy needs my help because her little brother just died." Others in the groups mentioned specific categories of people such as those who were homeless, children at risk, older people, mentally impaired people, or physically disabled people. The participants seemed to understand that many people hadn't had the opportunities that they have.

A few participants felt people helped out of a sense of pity or guilt. However, an overwhelming majority of the campers believed that people want to help out of a sense of compassion and respect, a will to do what is right to make things as fair as possible for others. They gained a sense of accomplishment, self-confidence, and felt really good about themselves.

They felt people did not help others because they were scared of giving the wrong advice, of people with disabilities, of the unknown, or that they would be emotionally hurt. Others mentioned prejudice, racism, greed, laziness, it wasn't "cool," lack of finances, no time, no previous experience, and that they just didn't feel they should.

When asked when and how they helped others at camp, campers had many responses:

  • "I can give moral support, cooperate with others, listen, and participate."
  • "When someone is sad, just give them a smile and say hi."

Other participants felt they could help:

  • when others were homesick
  • when problems had to be worked out
  • by working with younger campers
  • by keeping the camp clean
  • by listening to others
  • by praising others

The campers felt that the skills they learned at camp - leadership, communication, organization, and decision making - were critical to serving others. In addition to these, teamwork and developing friendships were most important. One camper mentioned, "Service is a way of life at camp. Everything around here revolves around helping others."

The youth also understood that skills learned at camp could be effectively used in the community where they lived, and many campers have been doing community service. Campers most frequently mentioned using their leadership and organizational skills to clean up the environment, raise money for organizations, help at soup kitchens, and telephone the elderly.

A Look at Youths' Beliefs

The "Conversations with Campers" project offered a look into the beliefs, thoughts, and dreams of the children and youth camps serve each year. Perhaps it will help all camp directors better understand the children of today and the challenges they face.

Originally published in the 1999 September/October issue of Camping Magazine.

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