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The Gift of Camp

Sarah Danielski

By Elizabeth Topliffe, Head of School

What would you think if I sang out of tune?

Would you stand up and walk out on me?

Lend me your ears and I'll sing you a song

And I'll try not to sing out of key

Oh, I get by with a little help from my friends

--Billy Shears


Toward the end of September, our elementary community will leave for their 7th-annual two-day trip to Camp Henry. All of our 1st through 6th-years, all of our elementary staff, and a few extra chaperones will be at Camp Henry in Newaygo overnight. 

Here is what I have learned from our students at camp.

The Importance of a Community

We all learn best when we feel a strong sense of community. 

Camp acts as a catalyst for community creation. Our students are placed in groups with students of different ages and in different classrooms. They have physical challenges as well as mental challenges. They must function as a team to succeed. 

During my first year at camp, I thought we had failed to create a community. I watched as some of our students sat out, opted for the sidelines, or refused to engage. In the first year of camp, I felt irritated by this. We had worked so hard to get our students there, and this was how they behaved?

Boy, did I need a lesson! Every single year, without fail, our students have come together as a group by the end of the first day. They find ways to support one another, and before long, everyone is actively engaged.

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Everyone Counts

I remember one particular year when a small group was struggling to cross a rope bridge. One of our younger students repeatedly stepped off the rope, walked away, and it was clear he was struggling to stay engaged. 

This student moved things around, tried to hide things from the camp counselor, and was generally disruptive. I think most of this was done because he was struggling with the task. At one point, he took a belt from the counselor’s things. 

She immediately smiled and told the whole group that this was the Magic Belt! It allowed the group to have a few people come off the rope without starting over. AND, this friend had found it. What a wonderful discovery, and how lucky we were to have a friend like this who found the magic belt and shared it! 

That friend had been struggling to function in the group. And then, he became the hero for the team. That was absolutely beautiful to witness.

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I Can Do It!

Camp includes challenges. Many of our students have not passed a dish of food around a table. Some are afraid to even put on a harness at the zip line. A few have never made their own bed. Some of our students truly struggle to carry their things to the cabin, keep them organized, and then re-pack the next day. 

These sound like small things. I can attest to how big these are.

One year, a friend knocked an entire pitcher of juice into a student’s lap. The student with the lapful of juice, sputtered, and spoke in a very irritated tone. The student who spilled cried, and felt awful. She froze. 

Soon, another student came over. She reassured the first student that it was just an accident. She offered to help clean up the mess. They did the cleaning together. They apologized to the student who had juice all over himself. He eventually agreed that it was just an accident, and he went back to his cabin to change into different clothes.

Problem solved.

They managed a situation that might have been difficult for many adults. They did it without adults helping, and they did it beautifully.

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Our students leave camp with a sense of confidence about being able to manage in polite society without adult intervention. This is a wonderful step in gaining full independence.

Our students leave camp with a sense of confidence about being able to manage in polite society without adult intervention. This is a wonderful step in gaining full independence.

Spending the Night

Every year, parents ask about whether it is okay for our first years to spend the night away from home. Every year, I say yes. Do we occasionally have a home-sick student? We certainly do.

And, when a student is missing home, a few friends come over to comfort him. They ask what they can do. They offer to sit with him until he feels better. They help him make his bed.

And, eventually, that student feels better. The older students who counseled and encouraged him realize that they have purpose and power in the community. They learn empathy and compassion. They remember their first time at camp, and they offer whatever they can to help that student feel better.

And the homesick student? He learns that even when he feels sad, he can get through it. With a little help from his friends.

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