Why we need summer camp

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“My parents said I’m going to learn more about real life in this week of camp than in an entire year of school.” ~ Camper

The kitchen felt chaotic as 18 youth aged 11 to 15 prepared three different meals of their choosing. One group cut up chicken for Pho’, another made pasta with a pasta maker, and a third group tossed a green salad while they waited for their pizza dough to rise. As I jumped from group to group, I hoped that the food would taste okay.

This cooking class, facilitated by Chaco Canyon Cafe Head Chef Lois Blanford Rivera, was the culminating event of a week of activities around growing, meal planning, buying, cooking, and eating food. During the week, we visited the Seattle Tilth Teaching Garden and UW Farm, planned our meals and made S’mores at Golden Gardens, shopped for ingredients at Pike Place Market, and got our hands dirty with University YMCA volunteers at our Roots and Shoots Community Garden.

The moment of truth arrived. We filled our plates with delicious smelling food and headed outside to eat in the sunshine. Despite having 18 cooks in the kitchen, the broth was perfect, the BBQ chicken pizza was delicious, and the homemade pasta was transcendent. As we ate, everyone shared one thing they learned. One youth shared that “I learned food tastes better when you make it with your own hands.” Another said, “I learned how to make food that I usually buy in a box.” I smiled, hearing youth confirm they’d learned the lessons I’d tried to so hard to impart.

That afternoon, a parent called to see if she could enroll her son in another week of camp. Her son is autistic, so she’d signed him up for one week of camp to try it out. When week 1 went well, she signed him up for a second week. At the end of the week, she gave me a call. Her son was asking to sign up for another couple of weeks at camp. For the first time, he was successful at a mainstream camp program. She gratefully thanked me and my “gang of misfits” for creating an environment where he could fit in.

I love it when my kids say they learned something at camp. When they report that they learned “more about real life in this week of camp than in an entire year of school” I’m tickled pink. But I care more that I’ve assembled a gang of misfits and helped them become a community. As schools become increasingly segregated and tracked, and as afterschool activities become more specialized, kids have fewer opportunities to get to know folks who are different from them. Youth programs in general, and summer camp in particular, can be one of the few places where kids from different backgrounds come together. As far as I’m concerned, that’s the biggest success of camp this summer.

Reflections from my summer leading Quest Camp at the University Family YMCA. It was a blast! Check out more of their youth and community programs at www.universityfamilyymca.org/





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