When I first came to CAP I expected to spend a year volunteering and figuring out my “next step.” I thought that when I left I would be leaving for somewhere – I would have a clear plan of what I wanted to do next. Then I got toward the end of my first term and realized that what I wanted to do next was continue volunteering. When that term was up, I thought I would be headed back to school, with the next two years of my life set. That didn’t end up happening either, and I decided to stay for one last summer. Now I’m leaving and I don’t have a clear plan. It’s scary, but it’s time.
I know it’s cliche to say, but my two years at CAP have given me more than I ever could have expected. The friendships I’ve formed with my fellow volunteers are some of the most meaningful relationships in my life. I know that I can be the crazy, ridiculous, nerdy person that I am and that I will be accepted and loved for all of my quirks. I know that no matter what is going on, I have someone to talk it over with or distract me from it. I know that my housemates have my back, but they’ll let me know if they think I’m making a mistake. It’s pretty incredible to be around people who affirm you and love you, but who also know you’re not perfect and accept you anyway.
As much as I value each person in my community, I’m especially going to miss who we are when we’re together. I’ve had several former volunteers tell me how communities make each other weirder the more time they spend together, and it’s definitely true for the Jackson Hood (what we affectionately call the Jackson Volunteer Community). We have our own way of speaking and showing our affection that just doesn’t translate to the rest of the world. There are so many times that I’ve just shared a look with one of my housemates and then laughed until there were tears running down my face. I’m going to miss those dinners and the long nights spent couch sitting instead of sleeping. I’m also going to miss the adventures we had, and the way that anything could be turned into an adventure. My housemates have taught me how to be comfortable with myself and to let my goofy side out.
My work at Camp AJ has enabled me to grow into a person that I’m proud to be. I’ve always enjoyed working with children, but summer camp and my work in the schools have given me a true passion for them. I’ve seen what a huge difference a little bit of positive attention can make for a kid. I’ve watched kids have the time of their life at a camp that values relationships over fancy equipment. Through my work with after-school reading programs, I’ve learned the importance of patience and persistence. When a child sees that you’re not going to give up on him, he starts to believe in himself.
Working as the camp coordinator this summer has been an incredible experience for me. I miss really getting to know a group of kids the way I did as a counselor, but as coordinator I get to know more of the kids, and I get to spend time with the ones who need a little extra help. I got to know one homesick camper while I waited with him for his mom, I talked to campers who were acting out, and I got earplugs for an unhappy teen during the dance. I talked to teen girls about self-esteem, being themselves, and building each other up. At the end of a session filled with heartbreaking stories about difficult situations they were dealing with, I asked them about their dreams and was inspired by all the goals they had for themselves.
My job is ridiculous. I fill up water balloons, hand out spirit points (AKA pom-poms), gather gross food for skits, and constantly check the weather. I make up the schedules and make sure that the controlled chaos of camp actually is controlled. I supervise the counselors, and in doing so I’ve come to realize just how amazing all of them are and how wonderful this place is. It’s so awesome to see the counselors interacting with the kids – inventing new cheers and songs, letting them ride on their back as part of a skit, comforting homesick campers, and making up stories to get the kids to bed at night. They build up the campers and each other, and they put camp before themselves. The love that is contained in this place is truly remarkable.
Our theme for the summer was “Dream Big”, and I think it perfectly captures everything that camp is about. It’s the stories that are passed down year after year, like Big Mama, the giant turtle who lives under our dock, and the new stories that are created every week, like Victor the Cougar. It’s about cheering as loud as you can at talent night for the kids that have found the courage to sing or dance or make weird noises in front of a group of people. It’s about finding what’s special about each camper and giving them an award that captures that uniqueness. It’s about encouraging the campers to have dreams and then believe in themselves enough to accomplish them.
I’m going to miss this place – the physical beauty of the lake, the mountains, and the trees; the spiritual beauty of an organization and group of people dedicated to serving others; and the beautiful relationships I’ve formed with my housemates, coworkers, and participants. Leaving is hard, but CAP and Camp AJ will always be in my heart. They’ve changed the way I look at the world, and for that I am incredibly grateful.
“Though I am still always myself, I believe I have been changed to the very marrow of my bones.” – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Erin C. was a long-term CAP Volunteer in Educational and Recreational Programming and a summer employee at Camp Andrew Jackson. To see pictures from Summer Camp 2013, visit CAP's Facebook page.