Sunshine, Smiles & Transformation

A week at The Mountaineers summer camp, by a camper turned volunteer camp counselor (who has come back this year as a camp counselor!).
Placeholder Contact Profile Sarah Draves
June 07, 2016
Sunshine, Smiles & Transformation
by Sarah Draves, camp counselor 2016

I arrived early on my first day at Junior Mountaineers Summer Camp, excited to meet all the kids and ready to learn how this camp worked and what to do. After meeting the other counselors, my co-counselor Christoph and I read through the forms for each of our campers.

We were leading a group called the Pioneers, made up of nine kids all eight to nine years old. In the special notes section of the forms, parents wrote everything from “very shy, nervous about trying rock climbing” to “really excited for every activity!!” to “hates nuts but not actually allergic to them.” Armed with all this knowledge of our campers, Christoph and I went out to meet the arriving kids and gather up our Pioneers.

I’d been a junior counselor at several other summer camps before, so I thought that this would be just like any other week taking care of kids and being overly enthusiastic while singing songs, no different from an average summer camp. But this summer camp wasn’t the same as all the rest. I had forgotten the transformative power of the outdoors and how this could change our week in Magnuson Park into something special.

Each camper was different on that first day. Some were shy, some excited, some of them were confident and loud, but all of them were about to begin a week that would change them and help them grow. As I watched this transformation, I remembered my own outdoor experiences and reflected on how they had affected my life and who I am today.

New Confidence

Maeve, a seven-year-old in the Pioneers group, began camp a little bit nervous about outdoor activities and shy about making friends with other campers. We started the first day by getting into our groups and playing name games to get to know each other. During the name games, Maeve participated, but she spoke quietly and it was clear that she was a little apprehensive about meeting all of the other campers. 

After name games, we moved on to a more silly game that quickly became a camp favorite: Steal My Squirrel, essentially a version of red-light green-light that also involved a plastic squirrel toy. Although the rest of the group was laughing and having fun, after one round Maeve took herself out of the game and sat on the sidelines to watch the other kids. I went to sit with her and became her first friend at camp. She spent most of the day holding my hand and, even with encouragement, shied away from the swimming and climbing activities we did later that day. 

As camp progressed, Maeve began to come out of her shell. During the next day, Maeve started to bond with another quiet girl in the group, Amelia. They talked about their favorite Disney movies and debated which American Girl doll was the best. Maeve also spent more time swimming that day and worked up the nerve to give the climbing wall a try. Later in the week, Maeve spent less time holding my hand and more time with other members of our group and participating in activities, still staying closest to her new friend Amelia.

At the end of the week, I could barely recognize Maeve as the shy girl from our first day. Instead of sitting on the sidelines, she convinced other kids to play in games she led and laughed along with her fellow campers. Maeve gained confidence and bonded with new friends through all the challenges that camp brought, from learning to rock climb to walking long distances around the park. 

A Natural Leader

Lourdes, another seven-year-old girl, started camp with confident enthusiasm. She instantly stood out in the group as outgoing and spunky, not afraid of any challenge that came her way. During name games time, she spoke loudly and confidently. Steal My Squirrel brought out Lourdes’s competitive streak. In the first few rounds, she tried to keep the squirrel to herself, making it harder for the group to win and causing some of the other campers to feel left out. After seeing the lack of success in this strategy, though, Lourdes started to work with the other campers to help the whole group succeed together. 

As camp progressed, Lourdes’s confidence stayed strong. During swimming time on the first day, she fearlessly attempted the swim test before all the other campers. It took a few tries, but Lourdes was the first to pass and swim out to the dock. Her bravery and tenacity inspired a few other campers to attempt the swim test that day, and a few more passed on the next day.

Her competitiveness from the first day began to fade as camp continued. Lourdes started to bond with her fellow campers when our group found Billy the Goat, the camp mascot, which is hidden each day for campers to find. Lourdes loved playing with Billy, and she and the other campers invented many games that involved Billy, including tossing him around above the water and trying to avoid getting him wet.

After finding Billy, Lourdes continued to become team-spirited and involved in group activities. Her role shifted to that of a group leader, using her gregarious personality to start games and help everyone through activities together. 

Reflecting Back

Lourdes and Maeve are just two examples of how the camp experience changed and affected every camper. Some, like Maeve, came out of their shells throughout the week and grew to be more confident in themselves through all the challenges that the week brought. Others, like Lourdes, learned to use their outgoing personalities to lead the group, changed by the fun bonding activities each day.

I was reminded of my own memories as a child in the outdoors as I led our group, participated in fun activities, and watched every camper grow. As a young girl, I was normally shy and reserved except around people that I had known for a long time. Through outdoor activities, I built up confidence in myself, and as I grew older and stronger I became more outgoing and less quiet. Some particularly transformative memories came to mind throughout the week as I watched campers go through the same challenges that I did as a child. 

When watching Lourdes inspire other kids to challenge themselves after her success swimming, I remembered a friend who had inspired me when I was very young. For my sixth birthday, I decided to have my party at a rock climbing gym because I had tried climbing before and liked it and my father loved climbing. However, at my party I became very nervous about climbing any higher than the bouldering height limit, even when roped up. Hindered by my fears, I was sitting out of the activity at my own birthday party. My friend Sarah, always brave and outgoing like Lourdes, wasn’t scared even though she had never climbed before. She made it all the way to the top of the wall that had terrified me, so I decided to give it another shot. I pushed past my fears and up I went. Reaching the top of that wall was one of my proudest moments and it made me glow with a new confidence. I was happy to see the more reclusive kids follow Lourdes’s bravery swimming and I believe that each of them will be more confident in themselves because of it.

During rock climbing one day, Peter, a boy who had already been belay-checked and rock climbed several times that day, got scared when it came time to be lowered down the wall. He was standing on a small ledge and afraid to let go enough to put his weight in his harness. I was struck by the memory of a similar event when I was seven. Although I had climbed many times before, I suddenly got too scared to let go of the wall when I reached the top of my favorite climb. One of the instructors had to climb up the wall next to me in order to convince me to come down. Now, I climbed up next to Peter and helped him let go of his handholds and sit back in his harness, ready to be lowered. That memory from when I was young always helps me be brave when I’m climbing and remember to trust my rope and belayer, and I know that Peter will be a more confident climber as well after having tackled his fears. 

As I grew older, I continued to push through my fears during different outdoor activities, from my first multi-pitch climb to white-water rafting through class 3 rapids. Each conquered fear was a mini breakthrough; I trusted myself a bit more and became a little less nervous each time. When I was 13, I tackled an outdoor activity that made me nervous and excited in equal amounts: climbing Mt. Rainier with my dad, Rich Draves. This had been a goal for me ever since I was young and I was inspired by my father’s stories of climbing, but it had always felt more like a far-off dream than something that would actually happen. I woke up hours before dawn, ate freeze dried food, hopped over crevasses, and pushed myself to the top. Each of my confidence-building memories in the outdoors, along with my dad’s encouragement and leadership, gave me the courage to continue on. After hours of intense hiking, I finally stood on that summit and looked out at the world around me. While looking at the awe-inspiring view all around us, I truly felt like I was on top of the world and like nothing could ever scare me again.

Although I still get nervous and shy, my outdoor experiences have changed me as a person. I am more outgoing and confident than I ever could have been without them. Each camper this summer experienced transformative moments, which led to gaining confidence, learning how to bond with a group, and discovering leadership skills. As these campers grow up into young adults, the experiences that they had at this summer camp will give them the skills and confidence to tackle new challenges as they come, both in the outdoors and in life.

This article originally appeared in our September/October 2015 issue of Mountaineer magazine. To view the original article in magazine form and read more stories from our publication, click here.

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