One Child at a Time - Sumer Odom


Sumer Odom

This summer Laura and I had a chance to meet and learn from some of the most committed young minds in summer camp. We gathered, from across the country, in the Pacific Northwest for 17 days of personal exploration, intentional decision making, and summer camp research. On the way we made incredible friendships and learned from and visited 6 camps in Washington, Oregon, and California. Each of our Camping Coast to Coast teens was magical, unique, and committed to camp.

Sumer Odom (pictured right) came to us from Camp Ernst in Kentucky.  She is one of the most passionate, critically thinking, and empathic individuals I have ever met and makes each person she comes in contact better. Below is an article she wrote explaining the power of camp and why she chooses to work at Ernst each summer. Sumer's article has helped me articulate the value and power of camp during staff recruitment for our overnight camp. Thank you Sumer!

The Movies are Right

When I tell people that I work at a summer camp, I am almost always met with a bewildered and confused laugh. Immediately, a thought of me leading a group of small children through the woods covered in dirt and singing songs, flashes through their mind. They’ll envision me sitting around a campfire, guitar in hand, singing really tacky songs about love, nature, and friendship. They’ll see me spending gorgeous afternoons out by the lake, eating snow cones and paddling a canoe. Most importantly, they’ll see me collecting a paycheck at the end of the week, getting paid for having fun.

What camp counselors don’t tell you about the cheesy, American summer camp stereotype is that the movies are telling the truth. We sing songs, play capture the flag, camp out, and make an unprecedented amount of friendship bracelets. We’re really weird, overgrown children getting paid to take care of smaller, but equally weird children. While the movies capture my day-to-day life surprisingly well, they miss out on something crucial: the life changing impact it can have on children.

Somewhere between adolescence and adulthood there occurs in human development an age which is physically and psychologically impossible. It is that unfathomable stage known as the camp counselor: a creature undefined by psychologists, misunderstood by camp directors, worshipped by campers, either admired or doubted by parents and unheard of by the rest of society. - Phyllis Ford

Phyllis Ford states, “ Somewhere between adolescence and adulthood there occurs in human development an age which is physically and psychologically impossible. It is that unfathomable stage known as the camp counselor: a creature undefined by psychologists, misunderstood by camp directors, worshipped by campers, either admired or doubted by parents and unheard of by the rest of society.” Ford perfectly describes how the world sees camp counselors, and continues to describe the important influence we can have on the lives of children. We’re expected to change ten lives in a week, and hundreds in a summer. That is not a pressure many can handle, and we have to be careful with how we do it.

The impact we have on children can set the tone for the rest of their adolescent years. When I asked Jacob Runge, personal friend and camp icon, about why he thinks his job is important, he said, “For a week, I can give a ten year old boy the chance to be whoever they were meant to be, and experience all of the intricacies of boyhood in a positive and safe environment.” We are given the amazing opportunity to empower children and make them feel loved and appreciated. They’re given the opportunity to explore camp and themselves, all while making lifelong friends and building confidence in the process.

Empathy First

Camp counselors are so effective when dealing with children because of the radical empathy they convey in their communication. Marshall Rosenberg, a communication theorist, states that, “Our ability to offer empathy can allow us to stay vulnerable, defuse potential violence, hear the word ‘no’ without feeling rejection, revive a lifeless conversation, and even hear the feelings and needs expressed through silence” (Rosenberg 233). While communicating with empathy, a more intimate bond is created. It is so important to validate children and help build confidence, and the easiest way to do that is to show them unconditional love and support.

The unconditional love and support at camp is foreign to many children in our care. In order to give a child the best camp experience possible, its important to understand their story and where they are coming from. For many children, camp is the first time they will have this stable relationship in their life. At school, children are placed in a structured and standardized environment where their individual needs are not met. This environment limits natural learning and creates pressure, stress, and anxiety. All of which, can be a major inhibitor to learning.

In my own life, school and camp have been two strong and conflicting forces. I did not thrive in school. I felt like I was constantly being molded into something I wasn’t. So much pressure was put on me to succeed that I began to resent my school and teachers. There was minimal autonomy and individuality, which eliminated my desire to learn. I did things because I had to, not because I wanted to.

When I went to camp, I was treated as an individual for the first time. My opinion mattered, my needs were met, and consent was always required. I began to truly thrive. I was the one molding myself into the person I wanted to be, not what some outside pressure was forcing me to become. Through the years, camp has shaped me into a person that I’m proud of. I began to feel more connected to the world around me, and I learned more than I thought possible. All of this is attributed to the environment that camp created.

Education is a Necessity

Education is a necessity. It is a right that every individual deserves to have. However, somehow school and learning began to have a negative connotation in the minds of children. The idea that school could be fun became something we tried our hardest to convince children of, even though we didn’t believe it ourselves. Education and happiness are not two mutually exclusive facets of our lives, and believing that will doom individuals to a mundane and pessimistic life. School will become a part of a painfully repetitive routine that we do because we have to, not because we want to. Autonomy and consent is eliminated, and we find ourselves wasting the most valuable resource we have: time. The main thing camp taught me that school never did was how valuable our time is. Somehow, camp made every moment feel sacred. I found success in investing myself in others. It helped eradicate routine, which became one of the most excruciating forms of hell on earth, despite it being an active part of everyday life. David Foster Wallace states in his Kenyon Commencement Speech that, “It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars” (Wallace 207). Wallace analyzes the liberal arts style of education and says that it allows you to think. I didn’t have anything close to a liberal arts education, but I had camp, and I learned how to imagine a more complex world and truly grasp the power of thought.

We praise teachers, yet ignore camp counselors. I fail to see a difference in their missions. Both desire a better future and prioritize educating children. The difference lies in how we do it. Most teachers have a standardized form of teaching, placing emphasis on meeting the requirements of the curriculum and addressing the whole class. Time for individual students is limited, and those who do not learn in the way the teacher teaches are left behind. Too often, the focus in the classroom is preparation for some standardized test. With that test being the focus, pressure builds around students and anxiety increases. Natasha Segool analyzed the growth of testing anxiety in response to high-stakes standardized testing, and noted how when students are pressured to succeed, many of them crack. Negative side affects from stress occur, such as low motivation, anger, and mental health issues (Segool 490). When educating children, these negative side affects are not the goal. In order to succeed in our mission of educating children, it is important to create an environment where success is attainable. Communicating on an individual level ensures that every person’s needs are met, and opens them up for success.

Camp counselors design their communication around the individual. They pay attention to what each child needs to succeed, and then makes it happen. By establishing an environment based on acceptance, learning becomes organic. I’ve seen campers absolutely enthralled by plants they can eat or weird bugs they find in their cabin. They don’t realize it, but they’re learning. They’re just having too much fun to notice.

If we create this environment in the classroom, students become not only open to learning, but also excited to. At this point, the negativity around education dissipates. Kids begin to feel empowered by knowledge and eager to know more, finding the joy of discovery to be a necessary aspect of life. This is what education should be. The process of discovery. It’s not the preparation for a test where all of the information is forgotten as soon as the exam booklet is turned back in.

While this standardized form of education enables us to see where each child is at in relation to their peers, it doesn’t allow what they are learning to truly sink in. Children are told that they need to know information for the exam, and as soon as the exam is over, the information is forgotten because it no longer has value in their life. By taking the emphasis off of standardized testing and requirements, students are able to let what they are learning sink in. They start to comprehend the real world application of knowledge, instead of just memorizing the correct answer to a question.

That’s the entire point of education. To raise children to become meaningful and productive members of our society, with the capability to think critically and problem solve efficiently. We need to stop seeing children as test scores and percentages that affect our school, county, and state ranking amongst others. We need to recognize the humanity in children, and see their individual value.

At camp, a child’s individuality is never questioned, which is why they are able to learn in such and organic way. They’re building the confidence to grow, the compassion to love, and the desire to be the best they can be. While I don’t teach kids the quadratic formula during choice activity, I can teach them how to problem solve in group settings. Children have a desire for discovery so strong, that once it is sparked, it only grows. It becomes a passion. Once we allow children to embrace their education, it becomes so much more beneficial and applicable to their everyday lives.

Our current education system needs to change. Children do not have to be unhappy with their education, but that seems to be the only option that we give them. By giving students individual attention and finding ways in which they can learn most effectively, education and autonomy become synonymous. The classroom becomes a positive environment, and kids are no longer daydreaming about summer vacation. Children start to see school as a valuable use of their time, and learning becomes an adventure, not a chore.

Glitter and Gratification

While my summer job often leaves me covered in glitter and knowing every lyric to some ridiculous top 40 hit, it also leaves me with something more. It gives me the gratification of knowing that I helped empower a child, and that gave them the opportunity to become more than what they ever imagined. Over 3,000 kids come to my camp each summer, and they leave more empowered than they came. Having the opportunity to give more kids this unconditional and loving environment is so important, and it starts with each kid. The camping movement is becoming revolutionary, and as those ideas trickle into school, the world begins to change, one child at a time.

Sumer Odom Camp Ernst