Helping Campers Take Their Accomplishments Home (July-August, 2000)

Dear Bob, At the end of some of our summer sessions we have campers (and we suspect some staff members) who carve their initials into the bunks or write graffiti on everything from the phone desk in the office to lavatories and the shower stalls. No matter what “talks” we have with our camp community, we don’t seem to be able to curb these practices. Do you have any thoughts you could share that might have an impact on this behavior? California Dreamin’ Dear Bob, We have managed to create a wonderful culture here at camp based on caring and a true sense of community. Many campers and staff feel this is their “home away from home.” What concerns us is the level of upset at the end of each session (we run two, four-week sessions). Counselors and campers alike seem over come by the grief of leaving one another. It just seems that all the good feeling and growth of the summer gets lost in the tears. Does leaving have to be this emotional, or are we needlessly concerned? Happy Campers

Dear Happy and Dreamin’,
Saying goodbye is something most of us find difficult.  Many people would rather avoid or put off the sad or painful feelings that come when we leave those we have become fond of or with whom we have a meaningful connection.  Counselors may themselves avoid saying “goodbye” for different reasons.  Some counselors “leave camp” emotionally before they depart physically, thinking ahead to what is waiting for them after camp.  Others, who have developed strong, healthy attachments to campers and other staff members, may find the thought of leaving camp as difficult as it can be for some of the children.  Overall, your staff may benefit from talking about the end of camp as much as your campers.
It is best to begin talking about endings well before they actually happen.  My experience is that most camps wait until just the last day or two of a session to acknowledge all that the ending of camp can signify, which often means that too much emotion is forced upon campers and staff in too little time.  It is more effective to view the end of camp as a process, involving many feelings and issues, rather than just a single event.
For example, campers who carve their initials into the woodwork or who write on various surfaces join a well documented tradition of leave-takers who want to be remembered.  One of the big questions a camper has, somewhat below the surface of their awareness, is, “Now that I’ve spent this time here, who will remember me?  And what will I remember of it?”  Carving ones initials into something seems to lend a kind of permanence to the feelings that come with passing on.  It is like the carver is saying, “I really was here! “
My suggestion is to do a little less talking about the “problem” and more talking about actually ending camp.  When you ask most campers, however, they can’t imagine what else you would say about leaving camp other than “goodbye.”  This is where youngsters need our help to increase their awareness and guide them through a more meaningful, satisfying ending.  For example, I suggest counselors actually start a “count down” the last week or five days of a two week session.  During this period counselors should ask campers what it is they haven’t done yet at camp that they’d like to make sure they do, or do more of, before they leave.  Once again, left to their own, many campers will deny that time is slipping away and will not do what they then find they have no more time for on the last day.
In addition, ending our time in any significant place should include taking stock of all the best and most fun or meaningful events that we have experienced.  Reminiscing is a healthy way for counselors to help campers preserve and make sense out of their experience.  Remember that it is when children don’t use their words that their feelings then drive them to act, such as carving into camp buildings or writing on camp property.
Some other conversations sparked by ending camp can include best and “worst” moments of the past two weeks, favorite moments or activities, looking ahead to what you would do if you were to come back and so on.  A counselor who is skillful with this conversation can point out to most campers what it is they have accomplished in their time at camp that they certainly take home.  These may be new abilities, new social skills, new friends, new tolerances and not just trophies for winning the inter-camp baseball tournament.  In fact, if camps did as superb a job of acknowledging and “marking” the social or emotional growth in campers as they do athletic achievement, many campers would leave camp with a richer, more robust sense of their growth and accomplishments.
To these conversations I would add as many rituals of leave-taking as I and my staff could dream up.  Remember one of the golden rules of behavior management: if we wish to extinguish a certain behavior (such as graffiti), we need to replace that behavior with a behavioral option that is just as compelling, but more acceptable.  Group pictures, mini bunk or group scrapbooks, skits and plays and poems, murals depicting the events of the session, camp fires with reminiscing and special songs, time capsules, a group carving or sculpture and letters campers write to themselves that are mailed during the winter are all activities that can help acknowledge that rich experience called camp.  If campers can not “mark” their experience in these sanctioned, ritualized ways, they will “mark” them into the woodwork!
Another important aspect of leaving camp is acknowledging ones gratitude.  Gratitude can play an important part of any end-of-camp meeting, deepening the feelings and appreciation people in the camp community have for one another and for the experience they have just shared.  One great way to acknowledge gratitude is to have people sit in a circle and take turns spontaneously saying what they are grateful for. (This activity works better in smaller groups of anywhere from 10 to 40 people where there is more of a feeling of intimacy).   Make sure it is set up as a serious meeting, not as a spoof, as some people may be tempted to joke around if they are feeling anxious about leaving camp and the feelings it may bring up.  Have your more senior, respected staff members model the process for the rest of the group.  It can be something as simple as being grateful for making a new friend, or learning a new skill, or having a great hiking trip, or being able to spend so much time with people who care about you.
The final act of leaving camp should be a celebration.  Many camps do a great job of this, having a final banquet or some other celebration.  I would make it a point, however, to mark or acknowledge the growth people have accomplished and the respect people have for one another in this place called camp.  I would also ask members of the community how it is they will take this feeling and learning home with them.  The more we give people a chance to express their feelings over time, the less they are “ambushed” by their feelings all at once, and the more they preserve the world of good that camp can be.


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