Lessons from Fox: The World’s Oldest Summer Camper™

Thursday, 25 August 2016

I grew up in a really big family in a really small town. My summers were spent riding my bike, playing sports and playing with my friends. If it was a truly adventurous summer, I would spend time with one of my big sisters in another small town in Saskatchewan.  I never went to summer camp. I doubt it was even an option given how much it would have cost my parents to send all of us.

So during my first summer as the YWCA Edmonton CEO, I decided to spend a week at our YWCA Camp Yowochas on Lake Wabamun.  I asked our Camp Director to schedule me to work in as many areas of camp as he could in that week.  I suspect he thought I was a little crazy, but he came up with a plan.

Like all the new campers I was pretty nervous that Monday morning, but by Friday I was a different person. Now I return to Yowochas as often as I can.  (I was also exhausted way before Friday. Believe me, being the World’s Oldest Summer Camper is as much hard work as it is fun.)

I originally went to camp to get a better understanding of the operations, but it ended up being so much more. Here are just some of the lessons I learned as the World’s Oldest Summer Camper:

Titles are overrated: When I am at camp, I’m not the CEO of anything, I’m just Fox. Every staff at Camp Yowochas has a nature-related camp name. I wouldn’t remember most staff members’ real names if I tried. Having a camp name is awesome. It gives people the opportunity to take on a new persona and it eliminates the hierarchy that most organizations create. I really like the freedom of being Fox. 

Magic is real: Summer camp is magical.  I don’t know how exactly how to describe it, but at summer camp anything is possible.  There are moon craters and the Chocolate Factory is across the lake and all the scariness of everyday life is suspended.  It is a place and community like no other.  I try to hold on to that magic as long as I can as I’m driving back home to the real world.

It’s okay to be scared: Summer camp has a whole host of things to be afraid of. Last year I climbed to the top of our new (much higher and longer) zip-line and promptly froze. I was up there a long time. I knew it was safe and I knew my fear was irrational but it took the calm assurances of a young staff member and vocal encouragement from a group of 8-year-old campers to get me to step off the platform.  For the next couple of days, lots of kids and staff congratulated me for being brave when I was scared.

Be accepting: At summer camp, differences aren’t just tolerated; they’re accepted.  I remember a boy who spent the whole week dressed and coiffed like Justin Bieber (the young, cute Justin). Then there was the camper who wore a superhero cape all week.  In any given year, 5 to 10% of the kids in summer camp receive a subsidy.  Camp is a luxury for many families, so we help out with the fees for those in greatest need.  No one knows which campers receive a subsidy, and they are never judged by their financial status.

Trust your team:  Every week we hand over a new and disparate group of kids and ask the camp team to create a community built on a foundation of respect. And they do it. Our staff members are role models, safety inspectors, therapists, singers, actors, and most importantly people of great integrity.  If you have ever doubted that the next generation is ready for leadership, look no further than a summer camp staffer and your faith will be restored.

Sing!: You haven’t really experienced camp until you sing a silly song at the top of your lungs. There are songs about bubble gum, burritos, and little red wagons; repeat-after-me songs; songs with dance moves and a great song about a moose. Camp songs are just plain fun. Don’t worry about how you sound or even the words, just sing. And dance if the spirit moves you.

Observe Rituals:  The Campfire Circle happens every evening.  There are songs and skits from the staff and camp groups. My favorite part is when the flag is lowered and everyone sings “Taps” as the youngest campers head off to bed. It is a special moment that surpasses magic and feels almost spiritual.

So, my big lessons from being The World’s Oldest Camper are:

  • Being vulnerable doesn’t make you weak or any less of a leader.  In fact, it makes you stronger.
  • Rituals give us a sense of belonging and community.  In our overscheduled lives, taking the time to honour and perform rituals has the power to ground us in our work.
  • When kids are in an environment where acceptance is a state of being, they respond by being accepting.  I suspect the same holds true for adults.

When I head off to summer camp every year two things are certain: I will come back exhausted and I will come back better for the experience.

This year Camp Yowochas celebrates its 100th Anniversary.  For a century we have helped kids learn valuable leadership skills and develop life-long friendships.  Thousands of kids have come to Yowochas, many through the generosity of donations. Every year some of the campers at Camp Yowochas are there because someone helped pay their fees.  Donate HERE and send a kid to camp.

- Jackie Foord, YWCA CEO (a.k.a. Fox)

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