Summer Camp: ‘Fun With Purpose’

By Neil Earle

This summer our congregation was able to sponsor five teens and preteens for a summer camp adventure in the hills northeast of San Diego.

After driving Serena and Marissa there in 102 degrees weather – my wife was the pilot and did her usual great job – you can’t help but reflect on the excitement that is evident when staff and teens meet for the first hours of what is guaranteed to be an excellent adventure.

Of course any teen would be excited at the prospect of a week in the great outdoors – swimming, archery, riflery, softball, mountain climbing, tree swinging (!), dance classes, broadcast production, public speaking and the whole range of events that have transformed Christian camps since I was a counselor back in 1971.

Our denomination has about a dozen of these fun-filled sessions spread across the United Sates and Canada and they refresh the spirits of older veteran pastors, youth leaders and parents. Given the right environment – teens can be lovely! That’s nice to know.

But Summer Educational programs aren’t just fun. They are fun with purpose. “Exhilirating fun” is the bait to teach deeper lessons of life and orientation to life that will stand these teens in good stead years into the future (we hope!). Here are some of those “fun with purpose” principles that good youth counselors and staffers radiate every day.

First, have a positive expectation.

One of the best teen leaders I ever knew insisted to his staff that every teen in the dorm experience at least one word of encouragement every day. This wise old WW2 veteran ran a great camp for 250 Christian kids in fabulous Northern Minnesota. He knew that today's youth are almost ceaselessly bombarded with negative messages. He also knew that teens appreciate being reasoned with and surrounded with positive “can do" people. They are all too familiar with the usual litany of “Don’t” – “Don’t hang around with that guy,” “Don’t hang around with that girl,” “You’re too loud”, "You're too shy," “No one likes you” or ”Why are you like that?”

Twenty four hours of living in a “You can do this” environment can change teen lives for good or set them on the road to thinking about doing so. I loved the positive even courageous attitude of our Minnesota camp where – knowing that some teens would be a bit intimidated at the thought of a canoe swamping on a wilderness trip — the staff eased their fears on the very first lesson. It was “How to Swamp Your Canoe and Get Back In.” That is positive expectation – meet the fear and do it anyway… in three feet of water! That was emblematic of the aspect of “challenge” and even “daring” that makes great camps work. Teens love it.

Second, focused attention.

Teens appreciate attention even when they act like they don’t. Nowadays most summer camps have a Camp Council where teens get to give input on how the camp is run. That is different than in our day, eh? One Christian Living instructor has a gift for this. He can usually remember a camper’s name after meeting them for the first time. He told Marissa, “Take off your glasses, let me see you eye to eye – and I won’t forget your name.”

We’re not all that gifted – after all camp chaplains and staffers are specially selected people. But we can learn from their tactics. At camp there is no TV or video games so everyone can “rap” one on one much more often. By the end of the week almost everyone knows they are cared for and loved just for themselves. At least that’s the goal of a successful youth leader. “Hugs not drugs” have turned around more teens than you or I will ever know. Camp is a week or two of focused attention with positive feedback. That changes attitudes. I’ve seen it happen.

Third, exposure to positive role models. Of course summer camps are living embodiments of that principle. As stated above, the key to the camp is the Counselor. The counselor’s role is where the rubber meets the road. A good counselor has to have the wisdom of Solomon, the patience of Job, the watchfulness of an eagle and the stamina of a bull elephant. I can say from my summer as a counselor in 1971 that it was truly exhausting sometimes working with 24 kids who could plot your every mood and reaction but it left a permanent mark on yours truly. I’m an advocate for summer camps because I know what they can do.

Because of getting exposed to dedicated caring counselors some teens come away getting motivated to go to college or stay in school or even kick a bad habit. I’ve seen it, it works.

See, the problem is – as one author puts it – most parents love their teens yet teens don’t often feel loved. It’s not that this is anyone’s fault, per se. Life with its busy incessant demands tears away at us. But out in the great North American wilderness for a week or two teens get to feel the full force of other adults bearing down on them with love and humor and above all – interest! Good youth leaders are interested and interesting.

I can tell already attitudinal miracles will be worked at these camps again this summer. Depend on it: We can positively influence our teens through positive expectation, focused attention and positive role models all coming at them 24/7 in that wonderful scintillating life-changing experience called Summer Camp. God bless them all, may they each have a wonderful summer!

(Neil Earle has a Bachelor's Degree in Education and served as a chaplain at summer camp for his church for five years in the 1990s.)