More than eight million children attend camp each summer. But not all camps are created equal.
Originally posted at hypervocal.com.
Some specialize in teaching kids specific skills like baseball or tennis or theater. Some allow overworked parents to trust their kids to general counselors for a full summer. Others, like Camp POWER, afford kids who grow up way too fast in underfunded neighborhoods the opportunity to just be kids.
Camp for most of us meant no homework, no piano lessons, no Little League. For the kids of Camp POWER, camp means no sirens, no territories, no gangs. Camp for most of us meant barely edible mess hall food. For the kids of Camp POWER, camp means three actual meals a day, all they can eat. Camp for most of us meant kvetching about the activities we didn’t want to play that day. For the kids of Camp POWER, camp means tubing around a country lake, rock wall climbing, and kickball and football on fields without broken glass.
If these kids don’t think the grass is always greener elsewhere, it’s simply because they just don’t see much in the way of grass where they live the other 51 weeks of the year.
For one week every August, a Brooklyn-based non-profit organization founded by Scot Tatelman called Country Roads Foundation brings 160 fifth- through ninth-graders from two of New York’s toughest neighborhoods to a glitzy summer camp in the Pocono Mountains, traditionally the home of suburban kids whose parents eagerly throw down $10,000 per camper for seven weeks of fun for their children.
Parents, and all too often guardians, of Camp POWER attendees don’t have that kind of money. These kids mostly reside in public housing. In East New York, Brooklyn, about 70 percent of kids are born into poverty and receive public assistance. In Bedford-Stuyvesant, despite its status as an increasingly gentrified area of Brooklyn, the unemployment rate tops 15 percent, six points higher than New York City average. CRF foots the bill for this experience, entirely. (Help! Donate!)
Before we proceed, it might help to meet some of the campers and staff that make this experience one of the best weeks ever in the lives of these kids. High Fives + Dave Brubeck = a must-see 78 seconds.
Despite the differences in socioeconomic and racial backgrounds between traditional summer campers and POWER campers, who are mostly affiliated with a Brooklyn-based after-school program called Groundwork, Inc., the actual session plays out the same: three activity periods in the morning, three in the afternoon, clean-up/bunk inspections, arts & crafts, general swims, evening activities in the Social Hall, morning and evening lineups around the flagpole, and spirited chants in the dining hall.
But the highlight of the week comes in the form of Olympics (“Color War” doesn’t exactly have the right ring to it!), an all-day program in which camp is split into two teams, Blue and White. It begins with Tug of War, progresses into individual group sporting events, moves forward with an all-camp, 80-activity Apache Relay (think Human Rube Goldberg Machine that ends with a half-court shot with everyone watching) and culminates with a challenging Trivia Bowl. To give you a sense of how intense it can be, watch this montage shot and edited by accomplished filmmaker Paul B. Cummings.
The Apache Relay is the clear highlight of the day. If the staff leaders of the two teams plug the right campers into the right events, after all the lead changes throughout, the half-court shooters should be shooting at the same time. Sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t. This year, the Blue team shooter fired off two shots before the White team’s baton arrived at the basketball court. As you might have been able to tell by the end of the Olympics montage, the White team’s shooter, a remarkable young man named Taylor, swished his first attempt, a rare and magnificent feat.
To give you a better idea of the pandemonium that ensued, here’s the uncut footage shot on a Flip cam by Michael Jackowitz. Make sure to watch through to the end, when one of the Boys Head Counselors, Rick Wagner, provides some truly perfect color commentary. GAME TIME! Take that, Tim McCarver.
Go ahead, watch it again. It’s impossible not to marvel at the scene. As a post-script, that whistling you hear is the Olympics head judge (um, me) trying to clear the court — both boys were instructed to keep shooting, to finish what they started, despite the other’s victory. An equally remarkable Elyss hit his own half-court shot about three seconds after the above video cuts off, his fifth attempt, an impressive feat in its own right. After the Apache, both boys stood in the center circle and soaked in the applause of their grateful teams. Unprompted, they then hugged and complimented each other.
And that’s the beauty of Camp POWER. It’s not about competition. It’s about activity. It’s not about sports. It’s about sportsmanship. It’s not about being perfect campers. It’s about being better people. It’s not about growing up too fast. It’s about growing as a person. To be able to take a week of my life for the second straight year (2011 marked POWER’s third year of existence, its first at the majestic Tyler Hill Camp) and participate in a program that strives to give these kids a chance to be kids was life-changing.
I was fortunate enough to attend Tyler Hill as a camper for nine years, beginning in 1986, and I served as a staff member there for an additional six years, most recently in 2001. After 10 years, my return to a place that holds so many positive memories in my mind in order to help create memories for a new crop of great kids couldn’t have been more rewarding. Six days after these campers walked off the buses with their guards up and their eyes wide open, I watched 160 kids from such different backgrounds than me board those same buses having had almost exactly the same camp experience I once had.
You can’t put a price on that. But that doesn’t mean it’s free. Take another look at the videos on this page and the next. Go to the Country Roads Foundation website. See what a difference it makes in their lives. See the smiles on their faces. See these kids just being kids for a change. And then follow this link to donate what you can, however small or big, to the best summer camp in the country.
Away we go towards 2012…you oughta come.
Click here to see three more amazing videos from the week at Camp POWER…
Slade Sohmer is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of HyperVocal. He’s also a proud member of the Camp POWER family and is still wearing his whistle 72 hours after returning to civilization.
Originally posted at hypervocal.com.