I grew up going to an overnight camp in Northern Michigan. Every summer for 8 weeks I left my suburban childhood life behind and became one very happy camper. Those summers taught me about things well beyond the traditional camp activities. I wasn’t…and still am not…an athlete. But I was someone who embraced camp life to the fullest.
Who would have ever thought that when we used to toss Petoskey stones into Lake Michigan that the ripples we created would have such a symbolic meaning throughout our lives? Yep, there is no doubt the Power of the Ripple from those summers in terms of the lessons learned and the relationships built ultimately made me who I am today to a great degree.
So when an It’s Just Stuff client reached out a few months ago and asked if I would be interested in volunteering at a very special week-long camp program for foster siblings called Camp To Belong, I didn’t hesitate for a minute.
I was in…all in…no questions asked.
Well, that’s not entirely true.
I did ask a lot of questions but primarily centered around the mission of the program and goals for the week. I was going regardless of the answers, but just wanted to make sure I was well prepared and, yes, organized.,
Volunteering for a program like this requires a tremendous amount of compassion, patience, enthusiasm and, of course, energy. You must show up ready to be present and focused. While regular camps have their share of let’s say “challenging” kids, most of them are there because they really want to be. But bringing foster siblings together for a week to have a camp experience as a family unit, some that don’t see each other the rest of the year and may not, in fact, even want to be there, that presents a whole different level of challenges.
How does a program like Camp To Belong face most of the challenges?
By believing in the Power of the Ripple and in this case that means the notion that when you do an act of kindness it is similar to when you drop an object in the water and it creates the ripples or waves that expand out from a center point. The initial impact or ripples start out rather small but they continue to get bigger and wider as the mission of an organization is shared with more and more people.
I was actually assigned the task of making a few large signs to be displayed on the camp property for the week. I mean, arts and crafts really was my “sport” at camp as a kid. And while sitting on my knees for two hours was much easier at 10 or 15 than it is at almost 60, I think my former camp A & C instructors would be proud of my accomplishments.
I volunteered at another similar camp program in 2015 and 2016 called Camp Jenny, a program my daughter was actually part of for several years through her Temple youth group in Tampa, a program she believed in so much that she did her FSU Film School documentary project about it entitled “Earning Jenny”.
It was held each Memorial Day weekend in the Northern Georgia mountains after approximately 150 elementary-aged kids from the inner city of Atlanta spent the entire year literally earning the opportunity to go. Suffice it to say the kids cried getting off the bus on Friday, scared and unsure of what the weekend would bring and cried getting back on the bus on Monday, sad that the weekend went by so fast and knowing what they were going back to was not anything like camp.
I don’t think I will ever forget those Camp Jenny experiences and it is probably the reason I was so quick to volunteer for Camp To Belong. I really felt like I knew what I was getting myself into. In fact, when we were asked during the two days of training before the kids arrived what we were most anxious about being there for the week, I honestly could not come up with one thing. Again, this wasn't my first intense camp or volunteering experience.
But as I sat listening to everyone else talk about their specific concerns, I felt my phone vibrating as text messages and emails were coming in rather sporadically over the not-so-consistent wifi at the camp property. I didn’t want to be distracted by what was going on back in “reality” but just because I was away physically didn’t mean that I could be away completely from It’s Just Stuff clients and my team.
I clearly was starting to feel anxious in a way I hadn’t anticipated and unapologetically told the group of volunteers and staff that I was, in fact, anxious about being there but only as it related to my business. The nods of understanding and shows of support right there in that moment as well as throughout the week were, suffice it to say, incredible. Everyone and I mean everyone, understood that I would need to have a certain amount of time every day to follow up on messages, conduct virtual consults and handle any issues my team may have had while at clients. I didn’t want to be on my computer or phone but I also didn’t want my business to suffer in any way.
It took a day to find the right rhythm and only one reminder from one of the staff that despite being a 59-year-old who is rather responsible (hey, adulting is hard and sometimes I don’t want to be so responsible if I really don’t have to be), I still had to let my fellow counselors or the leadership team know when I needed to go to the bathroom or walk away for any other reason. No, that doesn’t mean they didn’t trust me…it just was that necessary. We had a “team of 3” rule whereby no camper could ever be in a group of less than 3 with one of the 3 needing to be a counselor or part of the leadership team.
So, yes, it really helped to have this guy as my family group lead...
He totally got me, my energy completely matched with his and I am incredibly grateful to have had the opportunity to know that he had my back the entire week. But getting this message from him a few weeks after camp?...
It just validated all of the blood, sweat, and tears I put into each and every day of my personal and professional life especially since most 20-somethings usually roll their eyes at anyone my age on social media these days. I am not sure anyone really wants to drive with me for real, though. I do have a bit of a lead foot but I blame my father...he taught me to drive. That's my story and I will always stick to it.🤣😜
So what does any of this really have to do with being a professional organizer?
Well, I really did need to have an organized mindset all week. Nevermind all of the stuff from my fully loaded car got scattered around the camp property the first day after initially being assigned to one cabin and then being moved the next day to another. Plus the fact that there were no bathrooms in the cabins so one of my toiletries bags went MIA this first night. I found it, of course, the last night when I finally went to get my computer bag for the first time all week. It was in one of the staging areas where everyone left phones and computers charging. I must have absent-mindedly stuffed the toiletries in my computer bag when I was juggling a lot of different things the first night and just forgot I had put it in there...sigh...
This wasn’t a vacation by any stretch of the imagination, but it wasn’t necessarily work either or at least not in the traditional sense. It was hard but so rewarding which made it truly a labor of love for me. I powered through the days like I do when I am with my clients. I was the first one up and the last to go to bed which was usually the case even as a kid at camp and still is in my daily life. I just don’t need a lot of sleep. And neither did one of my campers. I would wake up and see her staring at me excited to announce she was actually the first one up. She definitely matched my energy as well and when her foster parents picked her up at the end of camp she told me she wanted me to be her counselor next year. I mean, come on, if that doesn't touch your heart I don't know what will!
So for those that might want to volunteer in the future please keep in mind that this camp is not for the faint at heart. You have to be “on” at all times even during "feet off the floor" time. And in my case, that meant entertaining the same camper mentioned above who, like me, didn't see the point of having a rest hour. One day we did Jamberry manicures but sadly the stick-on nails lasted all of an hour because we didn't have enough time for them to "cure" under the little heat lamp thingy and they all fell off in the lake...except for one that apparently got stuck to my leg...
Another day we got very creative with a few toy cars, a mat and a lower bunk bed...
As hard as it may have been to be "on" for these kids, being a foster care child, even with the most loving foster care parents, is so much harder. Regardless of the reasons their biological parents cannot care for them, they are in a system that is rather broken and they suffer greatly on an emotional level. Some of them are able to let go of it all while away at this camp but others needed a significant amount of guidance from the incredible social workers available 24/7. The fact that I raised two kids who I can happily say are fully launched means I think I can handle most kids’ emotional problems. Likewise, I spend my days handling my clients’ organizing problems, clients that often have their own emotional problems they are struggling with. But at Camp To Belong, I was not the expert and had to defer to those that spend every day of their professional lives working with these kids and not think I could "fix" them in 4 days like I try to fix/help my clients' organizing issues in 4 hours.
When I do an initial consultation with my clients I always ask questions like…
“What is your vision?”
“Do you feel hopeful that this process will work?”
“What will bring you joy moving forward?”
Not surprisingly, these were questions we asked the kids when we would gather at the flagpole every morning and announced the “word of the day” which included…
I don’t think anyone ever asked me what these words meant to me until I was an adult but I certainly was thinking about them throughout my childhood, especially about what it meant to belong and feel connected to others. And there is no doubt that I had great joy as a child and always had a vision and hope for the future.
But these kids, just like the ones at Camp Jenny?
Most of them are just trying to get through each day without any emotional or physical trauma. It’s hard for them to feel a sense of belonging and connectedness when separated from their parents and, in most cases, their siblings. And how do they have hope for the future or a vision of how they want their life to play out when there aren’t great role models to truly show them the way?
I will keep my fingers crossed that the symbolic reminders they were given each morning representing the word of the day will help them and guide them throughout the year but, again, they are truly trying to just survive most days and without constant reinforcement and assurance that they are worthy and matter, who knows what will happen.
I may not have a degree in psychology or social work, but I do have a lifetime of experiences that have led me to this point where I understand my role as a conduit for change in people’s lives. I desperately want every client to be set up for success so it stands to reason that I would also desperately want every one of those kids that I had the honor and privilege to spend a week with to be set up for success as well. So whatever I could do I did it even if that meant running around camp looking for water bottles, going back to the cabin countless times to grab forgotten items and playing “hopper” at meals, all of it adding at least an additional 10,000 steps to my daily tally which usually ranges between 20-30K…did I mention I have a lot of energy???
On the final morning of camp, the kids were all given a stack of photos that had been taken throughout the week by the incredible staff photographers who managed to capture every kid multiple times along with the sibling groups.
Seeing their eyes light up and get so hyperfocused on putting together a scrapbook to take home?
Seriously, tears were rolling down my face. And to be asked to write a message to them in their scrapbook? Yeah, I was a hot mess...
When I got in my car to make the trip home, my head was definitely buzzing and my body was vibrating, a very similar feeling I had the day I left yet another camp, Camp Inc, in August 2016, the camp that I have spoken about a lot in past blogs and on social media. That 10-week experience in Steamboat changed the trajectory of my life when I made the decision to move permanently to Colorado and settle into a new life in the Boulder area after more than 20 years of living in Tampa. I realized as I was driving out of Steamboat that when I first drove over Rabbit’s Ear Pass and into the Yampa Valley at the beginning of that summer I had no idea what was ahead. But as I left I knew everything I was leaving behind and my heart was about as full as I could have ever imagined.
Six years later I feel like I have had so many incredible experiences that have made my heart explode, Camp To Belong absolutely being one of them. I walked into my house, a house that I had just moved into only the week before, saw my housemate and immediately started to cry…not because of her but because I was just that overwhelmed from the week. I did basically nothing the entire weekend (or at least my definition of basically nothing) except laundry. I didn’t go out to any free summer concerts, go hiking, not even go to my favorite yoga class on Sunday. I decompressed by binge-watching Netflix, got a much-needed massage and had a Zoom call with my brother and sister which was the first time the three of us were able to have a conversation in a very long time.
There’s no doubt being around all of those kids for a week who didn’t always have the “Right To Reunite”...meaning the kids have the right to ask to see their siblings without any interference from the judicial, legal or social services systems…made me realize how truly fortunate I was to be raised in a stable household and be able to have a normal relationship (well, define normal in any family right?) with my siblings without any interference from anyone. My brother and I have not seen our sister in over three years, primarily because her husband was very sick and sadly passed away a few months ago after a long battle with kidney disease. So trust me, even as an adult it is hard when so much time goes by and we don’t have opportunities to be together.
Thanks to the hard work of organizations like Elevating Connections where they “help brothers and sisters separated by the foster care system regain a lost sense of permanency and connection by strengthening their sibling relationships” the kids that get involved in their programs have many opportunities to be with their siblings throughout the year. I have tremendous respect for the work that the Executive Director, Stacey Saunders, and her entire staff do on behalf of these kids and am now very much a part of the EC family.
Sidenote: Right before I left for camp I had a virtual consult with a potential client. When she asked for help the week I was going to be away, I mentioned what I was doing and she actually knew about Camp To Belong and knew Stacey...she's a Guardian Ad Litem in Colorado Springs. Suffice it to say, I think that sealed the deal and she booked my team lead to do the first of many organizing projects. It was definitely another example of how #yourvibeattractsyourtribe. I took this photo of me with Stacey when I arrived at the camp property and promptly sent it to my new client. I think she was jealous...as she should have been...and is hoping to volunteer next summer after hearing about my experience.
The Camp To Belong experience took me away from my reality for a week.
But it also took me away from the constant barrage of news and all of the chaos swirling around the entire world.
And I didn’t miss it at all!
In fact, it made me realize that all of the things I have been worrying about, especially over the past few years, I really do not have any control over, so why worry? I mean, I don’t want to be so ignorant as to not be aware of the world around me but the fact that I didn’t know that our former President’s home was raided by the FBI (and no we don’t need to get political…it’s just a statement of fact for context purposes) until 4 days later?
Yeah, it didn’t change anything about my life at that moment and still doesn’t.
So I am redirecting whatever energy I was putting into "current events" to help in places where I can have some degree of control. More importantly, have an impact and obviously Elevating Connections will be one of those places.
And, of course, I will happily return to Camp To Belong next summer for a week and know that I don’t need to be anxious about leaving my It’s Just Stuff life behind. And to be honest, I would really love to be at a camp program every summer for the rest of my life.
Any camp out there that wants to hire an almost 60 year old high energy woman?
Hit me up!
I’m not kidding.
Gorgeous sunrise hikes like the one I did the first morning at camp?
Sure I get to do them whenever I want living here but there is something that much more special about them when you are hoofing it up a very steep mountain at 5 am with a group of counselors that you are sharing a very significant bond.
And let's not forget that my professional organizing skills would definitely be put to good use if I could spend more of my summer at a camp program. Seriously, I couldn't help but organize a bunch of toiletries for the kids as well as paints for an art project...
Oh and then there are those moments where you get to go outside your comfort zone like walking across a log 30 feet up in the air and then zipline back down to the ground...
Yes, I screamed my head off and the campers all made sure to tell me I was the only one who did but does it really matter? I was creating new ripples to carry me through the rest of my life for sure!
I am truly figuring out how I can make the dream of spending more summers at camp become a reality again for me because what are dreams if not ones that give you HOPE, a sense that you BELONG, fill you with JOY, opportunities to CONNECT and complete your VISION of how you want your life to play out right?
And on that note, I am off to fulfill a regular dream of mine living in Colorado and head to the mountains for the holiday weekend. Through the wonders of technology, this blog is being posted while I do HOPE I am on a great hike embracing the Power of the Ripple standing on the edge of a glacier lake and thereby, tossing a rock into the water to symbolically honor the work that lies ahead. And yes, I will be with some wonderful friends who always bring me JOY and make me feel like I BELONG in this crazy world just trying to continue to find my little corner of the sky.
Be well, be safe, especially this holiday weekend, and remember…always be KIND!