First-year AYF campers take brave first steps toward independence

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For almost 100 years, American Youth Foundation campers have embarked on journeys measured in miles, challenges, and personal growth. Like any journey, camp begins with a single step, and for first-time participants, it can be a daunting one.

Miniwanca and Merrowvista staff know how overwhelming the initial camp experience can be and work hard to make the transition into camp a smooth one.

Rising third, fourth, and fifth graders are the youngest participants at camp each summer. Called Darers at Miniwanca Boys Camp and Girls Camp and Pioneers at Merrowvista, these programs are intentionally designed to introduce youth to living in community with their peers and to help them take their first steps toward identifying personal values.

2022 Miniwanca Girls Camp Director Emily Knuth said the Darer and Pioneer programs give young children their first taste of independence and broaden their worldview.

“Camp gives them some time to be away from home and their parents and creature comforts,” she said. “They get the chance to be their authentic selves. It also teaches them to live in community with five peers and experience getting to know different people from different places and start building some resiliency.”

Shanti Eswaran’s daughter Ranya, 9, attended Miniwanca for the first time this summer. The three-week stint was the longest she’d ever been away from home. While Eswaran’s other daughters, Kavni, 11, and Miraya, 14, are Miniwanca veterans and gave their sister a good idea about what to expect, Ranya still had some butterflies. They flew away, though, as soon as she arrived.

“When I dropped her off, her cabin leader came right up and started talking to her,” Eswaran said. “I was going to say goodbye, and she was already walking across the field with her cabin leader.”

Once they take that initial step into the unknown, a whole new world opens up for the novice camper.

Darer and Pioneer days are filled with lots of outdoor time pursuing adventure, from arts and crafts to hiking, kayaking to climbing. There are also quieter moments of reflection and intentional discussion that sow those first seeds of introspection and self-discovery.

“I think the new environment and the lack of electronic devices really forces the kids to not reflexively bounce things off their parents or their friends, but instead take some time to figure out how they feel about a situation before they react,” Eswaran said. “It’s a chance to let things rattle around in their head.”

For many Pioneers and Darers, their one to three weeks spent at camp are the longest they’ve ever been away from friends and family. 2022 Miniwanca Director of Programs Michael Harter said homesickness is something nearly every camper experiences, and it’s something both the full-time and seasonal staff are well equipped to handle.

“We have one staff member for every four to six campers,” Harter said. “This camper-centered ratio allows us to really listen and spend time with participants who may need a little extra help with homesickness. We work with them to name and understand the feeling, and then we distract with an awesome and engaging program focused on a variety of activities and a supportive community.”

In spring 2022, the AYF program team completed Camp Mental Health Certification offered by Let’s Empower, Advocate, and Do, a nonprofit that teaches youth development organizations how to provide proactive mental health support.

Harter said training like LEAD’s helps staff better respond to campers’ emotional needs. “We want to support campers so they can participate and engage in our programs, while listening to them and allowing them to advocate for themselves,” he said.

2022 Pioneer Program Coordinator Laura Hardin was a Merrowvista camper for eight years before becoming a seasonal staff member and current Community and School Programs intern. Hardin remembers having a hard time with homesickness during her first year, but the friendships she made then and in subsequent summers brought her back again and again.

She credits a lifetime of camp experiences – from overcoming homesickness to hiking more than 100 miles in three weeks during her Odyssey trip – that helped her become a successful adult. It’s why she returned to camp to help instill that confidence in the next generation of campers.

“Camp taught me that anything you can put your mind to you can achieve,” Hardin said. “Merrowvista taught me perseverance.”

Merrowvista parent and former camper Ben Grant watched his daughter, 9-year-old Lydia, take her first steps down that path this year as a Pioneer.

“Camp gives kids a sense of independence, and it definitely builds confidence when you can walk into a new environment, meet people, and make friends in a short time,” he said.

Grant’s other daughter, Emery, 13, returned to camp this year for the third time, and he’s seen how she’s blossomed since starting her Merrowvista journey.

“We talk in our day-to-day lives about being your best self,” he said. “After a few years, she realized that camp is truly a place where she can be herself in a supportive community. It’s a place of true comfort, and you don’t have to put on a mask like you do in other parts of your life.”

Miniwanca parent Patricia Sanders said it was remarkable seeing her two first-time campers, 11-year-old Mary Ruth and 9-year-old Frank, respond to the same powerful programing she experienced as a camper and Leader in Training.

“Mary Ruth said it was so amazing being around women and girls and having so much fun,” Sanders said, adding that Frank felt empowered by his new level of independence at Boys Camp.

“The first thing they said when they stepped off the bus was could they go back next summer,” Sanders said. “I have yet to find another place that gives children the space to find and be themselves completely.”