The Legacy of a Table

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By Adam Russell

As an incoming intern back in 1999, the one thing that really captured my attention at Miniwanca was its strong sense of place.  I’d had years of exposure  to camps, retreat centers, state parks, and natural areas. The son of an Environmental Educator, I even landed my first job at the ripe age of 12 as a Day Camp assistant. And all of the places I attended and worked through the Boy Scouts, the Chattanooga Nature Center, and family camping trips to every state park in the south aided in the shaping and organizing of my worldview. All of these spaces I held as sacred, for the memories they helped create led me to the person I am today.

But Miniwanca is different… The sense of place here is all encompassing. It is in all that is contained within its boundaries. The number of times I hear “just stepping onto these grounds…” from arriving campers, parents and alumni is awe inspiring. Miniwanca has a much greater sense of timelessness and permanence than any other place I have ever visited or worked. Its mission of Best Self, Balanced Living and Creating Positive Community has only changed in the last 90 years toward greater inclusivity. The American Youth Foundation has a staunch history of asking both “who?” and “who else?”

I walk around the site on a daily basis and imagine what activities, conversations and learnings happened in any place and at any point in history. And I also often wonder what am I, empowered as a Director of this magnificent place, doing to engender learning at the deepest levels, to continue forward that sense of permanence that so many feel for years and years following an experience at Miniwanca. A hope for one such tradition that we have started in Boys Camp is the Senior Table. I gather with all of the high school-aged boys (the Avail Seniors) at the beginning of their session to discuss the concept of true legacy… a gift to future generations of Boys Campers of culture, leadership and action. I ask these boys to lead our camper culture in games, in interest groups and in exampled living. I remind them that 90 years of tradition, not just their current view, have created all that we experience during our Boys Camp time together. And I implore that their actions, service and learning all go to cement our place in future Boys Camp generations.

The physical representation of that is this Senior Table. All 20 of the Senior Boys must come to complete consensus on the building, decorating and finishing of a tabletop. It must truly speak to what their group sees as the mission of AYF and Miniwanca. They complete this project during small snippets of the day, and during extra time in the afternoon and evenings. As the final minute detail is applied to the table top, there are even some nights after “lights out” where leaders and campers are in the woodshop, all on their own accord. Every year my initial worry about the current table’s ability to be unique is assuaged at Closing Council, as I am awestruck at the level of craftsmanship displayed by the boys and their cabin leaders when the design is revealed to all campers, staff and parents for the first time. These are full-built oak-constructed tables, very heavy feeling and very permanent.

As we process the table-creation experience, I discuss with the boys the importance of this tangible task and how one day the sons of these very boys will be eating their first meal at Miniwanca on this very table. And while that is an impressive dream to consider, I am more touched by the Senior’s ability to translate what that means for the heart and soul of their future selves, and not just the present camp experience… not just that their sons will be impressed with what they built so long ago, but also that these future Boys Campers will share in the same feelings of place and permanence as happened at the time the tables were built.

I imagine this feeling was similar in the early days of Miniwanca when camper cabins, dining halls and play spaces were being built… that the campers of the day were contributing significantly to their experience by moving the camp forward physically and socially, and that the founders of the day created these experiences for the present day campers and for the sake of future generations. And I love the fact that I am connected to these boys and that through my work AND theirs, Miniwanca will continue to create permanence… of soul and of place.  And if this thought ever slips my mind, I simply grab a cup of coffee, a seat at one of those tables and smile.