Last week, I was a camp counselor in the woods of Wisconsin, off a large lake. This particular camp was unique because it was created as a safe and fun place for abused, abandoned, and neglected foster children to go for a week of complete love and acceptance. When I first heard they needed more volunteers, I jumped at the opportunity. This is one of the things I want to do with my life.

I shared a cabin with six girls and three fellow counselors. Aside from my cabin, the only people that existed that week were  90-some campers and all the staff members. We were our own tight-knit community with little communication with the outside world as our cell phones were not allowed. During this week, campers and counselors bonded, smiles were exchanged, tears flowed, food was shared, and joyful experiences were had. For most of these kids it was the best week of their year, possibly the best week of their lives so far; for the staff, it was an eye-opening week that left us humbled. I did not want to leave.

During the week, I wrote down things I learned at camp that I already knew but was reminded of again. This list is primarily something for me to refer to in the future, but I hope it will benefit you as well:

The cool kids sit in the back of the bus.

Remember those bus rides to school when you were a kid and you had two places to sit: in the back with the popular kids or in the front with the quiet, nerdy ones? That still applies when you’re in your twenties. The only difference is that everyone is cool now.

Time moves smoother without a clock.

Not having my phone with me all week meant I didn’t know what time it was unless I asked someone or looked at a wall clock. We still went everywhere we had to be with enough time to do it all. Our days were full and time moved much quicker without glancing at the clock every few minutes. We were too busy having a good time that it didn’t really matter what time it was anyway!

There will always be people who don’t get you. Then there are others who do.

I packed all my belonging for the week into a backpack (clothes, towel, toiletries) and a purse (books, markers, tape). Nearly everyone else brought along bulging suitcases and multiple tote bags. We did need to bring items other than clothes – art supplies and games for the campers – but it was still a lot to me! People looked at my bags and exclaimed, “That’s all you’re bringing!?” I would answer, “I don’t need much.” Finally, I bumped into a friend whose baggage was as small as mine. We complimented each other and exchanged high fives.

A deck of cards can entertain for hours.

Although I packed light, I did pack games for the kids – a deck of playing cards and a pack of UNO cards. Of all the items that everyone brought during the week and played with, the UNO cards were the most-played item in the cabin aside from a CD player. With all the toys and gadgets that kids have these days, it was interesting to see that a deck of playing cards is what kept them entertained the most inside.

Sometimes you can’t be picky about food.

Camp means camp food. Camp food means tons of meat, fried foods, and things that aren’t really good for you. Camp means eating food that was not the light salads, fruits, and eggs I was used to. Could I have avoided the meat and eaten just fruits and veggies all day? Sure, if I wanted to be hungry most of the day. 

I managed to avoid the meat in a couple meals but sometimes I couldn’t unless I wanted a pile of lettuce and tomatoes. It might be easy to eat lettuce and tomatoes at home, but not at camp when everyone around you is munching on the bowls of steaming hot food in front of you. I eat well most of the time and can afford to let it go for a week. Plus, the food was free. Who am I to complain? (If you must know, yes, I did gain a few pounds from eating all this!)

All you need for a good time is a guitar and a bonfire.

These are always my favorite moments. Throwing alcohol in the mix is good too, if available.

Getting lost turns up discoveries.

I’ve talked about exploring different routes but haven’t covered the joys of getting lost. I love getting lost and seeing what turns up. The first day we arrived to camp and had some free time, a fellow counselor and I decided to explore the grounds and find the beach.

On our way back from the beach, we were unsure where we were. We decided to just pick a path, knowing it would eventually lead us back. As we went down this path, we found some neat things in the woods that we would have overlooked if we didn’t go that way. I’ve noticed that this always happens – every time I go a new way or allow myself to get a little lost, I discover neat things.

When a little girl makes you pinky swear to do something, you do it.

Even if it means getting up at the crack of dawn to jump into a lake when it’s less than cool outside. She will always be happy that you followed through on your promise and you were one of the few cool counselors that actually jumped in!

The sun is a great time-keeper.

No cell phone means no clock which means no alarm clock. I learned a little trick: use the sun! My bed was right next to the window, with a direct view of the sunrise every day. My first morning waking up at camp, I noticed the sun was rising just below the trees in the distance.

I got up and checked the time on the wall – 6:00am. When the sun moved above the trees, it was 6:30am. That’s all I needed to know. Every day, my body woke itself up and I knew what time it was by looking at the sun and the trees. That helped me figure out approximately what time it was all day. Of course, that one rainy day was a little difficult…

Strong teamwork produces strong results.

One afternoon, we decided to skip the beach and check out the rowboats on a nearby pond. I ended up in a boat with one other counselor and a few girls. I had one oar, and campers took turns using the other oar. I have a little experience rowing, but the girls didn’t. Needless to say, when one person is rowing strong and other is still trying to figure out which way to go, the boat goes around in circles. It wasn’t until the other counselor and I both rowed together that we were able to steer it well.

Sometimes the team falls through and you have to pedal ahead by yourself.

After the rowboats, I got into a paddle boat with three campers. After we had pedaled halfway across the pond, one of the girls decided she wanted to go back to shore. This resulted in all four of us pedaling hard in different directions and the boat moving nowhere. They all gave up and left me to pedal the boat by myself. I had no choice but to pedal on. My legs were sore for days.

First impressions are never correct.

The first day of camp was met with lots of expectations, shyness, and nervousness. By the end of the week, it all melted away as people grew together, opened up to one another, and connected with each other.

The one you are matched up with isn’t necessarily your true match.

Originally, I had two campers assigned to me. We were matched based on personalities and interests. When a fellow counselor’s sole camper didn’t show up to camp, I gave her one of mine. As fate would have it, the sole camper I had ignored me most of the time except to ask permission to go do something (and she always could). The camper I gave away, for lack of a better term, ended up being the one that attached herself to me all week.

Rain brings out the sunshine.

Usually this is literal – once the clouds have faded, the sun appears. It can also refer to the smiles on a camper’s face as she turns her head up towards the sky with an open mouth the catch the heavy raindrops. It was the first time I saw her smile that week, and the first time we had some kind of bonding moment.

When you fall, just pick yourself up and keep going.

In the middle of camp sat a playground with an old merry-go-round. This merry-go-round was highly favored by the kids but to the adults, it was known as the Merry-Go-Round of Death. Kids would spin too quickly, loose their grip, and fly off the merry-go-round onto the muddy ground. When these kids fell on the ground, they would laugh a little bit, brush the dirt off their clothes, and get back on! Nothing was stopping them from having fun.

You will always over pack.

Yes, even if you’re the strange one with the smallest overnight bag.

Even the strongest person has weak moments.

One of my friends, whom I admire for being a strong, enthusiastic leader, had an extremely difficult day that left him with tears of frustration. We sat in a small group and listened to him, sometimes offering words of encouragement and advice. The little moment reminded me that even people I admire have moments when they need to step down from being a leader and ask for guidance.

Paint will get all over everything.

It will get all over your only sweatshirt, your favorite t-shirt, and your only pair of jeans.

Some people just won’t like you.

I felt like the camper I was with all week did not like me. She wasn’t showering me with hugs and notes like many other camps were with their counselors. There were moments when I felt heartbroken and wanted to cry, but I held my head up and reminded myself that I am doing the best I can. I’m not doing anything wrong. Different kids have different ways of opening up, and many of these kids have been through difficult experiences with foster care that makes them put up a wall to their emotions.  The key thing to remember is not to take things personally and be understanding of what someone else may be thinking or feeling. And if someone really doesn’t like you? It’s OK – you can’t please everyone.

Photographs don’t replace memories.

I’m usually snap-happy with my camera, but not during this week. Although I was initially sad to be unable to take photos, I am glad I didn’t. Everything is still fresh in my mind as if I were looking at a picture – and so much more! A photo is unable to capture the entire scope of a scene, no matter how large or detailed the photo is. Being there is all you need. Being there is what I will remember, with or without a photo. No one really needs to take a million pictures of where they’ve been. A story and a memory is all you really need. [Note: The photograph at the top of this post is one of a couple I took while lost in the woods on the first day.]

When you’re offline, you don’t miss what’s happening online.

You already know this, so why did I still feel the need to say it? Because it’s true. Occasionally we lose sight of this because we’re wrapped up in emails and text messages and website statistics and trying to catch up with everything in our blog readers. It isn’t when we’re completely taken away from it that a fog in front of our eyes disappears as a light comes through and shows us the joys of being away from a screen.

We need to embrace talking to people face-to-face, listening to stories, actually experiencing something together, and building up a community. We need to do this more. The entire week I was gone, I learned so much from conversations with other people, explored the grounds, spent time with children, and eat full meals with a large group of people three times a day. My phone wasn’t around to distract me. My laptop wasn’t warm in my lap. I wasn’t aware of the emails that needed my attention.

When I got home, there were eighty emails waiting for me, four hundred blog posts in my reader, hundreds of tweets that I’d missed, and scattered messages, waiting to be read. Was any of it important? Except for seven emails and a few posts, no. It was not as important as what I did during the week when I stepped away.

Nothing is as important as living.

I’m letting this last week serve as a reminder to me why I want to live simply.

I hope you have taken something from this too.

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