Some parents and guardians may look at our summer camps videos or photos and what they see are kids fighting zombies or monsters. They conclude that we are a camp where kids run around with foam swords or NERF blasters and play at violence for the purpose of entertainment. And they have a right to be judgmental… many of the computer games they seek to get their children “unplugged” from do just this in a virtual environment.
So we must tell our own stories of success in order for families to grasp what our camp is at the deepest level. We can explain how some campers came home from Wizards & Warriors summer camps so inspired by the story of the conflict between Oberon and his Faerie wife that they delved into Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. Or how they recalled the encounters with INGSOC at NERF Zombie summer camps and found George Orwell’s 1984 more fascinating than they otherwise would have. In both cases, after all, these kids lived the adventure that other kids only read about.
However, as noble a goal is of having our campers willingly consume classic literature as a regular intellectual diet, this is not our primary objective. It is simply a wonderful byproduct. The purpose of our camp is the foundational function of the ancient practice called Storytelling: To inspire growth.
Allow me for a moment to bring you into the mind of your camper when they are in the midst of one of our adventures. Imagine that you are a child or young teen and you are about to enter into a darkened building that contains an unknown menace. Let’s also imagine that this is the first time you have elected to experience a Midnight Encounter – the scariest level of all adventures offered by our camp. You have heard tales from the other campers about how terrifying this level can be… like a haunted house, only where you have to fight to get out!
You have been told that your group must deal with this nightmare in order to get insight into the mystery that you and your fellow heroes are attempting to solve.
Your briefing ends and the door swings open… a billow of thick fog tumbles through the entry way. Cavernous sounds taunt your ears. Your pulse is racing as you enter the dark maze. Shadows are moving in the distance and your group has divided in an attempt to cover more ground. A piercing screech sets your brain on fire with adrenaline. You know this is only pretend. You know you have a safety word that, once uttered, will bring the encounter to a halt and allow you to exit at any moment. You know that the monsters are actually the smiling friends and counselors with whom you share meals and laughter. But you have put aside that knowledge for this moment of immersion… because you are not only here to solve a mystery… you are here to face your fear.
The battle ensues and it seems as if mayhem will overtake your group. You call out directions and your fellow heroes respond. You search the darkened corners for clues while defending each other from the continuous onslaught of attacks. You attempt to be stealthy, but your heartbeat is pounding in your ears so loudly you wonder if others can hear it. There is a call for reinforcements. You have taken hits and hope you have enough left to survive this encounter. The damp fog clings to your skin and clouds your vision… making it hard to tell friend from foe. Minutes seem like hours as you recall every step of the maze – wondering what corner you may have missed. You force your mind to focus. You call out for a new search and your groups reassemble in the dark – determined to succeed. You push forward and hold a tight rein on your fear. You share words of encouragement with others in your group. You are bigger than this moment. You can do this.
Finally, a shout rings out that the object was found and an immediate retreat is called. You move quickly with your group to the exit, positioning yourself to protect from a rear attack. Shadows move closer and reach for you. Your defense surges… you are so close.
The door opens and you stumble out into the bright light of day, sucking in the sweet smell of fresh air, your heart still pounding from the adrenaline high. You and your teammates are all talking at once, slapping each other on the back, grinning from ear to ear. You did it. You walked into the terror that other kids only read about or see on a computer screen… you stared that fear in the face and you didn’t back down.
Later, when you recount your experience with others, you realize that the greatest enemy in that building was not a monster… but your own fear. And when you leave this camp, you will carry this lesson with you. You will recall the feeling of terror and you will recall the feeling of standing strong… of demanding yourself to think while your nerves were screaming in alarm. You will lean on this experience because you earned this lesson. You lived this story.
This is just one example of what our summer camps are about. For some campers, the great fear they must face rises up when they enter a dark building… for others, it is speaking alone in front of more than 100 campers and counselors as they voice their opinion and state their case… and for yet others, the prospect of living away from their family for weeks is the largest hurdle. But for each, the journey is worth the objective, because it is the journey that they carry with them when they leave.
Yes, our campers fight monsters and solve mysteries. They immerse themselves in stories from classic literature, world mythology, and historical characters. They learn about chemistry or DNA, ancient cultures and languages, and they work as a team to overcome obstacles. These are worthy endeavors. But the most valuable of all treasures that our campers can take home with them is something that cannot be held in their hands. It is a story… their story… not of the dark or the quest or the fear… but the oldest story of all: The triumph of their human spirit.