The One Kid on Kid’s Camp I Will Remember Forever

Kid’s Camp is another week long LYQ (Lutheran Youth of Queensland) camp that I led on over a month ago, but I still think about it.  I think about it because of one kid.  For confidentiality purposes, we will say his name was Michael.  Michael made my camp.

Michael was in year three and was in my duty group.  Duty groups are pre-organized small groups to make mealtimes and transitions smoother.  The leaders had to show up a day earlier than the campers for an afternoon of planning and organizing.  During this time, we found out who was in our duty group, and if we had any special needs kids, special diets, etc.  I discovered that Michael was in my group, and he had Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).  He also had an older brother with ASD and ADHD.  The mom wrote about the boys’ behavior and the issues we might face on camp.  She wrote that Michael’s older brother might beat up on him and try to boss him around at camp.  She wrote that Mike might be closed off and have a hard time expressing how he was feeling or what he needed.

The first day the boys got to camp, they showed up a little late.  I waited to greet them, give them their name tags, and then took them into the hall and sat at the back with them.  Immediately after that first session was lunch.  The boys went and found seats on their own.  When lunch was almost finished, Mike came over and asked me, “Could I go sit in the dorm and set up my bed?  Its really loud in here.”  I said, “Sorry Michael, you can’t go into the dorm by yourself, but I can sit out on the deck with you if you’d like.”  He said yes, so we went outside and chatted.  He told me about how he likes to work on motors and engines with his grandparents, and proceeded to tell me how a motor worked.  I told him if it ever got too loud and uncomfortable for him at anytime during camp, he was welcome to find me and I was happy to find a better space with him.

After lunch, there was a big group session in the hall, and we were playing games in our duty groups.  Mike said he didn’t want to play and sat on the side.  I went sat by him.  I could tell he was feeling on edge and anxious.  I assumed it was caused by being in the loud hall with all the other kids.  All of the sporting equipment and crafting supplies were sitting in the corner, so I got out some tennis balls and tried teaching him how to juggle.  His mood instantly changed and became very focused/engaged on juggling.  We used the tennis balls a few more times throughout the week when we were in the hall.

After almost every meal time and during big group sessions in the hall, I was sitting outside with Michael or in the back of the hall or off to the side playing with tennis balls.  He told me about how he liked to climb trees, and how he knew he wasn’t allowed to climb the tree on the deck, but then did it anyway.  I calmly talked to him about how it was a unsafe, how the other kids would see him and think it was okay to climb the tree, and if the directors or site manager saw him, they wouldn’t be very happy.  He finally came down from the tree.

Another time spent with Mike, we were outside playing ping pong (which is another alternate activity we did during the sitting in the hall time).  I was asking him if he had made any friends at camp yet.  He said, “Not really anyone except you.”  I told him a kid in our duty group seemed to like hanging out with him.  He said, “I’m just different from these kids. They like video games and movies and I like being in nature and working on car engines.  I have ASD.  I just think differently from the other kids.”  I was pretty amazed by his self awareness.

Mike would act out sometimes with the other leaders, in the big group times, or around his brother.  He would refuse to do something he was told or do the opposite.  I knew it was because he was feeling anxious and restricted at those times.  This happened a few times at the beginning of the week, but by the end of the week he was feeling very comfortable at camp.  I knew the goal of Kids Camp was not to conform Michael to the scheduled activities, but to make it enjoyable for him because it was HIS camp.

A few times Mike told me he wished he could have a choice in an alternate activity because he just was not interested in sitting in the hall.  I told him about LYQ Summer Camps, and how those might be more his style because everyday there are multiple electives happening at once that the kids are free to choose from.

There were a few incidences with Mike’s brother where they both got into some trouble.  Once at dinner, Mike’s brother told him to tell another boy something inappropriate.  The other boy got mad and almost came over and punched the brother.  Michael was holding the other boy back so he wouldn’t hurt his brother.  I saw this unfold and broke it up.  Afterwards, Michael and I went outside and debriefed the situation.  He knew all of the things he did wrong and wished he wouldn’t have done them.  He is a smart and aware kid.  The only times he misbehaved is when he was feeling anxious or when he was with his brother.  I think a lot of Michael’s anxiety comes from his relationship with his brother.  Michael cares about his brother a lot, and I think it is tough on him when that care isn’t reciprocated by his brother.  His brother really beats up on him quite a bit, so it was good to give them space from each other during camp.

Another incident happened at the end of camp.  We were in the hall doing a big closing camp session.  I finally talked Mike into sitting in the back with me.  The 6th graders were asked to go in the middle of the circle so we could bless them, since they would be too old for Kid’s Camp next year.  We all put our hands on them during the blessing, and Mike was very excited to put his hands on his brother.  During the prayer, Mike’s brother was pinching him and pulling his hair.  When I glanced up at them, I noticed this was happening and signalled to Michael to come next to me.  He came over by me and then, as soon as the prayer was over, he ran under the chairs in the back of the room.  I went to the back and squatted down next to him.  He looked up at me with tears coming down his face and said, “WHAT?!”  I said, “They are blessing the rest of the campers in the circle now.  Can I sit here and pray for you?”  He nodded.  I sat with my arm around his shoulders while he cried and I prayed.

My last few moments with Mike were approaching.  I knew saying goodbye was going to be really tough for me because we spent so much time together, and I would miss him a lot.  I didn’t know if it would be tough for him.  Throughout camp, Mike and I built up mutual respect for each other.  We were truly friends, so when it came to those times when I asked him to do something (or stop doing something inappropriate) he listened.  When you actually care about someone, you are much more likely to listen to them because you don’t want to disappoint your friend.

When Michael’s mom arrived, he gathered all of his things and started moving them towards the car.  I was following behind.  He stopped about half way to the car, dropped his stuff down, turned around, ran over, and gave me the biggest hug ever.  It made my heart so happy.

After camp, I still think about Michael.  I wonder how he is doing, how he is learning at school, how his relationship with his brother is going, and if he ever thinks about camp.  A few weeks after camp, LYQ emailed me asking to write about Michael’s behavior on camp because his mom is applying for disability support, and it would help with the application.  It was a privilege to be able to share my time spent with Michael on camp and reflect on it again.  LYQ passed on my story with Michael’s mom, and she responded with:  “Michael made the comment that the lady who looked after him ‘got him’ like no one ever did before.  That was awesome to hear from a 9yo who hasn’t had the courage to go to a camp or stay anywhere without family.”

I share this story, not only because it was a memorable part of my experience as a YAGM, but because these types of stories happen during every single LYQ camp.  These week-long camps provide children with the comfort, love, and support to help them feel safe, gain confidence, and grow as individuals.  It has been amazing to watch God work through the leaders and directors to impact the lives of these kids who come on camp.


Can’t Wait for Summer Camp

Summer camp in Australia, as like most things, is same same but different from in America.  Through Lutheran campsite, we run three different camps–school camps, summer camps, and Christian Life Week.  School camps are what we run a majority of the year.  School groups come in for a few days, we run activities during the day with them, and then they go home.  During these camps, we try and make the biggest impact we can in short couple of days, but the sad reality is that you can only get to know these kids to a certain degree in two or three days.  The main goal is to learn as many kids’ names as possible.  Summer camp is the next step up from this.  As a leader on summer camp, you stay in the dorms with the campers all week, do all the on-site and off-site activities with them, and get to have this deeper relationship with all the campers.  The kids who come on these camps can be a mixture of Christian and non-Christian backgrounds.  Christian Life Week is the next step after that which is most similar to bible camps I went to growing up.  It really focuses on faith and growing in your faith, rather than simply planting the seed.

I spent the two weeks before Christmas at summer camp.  Within my three months being in Australia, this is where I have felt the most alive (yet tired).  Leading up to summer camp, I had the opportunity to work on a lot of the planning/booking with my friend, Dallan, who was one of the directors.  Being so involved allowed me to get a grasp for what summer camp is all about, and to get excited about it.  Also, we had two leader’s meetings in Brisbane beforehand, where we planned most of the activities and games.  There was a lot of hype leading up to summer camp, so much that Dallan and I started a trend of videos on the summer camp facebook page of us doing the most random things, but always saying, “Can’t wait for summer camp.”

My first week of camp, I was a leader on Junior Explode.  The juniors included grades 3-6.  This week was very special for me because another YAGM, Nicole, was able to leave her site and lead with me!  It was so much fun to show Nicole my site while telling her all about my life at Luther Heights.  I was a little nervous in the beginning of the week because kids this age are often pretty exhausting.  Sometimes I struggle to get their attention to get them to listen to/follow instructions–I had seen it all during school camps.  But what I learned on summer camp, is that once you get to know these kids on a deeper level, you develop a sense of ownership over them.  You feel like they are your kids after leading them for a week.  You get to know their tendencies, personality traits, etc., and suddenly they are doing something that would previously tick you off, and you are saying, “Awe, thats just little Joey.  He does that once in awhile.”  You stop getting annoyed, and start understanding the kids and why they do what they do.  You learn what works and what doesn’t work for each kid.  You get to spend so much time with them.  You get to go to the Big Boing, go to the Aqua Park, run Team Challenge, send them down the flying fox, eat meals together, run a cluster group, climb Mt. Coolum together, go to the beach, play parachute games, and much more.  You even get to run a game from your childhood Bible camp–Mighty Mighty Scoop Noodle Challenge.  You also cry when one little boy cries while reading the fuzzy you wrote him.  So then, you’re crying together and wondering how one week could do this to you?

The second week of camp, I was leading on Senior Blast.  The seniors are grades 7-12, and they are quite different from the juniors.  The juniors are more easily excitable, which is fun to be around, but with the seniors you are able to have deeper conversations with.  You are able to tell funnier jokes.  You get to know them more quickly and on a deeper level.  One of my favorite parts of my two weeks of camp was my senior cluster group.  I had five lovely girls in my group, and we talked about worldwide issues, how to make changes, next steps, why we do what we do, self reflection, and shared so many stories.  It was really cool to see those girls dive head first into topics I am so passionate about, and to discuss and grow together as they shared experiences.

Another highlight of Senior Blast was the free time.  There would always be a various sports being played.  I was able to teach some of the kids how to play spikeball.  It was great to watch the kids get into it and have some serious competition.  One day during freetime, a bunch of us played backyard cricket.  It was a blast for me because Dallan had been teaching me about cricket for over a month, but it was my first time playing.  We also went to movieworld, the wakeboarding cable park, Aussieworld, and much more.  We also played Mighty Mighty Scoop Noodle Challenge again.  Since some of the leaders did both weeks of camp (like me), they knew the game, and they knew the chant for it.  So it quickly became a trend that someone would randomly stand up and start chanting, “MIGHTY MIGHTY SCOOP NOODLE CHALLENGE,” and everyone else would join in as soon as possible.  The first time we did the chant, all the campers and new leaders were confused.  However, towards the end of the week, everyone knew the chant and would always join in.  We would do the chant at least once, if not multiple times, during every mealtime.

It was definitely a new experience being an American at a summer camp in Australia.  The kids loved asking as many questions as possible about America.  It was fun to be able to share a little bit about my own culture and experiences with them–especially because everything seemed interesting to them.  I was definitely labeled as “The American” at camp, but I was thankful because it sparked conversations with a lot of kids who I might not have talked to as much.  When summer camp ended, I felt very empty.  Its pretty difficult to cherish and build relationships for two weeks only to be separated.  I’ve found that the best way to reflect on it is to value the memories and pray you left the impact you hoped to leave.

Feelings and Stuff

What does a YAGM year look like in Australia?  Or more importantly, what does a YAGM year feel like in Australia?  At first, I was not sure how to feel about serving for one year in a first world country.  The application process for the YAGM program is not what most people think it is.  Basically, you apply for the program and rank all 11 countries with either a “preferred”, “not preferred”, or “indifferent”.  For me, I rated almost all of the countries with a “preferred” (except the countries that required a background in Spanish) because I knew it would increase my chances for being accepted into the program.

At this point, I was trying to be as optimistic as possible–building no expectations.  I felt like I was absolutely ready for anywhere God called me to be; and not just to be there, but to serve there for an entire year.  When I found out I was being called to Australia, I’m going to be honest, it was not what I was expecting.  It was difficult to find a meaning and purpose in serving in a westernized country.  While I was struggling with finding a purpose myself, I had people saying to me, “Why are you going on a mission trip to Australia?  They don’t need help over there.”  I also heard a lot of, “Oh you got an easy country.  You’re so lucky.”  At this point, I didn’t know what to respond.  It was frustrating to try to explain my entire reasoning behind making this choice for my next steps in life, and then trying to correlate that reasoning with serving in Australia–the two concepts didn’t seem to add up.  I began to explain, “No where is perfect.  Everywhere needs help in some capacity.”

Next, I found out I was going to be serving at a camp on the Sunshine Coast of Australia, a.k.a. the area of the country where Australians visit for a luxurious beach vacation.  How was I supposed to find a purpose/meaning of my service now?!

At YAGM orientation, we talked a lot about the inequalities we would potentially face throughout our year.  We discussed how we could support fellow YAGMs who were a part of minorities that may be tokened in their country of service.  After learning that I would be serving in a predominantly white and well-off area of Australia, I still didn’t know what my impact for the year would look like.  I couldn’t help but feel like my year would be less meaningful than some of the other YAGM’s years.

As I continued to ponder and reflect on my purpose for the year, I finally found my answer (or, so I thought).  I realized my service would be to open the minds of my community and create awareness of the white privilege they live in.  Perfect!  Super straight forward!  I finally felt like I had a purpose, a goal, determination, and peace of mind.

When I arrived at Luther Heights, I realized my “purpose” was much more complex than I made it out to be.  How in the world was I supposed to discuss awareness of white privilege with my community when I have lived every single second of my life as a white privileged person.  It seemed so hypocritical and patronizing.  Not only did I originally plan to broaden my local community’s perspective on this topic, but I pledged to do the same for the campers I facilitated.  What did I sign up for?!  This is not easy or natural in anyway!

So here I am, back to the basics.  I am still figuring out my purpose/meaning in Australia for one year; however, I have found peace with the unknown.  I have learned that my impact will not be able to be defined–nonetheless defined in a single definition.

So far, being a YAGM in a first world country has taught me to be more aware of why I feel comfortable.  Is it because I have these things that make me happy?  Is it because of the day-to-day stuff I am doing?  Is it because of the people I surround myself with?  Would I still be comfortable or content if I didn’t have such things, didn’t do the same stuff, or hang out with the same people?  Is the way I am living the BEST way I can live, or can I live even BETTER?  Would changing my way of life be uncomfortable?  Am I living complacently?

At the end of my year, I hope to have countless amounts of experiences and lessons to take away.  Three months into my year, I know that I will take away being more aware of complacency, and as a result, challenging the boundaries I subconsciously build.

In One Month

In one month, I have seen.  I have seen busses unload campers onto campus for some of the most impacting days of their childhood.  I have seen campers leave their comfort zones and become vulnerable.  I have seen families and couples open their homes for me.  I have seen the view from the top of Mount Coolum.  I have seen many what-are-the-odds dares.  I have seen carnival rides and a magic show in Toowoomba.  I have seen the overlook, downtown, bridges, and banks of Brisbane.  I have seen the ocean waves and long camping beaches.

In one month, I have smelt.  I have smelt many cups of coffee.  I have smelt the beautiful flowers from the carnival of flowers, and the fairy floss and other assorted carnival foods.  I’ve smelt funky lagoon water while helping with raft building.  I’ve smelt salty air and sunscreen.  I’ve smelt exhaust from vehicles while biking to work.

In one month, I have tasted.  I have tasted Vegemite, and then tasted it a few more times.  I have tasted kangaroo burgers.  I have tasted the grocery list of a girl who is living off of a stipend.  I have tasted camp lunches.  I have tasted beetroot, beef pies, lemmingtons, caramello koalas, and lollies.  I have tasted Anzac biscuits.  I have tasted fish and chips.  I have tasted Red Rooster.  I have tasted Tim Tams and all the glory that comes with.  I have tasted Milo.  I have tasted iced vovos, cheezels, and Cadbury chocolate.  I’ve tasted a Bunnies snag.  I’ve tasted expired minced.

In one month, I have heard.  I have heard children laughing.  I have heard so many riddles.  I have heard program trainings.  I have heard representatives talk about their camps and the interwoven passions within them.  I have heard devotions and love for Christ.  I have heard personal stories.  I have heard history, policies, politics, and opinions.  I have heard twisting, clicking, and squeeze checks on carabiners.  I have heard briefings and debriefings.  I have heard carabiners gliding down metal wires.  I have heard encouragement from my teammates.

In one month, I have felt.  I have felt homesick.  I have felt like an outsider.  I have felt the passion my teammates have for the work they do.  I have felt grief while waving goodbye to campers.  I have felt the weight lifting from a child’s shoulders as they conquer a fear.  I have felt nervous before speaking in front of large groups of campers.  I have felt my legs burning when walking up the huge hills on campus and climbing the mountains.  I have felt barriers slowly coming down.  I have felt my true self becoming comfortable.  I have felt the genuine interest to get to know me.  I have felt my filter becoming less picky.  I have felt connections being made, relationships building.  I have felt the presence of the Holy Spirit.  I have felt loved.

First Days at Camp

The first week at camp consisted of being coachable.  Paying attention to the little details went a long way.  I was taught how to successfully walk across the low ropes course without falling into the lava, how to tie bamboo logs together and attach four water jugs to make a successful raft, how to play big group game where you want to get as many pool noodles in your section as possible, how to explain the nature walk with enthusiasm as to relate to the kids, how to explain the medium ropes course and every job to do with it, how to keep the whale tale balanced as more and more kids jump on, how to explain every style of going down the flying fox, and how to debrief every activity in a way that draws reflection and understanding.

Needless to say, the first week was jam packed with stuff.  My team members and fellow staff are all wonderful in their own ways.  This week I have completely put my trust into them and let them guide me every step of the way.  They have been my teachers and role models.  It is so inviting to see the passion each of them have for Luther Heights and the style of ministry here.  The genuine care and commitment each of them have for making camp as fun and as safe as possible for our campers is contagious.

My very first group of campers were absolutely astounding.  They were all great listeners and encouraging of one another.  It was so rewarding to see each and every one of them grow throughout their short week here.  The teachers were very pleasant and so appreciative of all the work we did with the kids.  It was the most gratifying moment to see a kid overcome the fear of the flying fox and finally zipline down it.

As I am finding my place in Coolum Beach and at Luther Heights, it is still hard to wrap my mind around considering this place my home for one year.  A year is so difficult to conceptualize; however, I know that in the blink of an eye it will all be over.  Every minute matters!

S/O to the Nice Man in the Melbourne Airport

My flight pattern had me fly from Chicago to JFK to LAX to Sydney to Adelaide.  When I reached LAX, I was exhausted.  I thought how could this be, I haven’t even left the country yet.  I slept a majority of the flight from LAX to Sydney.

My country coordinators told me the connection in Sydney was tight for time.  Plus, I had to go through customs, claim my bags, recheck my bags, take a bus to a different terminal, and go through security.  I started running once I grabbed my bags, but then I saw on the monitor above the check-in that the flight to Adelaide was canceled.

I was nervous, yet relieved that I didn’t have to run anymore.  They put me on a flight to Melbourne then to Adelaide.  I thought it was quite absurd that I would be traveling on five flights to get to one destination, but at this point I was content with how close I was.

When I made it to the gate for the flight to Melbourne, the man checking the tickets told me my carry-ons were too large and heavy.  I had to check them, claim them in Melbourne, and recheck them.

In Melbourne, I had about an hour layover.  I quickly went to get my carry-on bags from baggage claim, then went back through security.  I was so hungry since I hadn’t eaten since about 6 AM on the flight to Sydney.  Finally, I had a little bit of time before my next flight.  I went to an adorable coffee shop and order a coffee and a sandwich.  I only had US cash and my debit card.  When I tried to use my debit card, it got declined three times.

I went to charge my phone by my gate, and called my mom.  I was telling her about how hungry and frustrated I was from hectic travel problems.  This was when an older gentleman next to me tapped me on the shoulder and said, “I don’t mean to over hear your conversation, but I was thinking to myself… If my daughter was stranded in an airport and hungry, I would want her to have food.  Here, please go buy yourself a sandwich,” as he handed me his credit card!  My jaw dropped.  I said, “Are you serious?!  That is so generous!”

I went back to the same coffee shop and ordered the sandwich.  The cashier remembered me and asked if I wanted the same coffee.  I explained the situation to him, and said I didn’t want to spend more of this kind man’s money than I had to.  The cashier looked at me and said, “Oh thats all right, I’ll make it for free.”

It was priceless to see God’s light shining through these nice people at such a crucial time.  I was completely stressed out from having to claim my luggage, my flight getting canceled, jet lag, and the thoughts of moving to a new country for a year.  My mood did a complete 180 after these kind souls reached out to help me.

As I was sitting on my flight to Adelaide, I began to reflect on how privileged I was.  I was not thankful or feeling guilty for my privilege–just recognizing it.  If I appeared differently from a blonde, blue-eyed, white girl, the kind man might not have trusted me with his credit card.  He wouldn’t have offered to buy me a sandwich if he didn’t automatically trust me at first glance.  It is interesting to think about all the privilege I was simply born with.  I didn’t work for it or choose it.  I am not deserving over anyone else in this world.  I believe the first step is to become aware.  I hope to spread awareness during my YAGM year.

Journey Across the Pacific

The Chicago YAGM and myself were on our way to bed after a long night of card games.  It was a Thursday night, so I knew it was Friday in Australia (+15 hours).  I already realized that if my visa was not approved by the morning, I would have to wait out the weekend since the next working day was Monday.  I was already mentally preparing myself to open my immigration account in the morning and see “assessment in progress” like it had always said.

It was about 1 AM when I received the text that my visa was approved.  I screamed and jolted up in bed.  My roommates thought I was hurt until I screamed, “I GOT MY VISA!”  I danced and sang a made up song about granted visas.  Then, I ran into the apartment across the hall where the boys were staying and repeated my screeching announcement. My friends accompanied me in my excitement.

I could hardly sleep that night.  Once I finally fell asleep, I woke up earlier than I had any other morning.  I got up and showered, thinking I should be as fresh as possible going to Australia–as fresh as you can be after 30 hours of travel time.  We all went to our favorite coffee shop, and I waited for word on when my flight was.  My flight ended up being the following morning at 11 AM, but I was happy to be allotted one last night with my Chicago YAGM family.

For our last night, we ate dinner at a nice restaurant together.  Then, we went back to the apartment and played my favorite card game for hours and hours.  It was about 1 AM, and everyone was getting sleepy.  I spitballed the idea of going to get Insomnia cookies, expecting to be shut down.  Everyone was game, so we walked over to get cookies at the wee hours of the night.

Although we stayed up later than we ever had, my Chicago YAGM fam woke up with me at 6:30 AM to send me off.  They all circled around and put hands on me, while one of them said a blessing.  It was a beautiful moment to be blessed by some awesome friends who I knew I was going to miss so much.