We were standing in a circle, and everyone went around to say their name and where they were from. When we introduced ourselves we had to add a dance move, and then repeat the dance (and name) of everyone who introduced themselves before us.
This was an ice breaker that I had done countless times before, but these were all people I had never met before. They were from Portugal, Macedonia, Italy, Sweden, Finland, and Romania (to name a few countries). We all were tired from traveling, and we all had our YMCA shirts on. We were excited, nervous, and ready for something new.
This was the first day of a six day conference for YMCA Camping professionals in Europe. We were staying at YMCA Camp Alambre, part of YMCA Setúbal, in Portugal about an hour south of Lisbon. We had all just finished a long and exhausting summer, and were excited to reflect and grow the YMCA Camping movement in Europe. “Towards A Common Standard” was the name of the event. I was there on behalf of YMCA of the USA to teach YMCA Europe how we run our camps in the states, as well as be a participant to learn about the YMCA Movement in Europe. No pressure, right? There were two of us from the United States, and 38 participants total, representing 10 different countries, and none of us really knew what to expect. We knew we were going to talk camp, and that we were going to learn a whole lot. Never did I think that I would feel like a camper again and feel the same camp magic that thousands of children experience every summer through the YMCA. The ice breaker that I just described was just the beginning; literally.
The goals for the conference were to align the YMCA Europe Camping movement, “towards a common standard” and to collaborate together and network across countries. In hopes of achieving this, YMCA Europe asked me and Ben (the other representative from the US, YMCA Camp Woodstock) to present on YMCA camps in the US, hoping that our traditions and standards could be an inspiration and starting point for the European movement.
Our presentations were subjects that focused around the “typical” routines of camps in the US, the standards that we follow at US camps for accreditation, policies and procedures at our camps, as well as programs that we have for international staff exchange. Not only did I feel pressure to represent Frost Valley well, but the pressure to present on behalf of all YMCA camps, and the Y Movement in the USA. We had to figure out a way to present general standards of US camps, while properly conveying the uniqueness of each YMCA Camp. I knew that the more I learned about the camps in Europe, the easier it would be to figure out how to present each topic efficiently. That was my goal for the next few days: learn as much as I can and meet as many people as possible in order to get to know my audience.
What ended up happening the rest of the conference was exactly that: the people were incredible, and I learned so much about the European YMCA movement, as well as the camping industry of these countries. As we participated in workshops and classes, we were able to discuss different policies and practices for each camp, all of which were a little different based on certain laws and regulations in certain countries. We also did a lot of brainstorming about new programs and games, but also brainstormed how to create entirely new camps. The workshops ranged from staff training to parent engagement to camp operations. We discussed our hopes and dreams for our programs, debated policies, and shared best practices. We even visited the YMCA in Setúbal and learned about the social work programs that were providing child care, educational classes, and financial advice to the families of the area. When we visited the city, we also had a press conference with a city council member, who told us about the work that the city of Setúbal was doing for their youth.
While learning and teaching were engaging and exciting, the camp magic really came through the shared experiences I had with the rest of the participants. It was easy to connect to everyone, as we were all “Y-people” and we were all “Camp-people”. Throughout the conference, we were connecting through cultures, sharing stories, and laughing. We did teambuilding games and ice breakers, just like the ones we play at FV, and I learned a few new ones as well. We had a “Culture Night” that was exactly like our “It’s a Small World Festival” during Session 1. We sang camp songs, which even in different languages sounded the same. There are literally 25 different versions of the banana song! We went rock climbing and hiking, played night awareness games, and did the ropes course. All experiences that happen at camp, but only at camp do these experiences really create “magic” and an inspiring feeling for people.
And that is exactly how I feel: inspired. Because I was given this opportunity to be a “camper” and participant at YMCA Alambre, I as able to get a boost in drive and excitement to share the power of camp with as many people that I can. Camp creates a place of comfort and community, and although camps may look different all over the world, the experiences each one creates and the commitment each has to building a better future for youth are exactly the same. We are really more similar that we all think. I was continuously inspired by the specific work of the other camps: each one was focusing on developing programs where children could learn new things, meet new people, and feel safe in a shared community. YMCA programs are changing lives all across the world!
At a camp in Finland, every female camper sleeps in the same giant room, on one giant mattress, with pillows lined up next to each other. This creates a space where there is no room to talk badly about someone, and a shared space for everyone. A camp in Macedonia runs social responsibility activities throughout the camp session and campers host the local government officials at the end of the week to show them how camp has positively affected their lives. In Sweden, a camp is providing housing for young-adult Syrian refugees, which provides them a family which most of them have lost. One of the YMCA staff members helps them with homework, makes sure they cook and eat dinner together, and is helping them find jobs. Similar to Frost Valley, the camp in Portugal where we stayed is protecting a state park and teaching environmental education to all
of its guests.
These are people that I was able to share a camp experience with. I would have never met them without the YMCA, and would not feel as empowered or inspired by them with out a camp experience. It was the feeling of being a camper again that really allowed me to learn about others, learn about myself, feel creative, and be a leader. From the first nervous ice breaker on day one, to the last day tears when we said good-bye to our new friends and colleagues, camp had created magic, and I was so honored to have been part of it.
Videos and photos by the wonderful staff at YMCA Setúbal.