By Raya Cooper
At camp, all kids have the right to experience the opportunity of personalized achievement. It is important for leaders to challenge youth in ways that cater to each participant’s current abilities, to meet each camper where they are, in the moment. The goal is not to have each participant reach the top of the climbing wall, or to jump from the diving board, but rather to support the enriching experience of attaining goals, managing stresses, and overcoming personal challenges. Many times, as an outdoor educator, I have been in awe at what kids can achieve with caring and attentive support. Instead of seeking one right answer, I strive to guide all of these young and growing campers to find their own answers. I work to teach them the structure of the activity and to allow them to be creative and exploratory in their unique experience.
Out of the many examples of watching campers overcoming personal fears to feel accomplishment through supportive and nurturing processes, one situation in particular comes to my mind. The scene is a sandy archery range in a grove of Australian Pine trees, nestled below eroded volcanic mountains of North Shore Oahu’s YMCA Camp Erdman. One can see Humpback whales breaching on the ocean horizon, monk seal snoozing in the sun baked sand, Laysan Albatrosses floating on a breeze and Leatherback Sea Turtles flipping in the surf. The waves rattle seashells and bits of sea glass.
I was working with a class of fifth graders from a local middle school. Sounds of laughter and giggles echo from the excited kids, eager to give archery a try. In this particular class there was one boy, Pono, who stood apart from the others. A teacher told me Pono was often too shy to try new things and he was often bullied because of his fears. He watched from a distance as I showed the group various techniques of proper equipment management and safety guidelines. He stood by a tree listening quietly. Once I opened the range for use, most of the budding archers were unable to contain their anticipation. They were all excited but they waited patiently and cheered on their classmates. The kid’s emotions soared as they watched the flight of arrows shot toward foam targets in the distance. Once each kid in the group had their first chance to shoot, I noticed Pono had not yet stepped up to try at this activity. I quietly invited Pono to give it a chance and he voiced his anxieties about this new experience. I talked him through each step with my own bow and arrow. He followed along, notched the arrow on to the bowstring, and he aimed down range. He let go of his fears and smiled as the arrow sailed straight and true to hit the center of the target with impressive accuracy. The crowd of campers went wild.
He picked up his second arrow. Again he followed each direction calmly with great focus to the sounds of almost every classmate supporting him and yelling to him with coos and woops. He took his time. He asked for guidance about how to align his body to allow for the straightest flight. He pulled back on the string. When the second arrow hit the center of the target his classmates screamed and cheered. Pono was blushing at his accomplishment. Never before had he been able try something new in the front of other peers and teachers with such success. Up to this point Pono was the forgotten kid who was bullied or left out of the fun.
One arrow remained. We talked through each step and I moved away from Pono to allow him to practice independently. Teachers held up their cameras, totally amazed at what this kid was doing. Silence fell over the group. One teacher said, “Pono’s mom will not believe this, she will be so touched.” “Can you do it again, Pono?” his teacher yelled. With pride, focus, and motivation, Pono pulled back on the string. He aimed towards the target. He smiled. In what appeared to be a slow motion speed, the arrow sailed on the breeze to join the other two in the center of the target.
Pono, the shy boy who was not usually the center of attention, hit three bulls-eyes in a row on his very first time with a bow and arrow. His classmates screamed. Pono jumped in glee and glanced at his teachers and peers for validation. Everyone was astonished. In that moment something in Pono had shifted. He had faced his fears around trying new intimidating things. He realized he had a support system. Others in his class also changed. We all were yelling Pono’s name.
Later in the week I saw Pono again at various activities. He had a new sense of invincibility. He climbed the climbing tower and zipped down the zip line, even achieving additional challenges suggested by other leaders. Pono jumped off of the diving board at the pool. Pono joined in on campfire skits and dining room chores. Pono lovingly supported his group mates to achieve group goals. Clearly, his experience at the archery range was a peak and key moment in his life. Not only did it show his classmates and teachers that with caring support Pono was able to learn new skills, it also showed everyone that he was able to rise above his fears. And it taught me, once again, supportive and loving aid can accomplish great things.
What is important about this story is not that Pono was able to physically hit the target with his arrows, though that was truly very exciting. More to the point, I was able to create a situation where this shy or lost kid was able to allow himself to be vulnerable in front of his classmates and teachers. I was able to break down the challenge into manageable steps. I was able to augment the learning environment to include personalized attention to provide what this young boy needed. Pono learned the power of caring support. From then on he was able to give that support to others. This event brought the entire class closer together.
Experiences like this are what draw me back to working with youth. In my time at camps and programs for young boys and girls with unique challenges I have become more and more aware of where each of them as individuals is emotionally, in the moment. Emotional mindsets can determine what a specific outcome may be. I have learned that success is different for each person. Successes, and failures, are worthy of acknowledgement, reflection, and praise. Connection and support during stressful experiences provides a safe space to try new skills. I hope to empower all young people that I lead to expand their zones of comfort and ability through encouragement, and so to ultimately instill an internal belief that they can accomplish whatever they aim their hearts towards achieving.