So we at Big Brothers Big Sisters (BBBS) of Springfield weren’t at all surprised that the first busload of children we took to Camp Oty’Okwa had plenty of stories to share on their way back.
But two things that happened on the way over got our attention.
One was how awestruck the kids were by the Columbus skyline, which most had never seen.
Another came when the bus pulled to a stop and the camp’s beautiful and natural surroundings seemed so foreign to the kids that none of them — not a one — wanted, at first, to get off the bus.
For all children, experiences away from home are a chance to see the wider world and imagine new possibilities for their futures.
But at Camp Oty’Okwa, where 95 percent of the campers attend with the help of scholarships, BBBS of Central Ohio has tailored a camping experience for those who otherwise would never have one.
Camp Director Dave Schirner, who started as a lifeguard there in 1971, really gets it, as the camp program shows.
The counselor-to-camper ratios are rich, typically two counselors for each six to seven campers.
The approach is flexible and focused on the needs of the campers, not the camp. So even if there’s a slot available, he encourages his staff not to assign a group of six boys with ADHD to an afternoon art session when they could be burning energy and enjoying themselves out on the trails.
That camp showed the same flexibility this summer in an effort to make reading come alive for our campers from the Lincoln School Promise Neighborhood.
Counselors not only read the popular book “Hatchet” with the children; while reading it, they taught campers some of the outdoor survival skills the boy in the story uses to stay alive in the wilderness after a plane crash.
How better to bring the joys of reading and camping alive?
Schirner and his staff have four goals for campers:
One: They want campers to feel loved, cared for and valued.
Two: They want them to experience a series of rapid-fire successes in what’s an ideal setting for making that happen. Unlike school, where the focus is normally on academics and athletics, camp activities offer a million things to explore and be good at — from swimming and hiking to collecting firewood or doing craft or art projects.
Flowing from the first two is a third goal: To give campers a sense that they have the ability and the power to change the trajectory of their lives; that they themselves can find a new direction in a world that doesn’t always point them on the best path.
The camp’s final goal is for campers to treat their fellow campers, the campgrounds and nature with respect. Although seemingly simple, these actions are the fundamental building blocks of personal virtue and community values.
The camp makes the greatest progress with students who return year after year and, or return for weekend mini-camps throughout the year.
Those students tend to become Leaders in Training, then Counselors in Training, and finally counselors who extend hands to new campers who may be afraid to get off the bus.
Springfielder Le’ajaa Goodwin, who traveled that path, first went to Camp Oty’Okwa to attend Grief Camp, following her mother’s passing.
Now a student at Wright State University, her favorite memory from that visit is of the lantern ceremony to honor her mother and all the loved ones of the kids there.
She then attended summer and other camps Oty’Okwa offers.
Now a young adult, she remembers how her camp experiences provided her with the time away she needed.
“It can take your mind off things that are going on at home, like any problems you may have in the city … ‘the real world,’” as campers put it.
It’s no accident that the words vacating and vacation share the same root.
The generosity of the Wilson Sheehan Foundation, United Way and the Community Health Foundation this summer allowed 71 kids from our area to attend camp. (Although our campers range from ages 6 to 14, most are 11 to 13.)
And as much we appreciate the funding, we appreciate the flexibility that comes with it.
If a child we think could benefit greatly from camp is afraid to go, our funders don’t mind if we send a cousin along for companionship.
If we find that four of the five children in a family are headed for camp, they’re happy to allow us to send the fifth so a grandmother working full time while caring for them can have a week of peace.
And when that week of camp ends, a then more rested grandma gets the added benefit of listening to the children’s favorite camp memories.
They are the kind of memories Dave Schirner sees not only as an important legacy of childhood, but as a form of insulation against the hard knocks too many children experience as they search for a path to a brighter future.
To hear Le'ajaa's story in her own words, go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V55ZzvpYCWc.
To learn more about BBBS programs and how you can help us improve the life of a child, call 937-390-9900.
Linda Shaffer is president of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Springfield. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.