How summer camp prepared me for Peace Corps service in Armenia

Alia's camp in Darbas
By Alia Thorpe
March 9, 2017
Alia Thorpe
Alia at the camp in America.

From seven to seventeen, I was a camper at a rustic, outdoor camp in Idaho. Then for five years I was a staff member there, trying to recreate for others the experience that shaped me as a child. 

While there, I learned an array of skills that (at the time) seemed pertinent to only camp. I learned how to shoot a bow and arrow, chop wood, and build shelters and fires. I learned how to safely interact with wild animals and keep calm in a situation that may be a little scary. I learned to cook on a fire, make food with limited ingredients, and get over a little ash in my desserts. I realized that life is still entertaining with the absence of technology. I learned that a long and difficult hike usually ends with a satisfying view. It turns out that some of these skills would prove relevant in my future.

I never knew that my summer camp experiences would shape my service as a Peace Corps Volunteer, and possibly give me a leg up throughout service at my site in a rural, remote mountain village. I realize now, a year of challenges in, that my years at camp prepared me for service in ways that I hadn’t expected.

The ability to take a leap of faith!

Cliff jumping was a fairly regular occurrence at camp. It’s the craziest rush. Even when you’re jumping off the tiniest cliff, you still feel a shiver, whether you peer down off the edge or jump right away. The scariest feeling is the most fun one—you reject your instincts, jump, and ride out the feeling of just letting go. 

I jumped off a lot of cliffs in Idaho and loved every single experience, no matter how momentarily hesitant I was. On the departure from Spokane to Armenia, I felt a similar sensation of joy, a little fear, and the sense that I was absolutely letting myself let go. I didn’t know what would happen, just that I would be alright, and most likely would be thankful for the risk.

I was thirteen the first time that I put my faith in an experience that scared me like that. Now, at twenty-four, I am thankful for this new challenge. My camp experience taught me to take risks and get outside of my comfort zone. I do that almost daily now, tackling integration, language learning, and developing projects that sometimes seem impossible.

Wood pile
I have learnt to chop wood to build a fire.

The ability to keep a house warm!

The most practical skill that summer camp taught me: I can chop wood and build a fire. As a pretty rustic camp, we did most of our cooking outside of the dining hall over a fire. Sometimes we just built a fire to keep campers warm. Sometimes we built them for educational purposes—so that they would know how to do it themselves one day.

Boy, did that come in handy this winter.

Armenian winters are harsh. This winter has been particularly bad— people in my village have told me that it’s the coldest that they’ve seen in years. Keeping a decently warm house is entirely necessary.

My home’s only heating option is a wood stove in the middle of the living room. Initially, I had help from my community to buy wood and fuel. From there, I’ve done the rest myself. This seems to surprise people in my community— maybe I don’t strike them as the “fire starter” type.

Wood Stove
I have learnt to cook my food on wood stove.

The ability to cook creatively!

It was important at camp to be flexible when it came to cooking. Camp was only easily reachable by boat, so we had to get creative with our meals. In a similar way, my site doesn’t always have the ingredients that I want, but I’ve learned to be happy with what I have, and be thankful for what is accessible to me.

It’s pretty common to cook on your wood stove here, in order to save gas. I embraced this approach, although quickly became frustrated with how slowly things cook. I remembered the first way I ever learned to cook— by sticking a pan on top of a fire and seeing what happens. Layering cast iron pans over logs and flames, I’ve cooked large, delicious meals for myself. I even occasionally make s’mores.

I’ve had to be a creative cook— my particular point of pride being “lavashadillas.” These are quesadillas made with Armenia’s traditional flatbread, lavash.

The ability to be adaptable!

At summer camp, things didn’t always go according to plan. Sometimes you can’t take kayaks out on the lake because of a thunderstorm. Sometimes something is a little scary, and you want to sit it out. Sometimes the food burns. Sometimes there’s a moose in the lodge and you have to move somewhere else. Sometimes plans just change and we have to deal with it.

Peace Corps service is the same way. Sometimes your minibus doesn’t have room, and you have to improvise. Sometimes you burn yourself on the wood stove. Sometimes your project doesn’t get the grant. Sometimes your pipes are frozen. Sometimes you can’t go to the bathroom outside at night because it’s wolf mating season. That’s okay. The key to success in both situations is to learn that it’s okay to be disappointed or to be uncomfortable. As long as you stay open minded and remember what makes you feel fulfilled, wherever you are, you’ll be okay. These mantras rang true as a summer camp counselor. They’ve stayed relevant throughout my service.

Camp prepared me for all of this!

I would have never known, at age seven, that my time in the woods of Idaho would lead me to the mountains of Armenia. I am so grateful that I ventured to both places. Camp and Peace Corps alike have made me the resilient, compassionate, and optimistic leader that I never expected to develop into. I’m eager to continue to be surprised by camp’s influence throughout my service.

My Site
My Site in Armenia
Alia Thorpe