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How summer camp prepared me to serve in the Peace Corps

Carrying a crate for coral at coral gardening training

There is no doubt that summer camp really prepared me for the Peace Corps.

As a camper
As a camper

I went to camp in Wisconsin, starting in fifth grade. I went every summer and even worked on staff the last full summer before I left for Peace Corps. Being both a camper and staff member prepared me for the Peace Corps.  

As a camper I learned three major life skills: sharing, communication and comfort in self. 

When I was young I struggled with sharing. As an only child I never needed to share until I went to camp. The communal space of the cabin taught me to share not only my things but also my space. People would borrow my baseball mitt, stamps, pens, flashlight... sometimes even without asking. I needed to adapt to this, knowing that this was going to happen. 

Sharing became second nature. Whenever people asked, I would lend. 

Sharing spaces was more of a challenge. I needed to learn to respect people’s alone time, clean up my junk and clothes that may be sprawled all over the cabin and not sit on their bed when they did not want me to. I became more comfortable with my personal space.

Roasting a lechon baboy (roast pig) with host cousin Jordon, who roasts a turkey
Roasting a lechon baboy (roast pig) with host cousin Jordon, who roasts a turkey

Yet sharing space has truly become one of my greatest skills. I share someone’s home, their space, and I try to keep things clean. Out of the office, community members are always asking questions on where you are going and where you are coming from. Sometimes it’s a little much and I need to communicate that they need to respect my space. 

Related post: How summer camp prepared me for Peace Corps service in Armenia

Such is the importance of communication. It was always key to a great cabin dynamic. Every Friday night we would do this activity called Roses and Thorns where we would share highlights of our week, both good and bad. This taught me the importance of checking in, seeing how people are doing and also understanding the importance of letting people know what is going on in my life and what I am working on. Just living with people in the cabin I developed an appropriate and constructive voice to deal with issues and concerns with my cabin mates, and to stand up and support others who needed help. 

Great communication at home and office is what can make or break a service. It’s important to have monthly check-in with Peace Corps staff and weekly check-ins with my counterpart and supervisor. When work gets stressful in the office, I always appreciate when my counterpart can be honest with me and I can adequately express my concerns in return. 

It's very difficult to create an open stream of communication when moving into someone else’s house. It took me time to express my wants and desires with my host family, even though I knew how important it was for them to know more about me. As it currently stands, there are constant updates and honest commentary about every aspect of our lives. 

Playing a Filipino parlor game at Family Day
Playing a Filipino parlor game at Family Day

Comfort in self is the skill I cherish most. Camp was full of performances, sporting events, swimming and other craft activities. Camp taught me to be comfortable in my abilities, that it was great to belt out a tune even when I was out of tune. I learned quickly that I was never going to be the starter on the basketball team, but I become comfortable getting out there and having fun.

In a culture where pageantry guides every event, my self-comfort serves me well. I can always dance like no one is watching, even when everyone is watching, which certainly helped at the Christmas party. I learned how to sing in front of a large group and not care how my voice sounds, because in the Philippines Videoke is a part of life and you need to sing to integrate. 

Most importantly it taught me to be silly. Camp allowed me a comfortable space to become my own person. It taught me to not be self-conscious so I can truly have comfort and confidence in myself. 

As any Peace Corps Volunteer knows, ice breakers are a huge part of training. Camp taught me a plethora of ice breakers. 

First day on the job, giving an introduction in Cebuano
First day on the job, giving an introduction in Cebuano

In service, ice breakers are a fixture, not only at training events but before every program. I use these skills to build camaraderie with different stakeholder groups, energize sleepy town council members or just break up some of the dryness of a presentation on seagrass ecosystems. 

As a camp counselor, I had to get up in front of the campers every day! I always had to give announcements, lead programs and get kids quiet. As a young staff member, I learned that I often did not know what to say or the best way to say it. I constantly grappled with how to speak in front of a large group and keep people's attention. 

Now I give presentation for my office almost once a week. I use my public speaking skills to present on a wide range of coastal resource management topics. These presentations are often to the fisherfolk or government officials about marine sanctuaries, fish catch or ecosystem dynamics. Occasionally I will lead a community mapping exercise or other activity, which is a little more difficult than just presenting a PowerPoint. What adds another element to my work at site is that all of my public speaking is done in Cebuano, a difficult task that I now embrace. 

Overall, camp allowed me to foster a close-knit community of people I could depend on and trust, where you practically knew everyone. This dynamic fostered lifelong friendships and close ties with anyone who also went to camp.

These components of a thriving community are what I have built in the Philippines: friendly warm faces who care about me and I deeply care about them.