Amazing Teenagers (Yup, you read that right!)

It seems to me that teenagers get a bad rap sometimes.  I can tell you that I’ve had numerous conversations over the years with peers, parents, friends, and strangers about “how difficult it must be to work with teenagers,” and how they’re “selfish and hormonal.”

What I always respond with is this:  “you don’t know the right teenagers.”  Each summer at camp (for those of you unfamiliar with me, I work at Camp Abnaki, our boys resident and day camp) we have three amazing groups of teenage boys at camp:  our oldest campers, our Counselors in Training (CITs), and the majority of our cabin counseling staff.

Within the confines of our 90 acres on Lake Champlain, we have the ability to create our own intentional community.  While based around values like caring, honesty, respect, responsiblity, and the camp motto, it is our teenagers who must implement and reinforce these values.  This starts with our staff. 

We hire counseling staff from around Vermont, the United States, and the world.  Approximately half our cabin staff–our Junior Counselors–are either just finishing their 11th grade year or have recently graduated from high school.  Many of these young men have grown up at camp, and embody the values we stand for.  We ask 17 and 18 year old guys to give up their summer–their privacy, their time with friends, their free time in the summer–to work to help instill those values in our campers.  And you know what?  They do!

I have seen 17 year olds comfort crying 9 year olds.  I have seen 18 year olds provide sage counsel to 13 year olds.  I have seen, time and again, our staff members make decisions which seem beyond their years as they live up to the “Role Model” monniker on the back of our staff shirts.  I have watched as 19 year old Senior Counselors go out of their way to help teach a young boy a new skill. 

Yep, we have a pretty amazing groups of teenagers on our staff.

We also have a unique group of teenagers at camp called CITs.  Our CITs have completed 10th grade, and have been accepted into our camp leadership training program.  They spend their days learning how to become counselors.  CITs help lead activities, help take on the responsiblity for ensuring support areas of camp are maintained, assist campers at the waterfront, help staff in the camp store, and much more.  I’ve seen CITs take initiative to set up activities for campers which may not happen otherwise (like card game tournaments).  I’ve seen CITs build adirondack chairs to raise funds to help send other kids to camp.

Did I mention that CITs pay for the privilege to do all this?  A pretty amazing group of teenagers with our CITs.

Of course, no matter how many youth development role models we hire or train, the tone of camp is often set by our oldest campers.  Boys 6-12 look up to the older kids–the “cool” kids.  They take their cues from our oldest campers (in our oldest village, the ages range from 13-16).  And you know what?  Our oldest campers step up to the challenge our staff gives them:  to help create the positive community our staff is trying to build. 

Our oldest boys often are the loudest during silly songs or chants.  They lead campfire skits, and role model taking a risk to try new things.  Our campers involve younger boys in games, and encourage them when they struggle.  Some of our oldest campers take on mentoring roles with our youngest, through mutual cabin activities.  I have observed a group of 14 year olds help a peer to feel more comfortable in his own skin, and bring him out of his shell and feel valued.  I often hear from parents how their sons have returned to their home communities and carried on these actions, taking our values to the larger world. 

I would argue that our campers are our most amazing teenagers at camp.  They  step up in unexpected ways to set the tone for a community of almost 200 people. 

I believe that these teenagers exist outside of our closed community.  Approximately 55% of teenagers volunteer–nearly twice the rate of adults (29%).  If you have negative opinions about teenagers, I would ask that you go and get to know some.  They can be pretty amazing.

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