Big change or more of the same?

Princess Puppy

The age old question; does camp change people or just make them more of who they already are?

We talk all the time about how camp changes people for the better, how leaders are created, and how campers go home as different people. But what about the argument that we didn’t actually “change” or “create” anything… we simply give campers a safe environment to challenge themselves and grow the skills and qualities that they already possess.

I don’t have the answer, all I have is years of watching campers (and staff) … become. Become more confident, become happier, become better versions of themselves. 

I’ve also watched campers “try on” different aspects of their personality over the years, it can happen over the course of a week, or over a few years. I’ve seen campers go from shy wall flowers to group leaders in a week, or from boy crazy, “mean girls”, to thoughtful, helpful, kind friends over a few summers, and while I realize that much of this is just naturally a part of aging and maturing, I think that camp plays a huge role in that process.

I think that camp allows campers to explore different parts of their personality in a safe place. Many camp people tell me that they’re completely different at camp then they are at home, and that makes sense to me, because to some degree we all have different hats we wear in different environments.

One of my favourite memories of a camper is Frederick*, he was one of my campers years ago when I was a counsellor (I use the phrase ‘my camper’ loosely because he wasn’t in my cabin). The program I worked for ran three different residential camps, so I made sure to work at all three over the course of a few years (because I think it’s important to work in different programs and have new experiences, it helps keep you out of the “but that’s how it’s done, because we’ve always done it that way” mindset – and what was so enlightening and fascinating about that experience was that although all three camps essentially ran the same program, had he same rules, expectations, systems, and even the same program coordinator, each camp was so unique! The culture and traditions of each camp were just different enough – or in some cases vastly different – from the other camps that you felt the uniqueness of each program) and at one of these camps in the early 2000’s I met Frederick.

Frederick was a 30 or 40 something year old man who had down syndrome. When I met him, he firmly shook my hand and said in a very gruff voice, “Hi, I’m Frederick, pleased to meet you.” I said hello back and we went about our business. About an hour later, when all of the campers had arrived and the dust had settled from the family goodbyes, Frederick came and found the Assistant Camp Director who I happened to be talking to.  He greeted her warmly then said “I need my dress”. She said “I figured you’d be asking for that, I’ll have to go get it, if you can just wait a few minutes until I’m finished here”. He said it was no problem to wait, and I, trying to be helpful, asked if she wanted me to go back to his cabin with him to get what he’s looking for out of his bag.
My ACD told me “no, he’s looking for a dress he wears every year when he comes here”.
I should explain that part of my camp’s culture was that we dressed up ALL THE TIME everything was an excuse for a costume and we had a really great tickle trunk full of them, so I just said “Ok, cool” and moved on.

I went about my business and the next time I saw Frederick was at dinner time. He was wearing his dress over his clothes and seemed really happy. I waved hi to him, and at the end of the meal I found him and said “Frederick, you found your dress it looks great!” “No, my name’s not Frederick,” he said “it’s Princess” in a very soft, feminine sounding voice and he put his hand out for one of the daintiest handshakes I’ve ever received. I went with it, “well it’s very nice to meet you Princess, I love your dress.” Princess thanked me for the compliment and went on her way.


It was like that for the rest of the week, I had a chance to hang out with Princess a number of times throughout the week (ok, I made a point to hang out with her, I begged and pleaded to be put on her programs – I was a big fan, AND we had something in common, I, too, identify as being a princess!!) but sometimes Princess would slip up, I remember the banquet at the end of the week (everyone got to sit wherever they wanted, obviously I sat with Princess) she sat across from me and asked, in her deep Frederick voice, “can you pass the butter?”… and then realized the slip up and said “I mean… please” the last word said back in her Princess voice.

The last day of camp arrived and I was helping my campers bring their stuff up to the waiting area, when we got there I saw that Princess’s drive was already there and the other campers she was traveling with were loading up their gear. I ran over and said “Princess, I need to get a hug before you go, I’m going to miss you!!” Princess looked down at her outfit (that’s when I noticed the dress was gone) looked up at me and said “nope, it’s Frederick now”, in that deep, gruff voice of his “but I’ll hug you anyway!”. Then he gave me the most knowing, conspiratorial smile I’ve ever seen, hugged and said goodbye.

There are two explanations for Frederick/ Princess’s behaviour, I don’t think he was trying to make any kind of political statement or teach any lessons … I think that either, a. he identified as being Princess, liked being able to explore that side of himself and felt like camp was a safe place to do it, or b. he just really liked the whole costume, character aspect of our program and really went for it.

It doesn’t actually matter what his reasons were, what matters is that he identified something within himself that he wanted to explore (either a part of his identity or some awesome acting chops) and camp allowed him to do that. We didn’t change him, we facilitated some exploration. Did he leave a changed person because of that exploration? Maybe, I don’t know. What I do know is that he left confident and happy. And THAT’s what really matters.

So with all that said, I still don’t have the answer if camp changes people or if they just become more of who they already are; I have to say though, I like the idea of giving campers the message that they are already awesome, and that we’re just here to help shine the light on their awesomeness and help them discover their strengths by teaching them how to challenge themselves. It takes away the external focus (us changing them) and creates an internal focus (them learning about their strengths).

All I know for sure is that Frederick/ Princess was full of awesome!!

What do you think? Does camp change people? Or just highlight their strengths? Feel free to share your stories in the comment section below.

*Camper’s name has been changed

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