“Gross, I will never swim in that lake,” one camper said. The other campers from Historic South Atlanta nodded. Despite the campers’ differing ages, personalities, and experiences, they all agreed the lake was vile.
Each year, we team up with Remerge to take the South Atlanta Youth group to a sleepaway camp outside of Macon, Camp Grace. Each year, they face the unfamiliar head-on, like a lake of dubious swim-ability. For many of the kids, it’s their first time away from home, and the first time away from their phones. As youth group leader, Michelle Witherspoon, reflects, “It takes a lot of courage to leave what you know and try something new.”
Two years ago, the New York Times ran an article entitled, “The Families That Can’t Afford Summer.” Much of the heart of the piece rings true for families in our target community, Historic South Atlanta. Neighborhood youth leader Michelle Witherspoon acknowledges the challenges for many youths, saying, “Summer is often a more vulnerable time. Kids are home alone while parents are away at work. Still, coming to camp is a giant leap of faith. It’s a huge amount of trust from parents to send their kids with me, but I’m honored to be the one who gets to walk with them. And it strengthens my relationship with the parents. Few things are more powerful relationally than having someone love on your kids.”
The campers spend the week receiving love from adults like Michelle, but the time away gives them a chance to learn what it looks like to love each other in a new way, too. “We have a circle space where we gather every day and practice giving encouraging words,” Michelle shares. The sharing time gives campers a chance to see gifts in each other and affirm them.
The power of that affirmation doubles given the unfamiliar surroundings. “I celebrate the way this shared experience deepens the way we know one another,” Michelle muses, “the kids hug each other differently when we get back.” She notes how vulnerable the space is socially, and yet how the campers consistently surprise themselves by rising to challenges like ziplines, ropes courses, and making new friends. “Many of the kids are building friendships that cross socioeconomic and ethnic lines,” Michelle points out, “it’s a huge emotional risk for them, and they do it to create real bonds.” In this way, the chance to go to camp lays the groundwork for our younger neighbors to see their own gifts, the gifts of others, and to practice what weaving a diverse, unified community entails.
As for the lake? The one they had each vowed to themselves to avoid? Each and every camper ended up going in, marveling at the sensation of fish nibbling at their toes.