EDUCATION

Column: Attending Young Life Camp as a counselor and leader

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Nate Larkin
HottyToddy.com

I can remember the process of going to my first Young Life camp like it just happened last year.

Spring semester of my freshman year of high school, I showed up for Club, the weekly meeting of Young Life. I was approached by two older men, Eric and Nick.

Young Life is a ministry that works to improve the lives of U.S. middle-school, high-school and college students. A leader forms a relationship with each student and eventually introduces the idea of being Christian.

The organization advertises camp as the best week of your life. As part of Young Life, you attend camp with leaders from your area, so instead of having a camp counselor, it’s an adult you know and trust. They have about 25 camps around the country.

Throughout my freshman year, I got to know Eric and Nick pretty well, and even babysat one of their kids. Eric came to sporting events at my high school, chaperoned dances, was involved with the boys’ soccer team, and came to many basketball games.

After club every Wednesday night, students from my high school who attended went to Wendy’s. Since I was too young to drive, Eric or Nick gave me a ride. They asked me questions about my life, activities and interests.

Two months into that semester, Eric said he wanted me to go to camp. That summer, he was leading the trip from my area to Castaway Club in Minnesota. He said there will be tubbing, boats, a beach on a lake, a zip line, a rock climbing wall and good food. My friends were going, but most of all, there were plenty of girls for me to meet.

I didn’t give it that much thought because of the $700 cost. He assured me there would be fundraising opportunities, so I mentioned it to my parents. My mom told me if I could raise half the money, she would pay for me to go.

When I mentioned to Eric the next week that I did indeed want to go to camp, he was very excited. I paid my deposit and had just a few months to raise money. He gave me forms to sell green chili, and a few weeks later, I participated in a car wash to raise money.

Before I knew it, I was on an 18-hour bus ride from Denver, Colorado, to a Young Life club in Minnesota. My closest friends at the time were all on the same bus with me, and we kept ourselves busy by eating beef jerky and playing road trip games. We made a stop at 6:30 a.m. at a McDonald’s somewhere in Iowa, and 60 high school students got out of a bus and slammed the restaurant.

When we finally made it to camp, we were greeted by camp volunteers, staff, and the camp speaker. A man dressed as Poseidon told us he owned the lake and had an army coming to take over the camp. The high school-aged volunteers grabbed our bags and brought them to our rooms.

The program team is one part of Young Life camps that help connect the campers. The program team runs a week long skit throughout meals and games that every camper is involved with. This is part of what made Young Life camp such a memorable week for me.

One experience that I would never forget is the first time I went parasailing. I’m terrified of heights, so Nick and Eric had to convince me to strap in. They paired me with one of the older guys in our cabin, who was able to keep me positive. I was able to see the mansions around the lake and got a view of camp from 300 feet in the air.

That was the point where I realized Nick and Eric weren’t those strange older guys who hung out with us because they had no friends, but they were invested in my life. They wanted to be mentors and watch me grow as a person. I already knew about God, but Nick and Eric pushed me to grow in my faith and enter into a relationship with God.

The most important aspect to a Young Life camp is the relationship a leader has with the camper. The camp staff and volunteers do an excellent job of setting up time for each leader to get to know all  campers. Each leader is supposed to do a one-on-one talk with each camper. I was lucky enough to speak with both leaders that year.

In December of my sophomore year, I got a call from a Young Life staff member in Oxford saying I would be assigned to a Young Life team at the leadership placement. After a semester of plunge (leader training), and all the memories I had from my leaders from high school, I was really excited to become a leader.

At leadership placement, I was told I would be assigned to work on the Wyldlife team, which is the middle school ministry. One of my first questions was to ask when camp was so I could clear my schedule to make it.

In January of my sophomore year, I sat down at High Point coffee on the Square with 12 eighth grade guys I would begin to get to know. It was my turn to go through the same process that my Young Life leaders went through before camp. There were already many eighth-graders signed up for camp, so my task was be getting to know these kids.

I meet with the same group every Wednesday morning at the coffee shop, and barely got to know their names by summer. I went home to Colorado over summer to work mowing lawns, since I had to pay for my own way to camp, so I didn’t get to spend time with them over summer.

In late July of 2015, one of my good friends picked me up from the Memphis Airport to bring me back to Oxford. He questioned me about why I would want to pay money to bring a total of 19 eighth grade guys to a camp for a week and said I was paying to be a professional baby sitter.

Up until this point, my own experience at a Young Life had been the best week of my life. It was my turn to make a sacrifice and give my time to make sure these kids experienced the same week. It was finally my turn to get on a bus in Oxford and take a group of guys to Southwind Camp in Florida.

The bus ride was an experience to remember. One middle-schooler thought it would be funny to throw Gummy Bears at other people on the bus. Gummy Bears got all over everyone’s shoes. Another middle-schooler didn’t know there was a trash can, so they put an empty coke bottle in the bathroom toilet.

We ended up making a stop at a Chic fil A in Tallahassee for breakfast, and 80 middle-schoolers ran in creating chaos in the restaurant at 7 a.m. For lunch, we stopped at the Gainesville mall and created more chaos there. Some leaders and I decided to grab a sit-down lunch while letting the middle-schoolers run around doing whatever they wanted in the mall.

Between Gainesville and camp, I fell asleep with my mouth wide open only to be awakened up by a sour taste. Somehow, I had a Sour Patch Kid in my mouth, and I had no clue how it got there. Several people were laughing, including the other leaders. Then I noticed a Snapchat story of a middle-schooler putting the candy in my mouth.

When we made it to camp, the leaders were briefed about what would happen at camp. We were told about the speaker, and what the program team would be doing. We waited outside in the heat until were allowed to bring our middle-schoolers into camp.

Since a semester wasn’t long enough to get to know all the guys, and there were new guys who didn’t show up for the group on Wednesday mornings, I spent the first day tying names to faces. There were a few I got to spend time with, and some I was just meeting for the first time.

We got a fun week of games, good food, and pranks on other cabins. I went through all the positives and all the negatives that my middle-schoolers endured. One guy hurt his foot during a game, so I spent time with him in the health room.

I also got the opportunity to speak one-on-one with the middle-schoolers. My Young Life leader in high school had bought everyone a coffee, ice cream or a milkshake every time he had a talk with anyone. This is how I modeled my time with my middle-schoolers. One by one, I pulled a guy aside and ran to the snack shop. I bought them the milkshake of their choice, and we sat and talked over milkshakes. Even though most of these talks were short, I got to be a role model and played the role of an older sibling for some of those guys.

My last talk with a guy I thought i knew pretty well lasted an hour and a half. I got to know this kid in ways nobody else had in the past. He hadn’t fully accepted a relationship with God at that point, and just like my leaders, this was something I wanted to explain but not force upon him.

Later in the day, the same kid approached me and told me that because of our talk, and from the speaker’s words that week, he decided to accept God into his heart for the first time. This is what made leading a camp so much better than attending a camp.

As a camper, you have no responsibility. You can completely forget about the outside world. Your phone is taken away at the beginning of camp. You get to experience God in ways you didn’t get to in the past either.

The reason why leading camp was the best week of my life is that I got to experience it with campers. I got to make a difference in the lives of others. It is all about making a sacrifice with your life in order to put others before you. There is no other week of my year that I would rather be sleep-deprived and hungry because all the kids get food on the table before I do.

My friends who aren’t involved with Young Life do not understand all that I do. I get to spend time and change the lives of middle-schoolers every week. I get to make friends with guys seven years younger than me, and as weird as that sounds, I’m glad I can just do what I love to do.

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