One of my favorite parts of summer throughout high school was volunteering at Sawyerville Day Camp, a free camp for kids in Hale County in the black belt of Alabama. The organization has a clear mission.
“The mission of Sawyerville, a ministry of the Episcopal Diocese of Alabama, is to create opportunities for children and youth in Hale County through free summer programs, mentoring, and scholarships. All of our programs work to serve God, broaden the horizons of participants and staff, improve race relations in Alabama, and enrich the lives of those living in poverty.”
I found out about Sawyerville Day Camp through my church. I attend Saint Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Birmingham, Alabama. The Episcopal Diocese of Alabama is in charge of the program, therefore many of my church friends were too. I wanted something to do over the summer that would expand my horizons. I have always loved kids and thought I would give it a try. To this day, it is one of the best decisions I have ever made in my life.
Camp sessions typically last a week for the kids, but the counselors are required to come early for planning, setting up, and training. The counselors are divided up into three age groups called Lower Camp, Middler Camp, and Upper Camp.
Every summer that I went, I was always assigned Middler camp. Middler Camp is ages 7-9. This is the age when kids tend to be the most rambunctious, making it somewhat difficult. Every year that I returned, I requested lower or upper camp hoping for a little break. But, of course, every year I was assigned to, once again, Middler Camp. I started to realize that maybe this was a sign I was meant to be with these kids. Dealing with the chaos of Middler camp was always worth it in the end.
A typical day of camp can be described no other way than organized chaos. Two other Middler Camp counselors and I are assigned a group of around 10 kids. The kids arrive in the morning, and we feed them breakfast. They have program time, a time when we gather as a group and discuss a story from the Bible.
The kids were given the chance to get on stage and act out the story with their peers. This engaged the kids and brought them out of their comfort zone. It always made me happy when one of my shyer campers would break out of their shell and volunteer to go up at the end of the week.
We also do arts and crafts and journal time. This is a time when we really got the chance to connect with the children. Finally, at the end of the day, came pool time. Pool time is most of the kids favorite time of the day. For the counselors, however, it is one of the more difficult parts of the day.
Most of the campers who come to Sawyerville have not been taught to swim. They are given a chance to take a swim test, but most do not pass. Therefore, they have to wear one of our makeshift floaties – a noodle zip-tied into a loop.
I was a lifeguard as well, so during this time, I had a bird’s-eye view of the kids swimming. Many of them had never been swimming before and did not know what to think. A lot of them gripped the walls or held onto their counselors for help. After the first day, the kids get more used to it and cannot wait for pool time.
Me getting Middler Camp every year meant that I got to see the same kids for most of the summers I worked there. It really gave me the chance to form real relationships with them. To this day, I still keep up with my campers. They message me all the time asking about camp, and if I am coming back next summer, or even sometimes for advice. It makes me happy to think that just a few weeks of my life every year could mean so much to these kids.
Working at Sawyerville was far from easy. The challenge, however, made it one of the most rewarding experiences I have ever had.
It taught me how to be patient and compassionate. It did more than just expand my horizons. It allowed me to be a part of something I never had before and make a difference.
I have also met some of the most amazing people through Sawyerville. From camp directors and fellow counselors to the cafeteria ladies and bus drivers, I have never met someone that I did not like. Everyone involved with Sawyerville shares one thing – a love for children.
Every morning before the kids arrived, the staff prayed together. In closing, we would all shout in unison, “It’s all for the kids.”