The final day of summer camp. For campers across the world this means futile promises to stay in touch and tearful goodbyes. For counselors it means a sigh of relief and the promise of sleep. But for Camp Grow, the last day of camp meant so much more.
It would be hard to classify the week-long Bonga summer camp as anything other than magical. There was something special in the air, a palpable feeling that this camp was destined to happen. Everything came together, and the monsoon rains of July avoided us for the entire week.
It started with the kids. From the far reaching corners of Southern Ethiopia, Peace Corps Volunteers and our local counterparts hand-picked the best kids in the world. Some of the kids were incredibly intelligent. Others were very talented. Some of them were very well behaved yet a little shy. These were my favorite to watch. Over the course of a week, they broke loose from their shells and a tangible feeling of hope was visible in their eyes.
The message of camp was simple: Dream big. You are capable of anything.
One of the 26 campers was my famous friend, schooled in a terrorist camp in the capital city. He speaks five languages. One of the campers whose name means “My golden hope” is a 13 year old who does a mean Michael Jackson impersonation. His sister is an equally talented dancer. We had Banchayehu (rough translation: I see things through you) who is the best student at Sheta School. She wants to be an engineer.
‘Zegeye’ proudly claimed he wants to become a philosopher. He taught the kids that Philosophy comes from the Greek words ‘Philo’ and ‘Sophy’ meaning the love of wisdom. There was Kidist, the servant to another campers’ family. Yet, she had the biggest dreams: She wants to be the prime minister one day. There was Muse, a brilliant and polite kid who is learning Turkish. He wants to be a computer hacker and eventually an engineer.
Finally there were two students from the orphanage in Chiri. Geramew was our loveable lion, and Tigist was our quiet beauty.
During the camp, the kids became instant friends, coming together through trust falls and post bedtime whispers. They learned our songs and our games and were thirsty for knowledge. We taught them what we could, including orienteering, composting, HIV prevention, forest preservation, tree planting, Malaria prevention and leadership skills.
At night we brought in role models so the kids could get an idea of what it would take to make their dreams come true. There was my friend, Dr. Milkiyas, as well as Sofi, a female business consultant. We also had four amazing university students who doubled as counselors for the week and a friend who runs an NGO that supports children with HIV.
There were moments that broke my heart. During one activity, the body map, kids traced their bodies and filled their arms, hearts, heads and stomachs with magazine cut-outs that represented their thoughts and passions. Almost every kid put a picture of a family on their heart or head. As they presented their body map they would say, “I love my family” or “I think about my parents a lot.”
Tigist also pasted a magazine photo of an American family posing in a grassy field. She said, “One day, I want to have a family”
A few hours later our other beautiful orphan got me again. The kids would come up to me and ask if they could call their mothers or fathers. Geramew walked sheepishly up to me, the last of the kids.
“Can I call my, um….roommates?”
On the last day, we gave each kid an envelope and scraps of paper. They were told to write notes to their friends, so they could remember each other after camp. My envelope was filled with both amazing and hilarious comments:
- Your jokes make me happy
- You are very beauty so continue that
- If you go to America, please don’t forget me
- I like your dance.
- I like Chase and also you.
- So cool
- I love you every day
- You were a very good teacher and friend. You are funny and friendly. I hope and I’m sure you get a good job and change the world – Muse
Yesterday camp ended and the rain came back with a vengeance. Geramew, rather than returning to the orphanage ,is staying with his brother for a week. I wanted to walk him to make sure he arrived safely. His new friends, the dancers Firenesh and Tesfawerk lived on the way. However they refused to go to their home without seeing Geramew safely to his door. So the four of us walked over an hour to a small hut in the pouring rain and said our goodbyes to our good friend. As they hugged, the siblings asked if Geramew would like to join them for dinner at their house. You could even stay with us if you want, they added.
So in a week, children were inspired to become Doctors and Prime Ministers. Tigist found a small family, if only for a week. Geramew found a family for perhaps longer thanks to some new friends, and Muse reminded me of the simple message of camp. Dream big. You are capable of anything.