On Agency and Working with Youth

Perhaps one of the biggest bummers I can remember from being a teenager was feeling that my emotions were not valid, being made to feel invalid or just young and naȉve,’ as some might say. I was a gawky, semi- (or not so semi) dorky kid; I wore t-shirts that read “Metallica” and “Black Sabbath,” under-excelled in most school and academic functions as well as team sports, and in general was not always running with the rest of the herd. And when it came to my superiors, whether teachers, camp counselors, parents’ friends, friends’ siblings, ect., I was regarded in a somewhat similar manner. It was kind of like “when is this kid going to drop his identity-quest and fit in with the rest of us?”

But with the storm always comes the clearing after. Despite all this, and quite possibly because of the above mentioned feelings and experiences I had as a youth, when I encountered an older person in charge of me for one reason or another who actually sought out the characteristics about me that made me, well, me, I experienced these soaring feelings of self-confidence and acceptance. I knew that, in those times, there were things about me that were going to make an impact on the larger scope of the world. And after growing up and working with youth myself, I see that I was not in the slightest bit alone with such experiences.

People in general, whether in the workplace, on the sidewalk, outside the grocery store, have a pretty limited view on what is and isn’t “normal,” and there is oftentimes not a whole lot of wiggle room for individuals to develop their own sense of identity. This I feel is especially true for adolescents, when teens themselves have not reached a total point of maturity in their ability to practice empathy, and are in a social environment that can be quite comparison-driven and competitive, well the point I’m trying to drive home is that it can be tough. For a lot of kids, for one reason or another, if they don’t meet certain social criteria, or even if they do, the time between 12 and 20 can be a lot to deal with, and I think a lot of teens feel pushed to the side and left out, hearing that they are not good enough, too slow, too weird, too something, anything. And I’m sure if any person digs down deep enough, they could rediscover at least a couple of what those too somethings were for them in their adolescence.

A main focal point at Camp Lookout is for the staff to not only recognize and support such unique characteristics within youth while at camp, but to take it a step (or many steps) further and not just provide a safe and comfortable environment for youth to be and grow as they are, but for youth to get a chance to incorporate their views and ideologies into the overall camp community.

A more concrete way to explain this is to, for example, take a look first at camp programming, and then camp free-time. Programming at camp, has historically been a counselor-created activity session, has now been shifted to better represent the campers themselves. So if a camper wants to do a certain activity, they can bring it up to a counselor and the counselor will then make it happen. But it doesn’t stop there. Campers are encouraged to design programs themselves, which means utilizing their imaginations, and counselors are there at times like these to help guide campers into making it a concrete, viable program. So any thought process a camper may have that is greater than just their own self, or has the potential to be large enough to be implemented within the camp community, will  be implemented within the camp community, thus further creating the culture of camp as a whole.

Aside from programming, the free time that campers get each day is a time in which they get to enrich and explore themselves. Besides the basic rule of maintaining a safe and positive atmosphere for all, there really are no rules when it comes to free time at Camp Lookout. It’s a time for kids to just be. Campers are encouraged to be with one another and discuss, freely and openly, life in all its forms and varieties, and also engage in thoughtful conversation with the adults around. They are encouraged to create art of all kinds, in a supervised, unrestricted manner, exploring what does and doesn’t speak to them as creators, thinkers, individuals, and community members. This kind of personal development is a vital building block for autonomy, and it happens in a rare and special place that  is remarkable even for the adults that help put it together and make it possible. Camp Lookout does not take kids by the hand and wheel them around, Camp Lookout instills the ability for self navigation.

And with the ability to navigate, personally, spiritually, and physically, comes agency. The ability to recognize the merits of the self, and how to use said merits to better the self, thus, bettering the surrounding world. The more young people are listened to, the more they are respected, the more they will grow to pass respect on to the people they encounter in the wild ride that is the rest of their lives.