I always value a chance to get out of the city, so I took Jamie up on the offer to pay a visit to the day camp out at Tim and Corinne Plett’s place for a few hours last Thursday. I didn’t know very much about the camp beyond what Jamie had written up in the newsletter, but I had been out to the Plett’s place once for a winter community day, and I figured that whatever they turned their yard into in the summer would be at least as impressive as the backyard boot-hockey rink and sled jumps that we had played on then. I was correct.
The front yard was quiet when we arrived in the late morning, but around the side of the house we found Corinne teaching climbing skills to a group of kids on the bouldering wall. Nearby were two slack-lines which, if you don’t know, are long nylon straps like the kind you use on a roof-rack, that are secured a couple feet off the ground between two trees so that you can walk along them, tight-rope style, as a way to learn balance. As well as proper falling techniques, apparently.
There was a boy balanced on one line, his face intent with focus, knees bent, arms out, making his way slowly but surely from one tree to the other. Around the middle, where the line gets the slackest, he started to get a little wobbly, but paused, regained his balance, and then started to inch his way along again. When he reached the other side, he jumped off with a look of glee and satisfaction, as another camper stepped up to give it a go.
“Cool! Nicely done,” I said to the boy, asking his name. “Can you teach me how?”
“Well you start over here,” he said, taking me to the end of the other line where a step stool was waiting. I hoisted myself up and situated my feet on the line where he showed me, toes pointed forward. There was a parallel line above my head with a strap draped over it which was for learning before you went completely hands free. “Then you hold onto this strap with your arms out wide. You start with both hands, and then when you’re good at that you just do one hand, and then the other, and then when you’re good enough you can take both your hands off.”
“Alright, that makes sense,” I said. “Okay, let’s do this.” I found my balance and started to put one foot in front of the other, finding it already more difficult than I had anticipated.
“You need to bend your knees a little more,” he said, “and it’s best if you look ahead at the line. Looking down at your feet makes you lose your balance.” Around the middle things got distinctly wobblier. “If you get shaky,” said my coach, “just stop, and when you’re steady again you can keep going.” I paused, and wobbled, and focused, and wobbled, and just when I thought I was finding my centre of gravity… Whoops! And I was on the ground, laughing and feeling like a kid again. “I guess I need some practice!” I said to him, giving him a high-five. “Thanks for teaching me.”
From there I wandered the property to take in more of the activity. There’s an elaborate parkour obstacle course that some boys were itching to try their hand (and foot) at, but they had to wait a whole ten more minutes until a supervisor would be there. A group of kids was doing bead-work in the gazebo, and showed me some of the creatures they had made. Around the front of the house, what had been quiet when we arrived was now buzzing with kids on mountain bikes who had returned from whatever trail in the woods they had been on, and were now riding the course of jumps and bridges that was set up in the yard. And yet amidst all this activity there was a distinct air of serenity over the whole place. Everyone was having a good time, and the simplicity of it was a breath of fresh air.
The sense of delight and satisfaction that I observed in the kids as they learned and practiced new skills was familiar from my own camp experience as a youth, back in northern BC where I grew up. But the sense of peace and wellbeing that undergirded it all was shockingly unfamiliar. At the camp where I had worked, anxiety was the undercurrent: anxiety about whether kids would “come to Christ” by the end of the week, and about their presumed eternal destiny if they didn’t. The outdoor activities at that camp were a great deal of fun, and there were many healthy relationships that formed among campers and staff, but the various times of day that we would gather for some sort of Bible teaching or worship time, it always felt like there was something a little bit wrong with how much fun we had been having. The point of it all, it turned out, was not learning to sail, but the urgent matter of heaven and hell.
Even though I was not at all expecting to find that kind of anxious, conversion-oriented mentality at the Plett’s camp, I was struck by its absence, and struck by how novel it seemed to me that a church-affiliated camp could be animated by some other spirit. I found myself wondering, what is the vision behind this camp, since it is clearly a different vision than what I have encountered before? Corinne was the person to ask.
I caught up with her during the “U-Choose” session before lunch. She was stationed on the back porch, clipboard in hand, as campers came up to her to sign up for the activity of their choice. In between the bursts of energy as kids ran up to give their name and then ran away again to the climbing wall, parkour course, or art room, I asked her to tell me about what made this place tick, and how it had even started. She told me that over the years their family had been building up the bike trails and jumps and other such things around their property for their own use, but the more elaborate it became, the more natural it seemed to share it with people and to host some kind of camp for kids. Initially the question of insurance seemed to be a pretty big barrier to the idea, but when Jamie got wind of it he said “Why not bring it under the umbrella of the diocese?” And bingo! A few months later they were running the first week of a camp that is now in its tenth year with twenty-seven participants.
Corinne told me that their sense of what they are trying to do with this camp has evolved over the years, but that at its core they want it to be a place where the campers are nurtured as whole persons – where their bodies, minds, and spirits are provided with a space for growth and learning, in an environment free of threats and one-upmanship. “So what role does scripture play in how you go about that?” I asked, again curious about how their approach might differ from my experience of competing to be the camper who could recite the Bible memory verse most accurately by Friday. Corinne laughed and said that while everything they did was certainly informed by scripture and prayer, their campers were coming from a wide range of backgrounds, some with plenty of exposure to the Bible, others with none. With that in mind, they wanted to foster an environment where kids could feel they had valuable contributions to make in the “UTalk” discussion times, no matter where they were coming from. It wasn’t about the churchy kids proving how much they knew, and the non-churchy kids scrambling to catch up. And it also wasn’t about the adults attempting to indoctrinate the kids with some set of beliefs. Instead, it was about everyone participating together in conversation around a given topic, and listening to what the others in the circle had to offer. This week they were talking about ways that they could make the world a better place – and not necessarily only the world at large, but the world of their homes, the world of their schools, and even the temporary yet very special world of this camp.
Hearing Corinne describe this brought an unexpected wave of emotion. “It’s really all about the dignity of the kids, isn’t it?” I asked, remembering how deeply it bothered me when, as a child, I would find the courage to express my thoughts to an adult, and would be met with laughter and a response of “How sweet that you’re thinking about such big ideas!” The feeling of dismissal and embarrassment at not being taken seriously left me hurt and less inclined to trust others with my thoughts, and I am still trying to relearn how to trust my voice. But the adults who did take me seriously and treated me as a full person with valuable things to say, those were the adults who kept me from closing in on myself completely, and whom I still have meaningful and trusting relationships with today. So listening to Corinne talk about their commitment to honouring the dignity and value of what these kids had to say – this moved me deeply.
At Canadian Mennonite University where I attend, it’s not uncommon to hear the school described as a “learning community,” and I think this is a good way to describe what I witnessed at the Plett’s day camp as well. In a learning community, there is a recognition that some people are there primarily to be teachers, and some to be learners: the teachers have a particular set of knowledge – in this case biking, climbing, beading, and parkour skills – and the campers are eager to learn from them. But in a learning community as I have experienced it, there is also a recognition that the teachers are learners and the learners are teachers. It’s not a simple top-down model like the camp I grew up in where the leadership are expected to have a water-tight answer for any question a camper might come up with. Instead it’s a place where everyone’s inherent wisdom and voice is gladly welcomed, just as their whole self is welcomed to the bike trails and climbing wall. They come with whatever they bring, and participate fully.
After lunch, Jamie and I joined the whole group in the Pletts’ basement for “Silly Stories.” I got roped into playing a competitive chocolate-eating game, where you start with an After Eight chocolate wafer balanced on your forehead and you have to wiggle your face just so in order to coax the chocolate down your cheek and into your mouth. It was a riot, followed by a very silly story indeed, in which campers volunteered for parts, dressed up in goofy costumes, and acted out their roles while Corinne narrated the plot. The simplicity of the fun and laughter, while in no way explicitly “theological,” lacked nothing. Whether anyone was aware of it in the moment or not, they were bringing glory to God, simply by being and delighting. And I, as a privileged witness to all of this, was profoundly blessed.