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Growth by doing: A summer at Akeela

Earlier this summer I made a fateful decision, based on a feeling more than anything else, to spend two months working as a counselor and art specialist at a sleep-away camp for neurodivergent kids and teens. Camp Akeela, in the rural reaches of Vermont, presented the opportunity for the kind of growth I didn’t even know that I needed, albeit at a lower pay scale than I had expected. But one can’t have everything. 

The only thing I knew about Vermont was that maple syrup comes from there, but I had this vaguely bucolic image in my mind’s eye that propelled me into the unknown with surprising vigor. Akeela was indeed bucolic, but more than that, it was a safe haven, a training ground and a place where you could be yourself. 

Camp taught me that time flows differently when you’re having new experiences on a daily basis. Upon arriving home, with a handmade bracelet tied around my wrist reminding me of a summer already fading away, I felt as though who I had become was more than who I used to be. I think camp frequently has this effect on people; it helps them to become more of who they are. 

Maybe that’s why I felt so inspired by the people around me. There were no desks to hem us in and no academic standards by which to judge each other, as if those were the sole measure of one’s abilities. Akeela brought out the best in nearly everyone, and talents flourished amid the greenery and open skies. I loved watching people work in an environment that invited collaborative efforts. Camp allowed everyone’s personalities to shine through in a way that you don’t often get to see in ordinary life. 

Akeela showed me that the ordinary way isn’t necessarily the best way to do things. It’s a place where kids with quirky personalities and unconventional ways of interacting can do their thing — within reason, of course — without being called weird or different or bad. Additionally, the absence of internet access and devices meant that socially awkward kids couldn’t hide behind screens, which made a huge difference. Having to be around people without distractions for three whole weeks at a time arguably did more to forge bonds than anything else, though the absence of technology was just one piece of a more complex whole.

As an art specialist, I was tasked with devising art projects and went through a huge learning curve in the process. By the end, I had gained so much confidence — not only in my ability to teach art, but also in my capacity to start something from scratch, having never done it before, and figure out exactly how to do it well. My favorite project was making miniature furniture, which I had done as a child and wanted to share with the campers, and I was impressed by their inventive ideas and art-making.

Being a counselor meant facilitating constant exposure to new activities for campers. These activities required everyone to get their feet wet, both literally and metaphorically, and push themselves beyond their comfort zone on a daily basis. It was inspiring to see kids who often had major difficulties with change overcome their challenges and try new activities over time. Observing how positive peer influence could get kids to try new things showed me how much community impacts the individual.

Camp is a gentle place to be oneself, and I can’t imagine it any other way. I look forward to returning to Akeela and this place I called home for a summer. Until then, the Akeela evening song that goes “friends, friends, friends” will be at the back of my mind, reminding me of camp.