Step Up – Franklin High School Student, My, wrote about her experience at Step Up camp in a recent school assignment. Her story captures what is so special and intentional about our 5-day leadership camp experience. Thank you to My for sharing her insight and experience!
I didn’t have hope nor expectations. I didn’t think a summer camp would change my life greatly. It was five days and four nights, what could happen in that short period of time that would have affected me so profusely?
When arriving at Franklin the day we were going to the camp, I was excited. But at the same time, when walking into the building, I saw a lot of unfamiliar faces. We didn’t leave Franklin right away, the first thing we did was make posters about ourselves that had a polaroid that was taken right when we entered. After about an hour of being in the main hall, we finally exited through the back doors and went to the parking lot that was behind the bleachers and got on the bus. The last 8 seats in the back were filled up with bags, suitcases, and pillows.
The drive to the location was quite long, about 40-50 minutes. Although it was a lengthy ride, it was still really fun. One of the coaches, Buddy, was loud and social. He made sure to talk to everyone and to get everyone to dance along to the music that he was playing. He gave me a good impression, and I instantly knew that he was going to be one of my favorite people from camp.
The place that we were staying at had multiple rooms. There was the main floor, and the downstairs that had The Commons and more rooms. The downstairs were where the female identifying students/staff stayed and the main floor was where the male-identifying students/staff stayed.
Gathering in the commons for the first time made me feel quite awkward, although I consider myself to be social/extroverted, I couldn’t seem to make myself comfortable. There were a lot of people I have yet to get to know and a small handful of those who I did know.
First we met the staff, there was the head of the camp Jess, of course, there was Will, Alexis and Daisy, there were the advocates, Kita, Sara, Amanda and Sha’kiah, and additional coaches, Buddy and Brandon.
The first few days of camp was really fun. I made new friends who quickly became some of my favorite people, I got to know the staff more. A few of the staff told their story, told about the abuse and neglect they had faced and what kind of hardships/obstacles they have overcome. A majority of the raw and painful stories brought me to tears.
One of the activities that we did at the camp was a run. Let me just say, first hearing that we were going to run did not make me happy. I despise running, especially on gravel and dirt. What makes it even worse is how far the obstacle is and how far we were supposed to run. Before the run began, the coaches began explaining why we were running and what the purpose of this activity was. It was to show how if we change our fixed mindset to a growth mindset, we’re capable of doing more than we believe. It was to show that if we push ourselves to our full potential, we’re able to finish the run quicker. That was when I realized that this camp wasn’t just a “camp,” it was so much more.
A few days in, around the third day, we did two obstacle courses in the woods with our assigned advocate groups. And of course, there was a hidden message in each one. One of the activities was called “The Leap of Faith.” It was where we had on harnesses and a carabiner and rope attached to our backs. Then we would have to climb a tree and stand on a platform that was a few feet above the ground. If you were afraid of heights, this would not be your cup of tea. When you stand on the platform you’re supposed to stand on the end and jump to try to reach a bar that was a few feet away from the standing point. Far enough to where you have to jump and get it. The question that was dedicated to this activity was, “What are you jumping into? What goals are you trying to achieve and jump towards?” Many of the responses I heard were, graduating high school, being happy, etc. My response/answer to this was to be happy and make my family proud. This activity caused a few people to get emotional and made it hard for them to say their goal because they believed that they weren’t able to reach those goals that they had set for themselves. After you hold onto the bar (it was okay if you weren’t able to reach it, it just mattered if you jumped/took a step off the platform), you would fall from the bar/platform and a few people from the group will pull the rope that is attached to your back and help you get down safely. This activity was an activity of not only goal setting but trust/community.
The other activity was where you had a harness on and a carabiner and rope attached to your chest. Your entire advocate group would pull you up higher and higher, they encouraged you to go to the highest point, but if you can’t, then they stop at the point where you feel comfortable, plus two more pulls to get you out of your comfort zone. And when you’re at your final point, you answer the question for this specific activity, “What are you letting go of?” The reason for this question is because after you answer the question, you pull the carabiner that is attached to your waist, and you begin swinging from the tree tops. Right when you pull the carabiner, you feel your heartbeat drop and begin to feel free. You could feel the wind against your face and your legs go numb but in a good way. The adrenaline that rushes through your body is indescribable. The location that you’re at is right next to the lake. So as you’re swinging, you’re able to see the reflection of the sun in the water, and at that moment, I truly felt like I was letting go. Letting go of all the worries and responsibilities that lay on my shoulders.
Throughout the entire camp, I met plenty of new people, made new friends, and got closer to the friends that I’ve already had coming into the camp. I had also met a multitude of new adults that I knew I could trust and depend on, and it was quite liberating since I wasn’t able to depend on my parents when it comes to educational/personal issues.
The fourth night was when everything set in place. That was when I finally understood the purpose of this camp.
The Commons lights were off, a few lamps lighting up the room, setting up the mood for the night. It was around 5-6 pm and the sun was beginning to set. Chairs were lined up in a circle, leaving the middle part open. The blinds were closed letting the golden sunlight seep in.
“What do you see at circuses?” Jess asked.
Multiple hands rose. “Elephants?” one student answered.
Jess nodded, “Elephants. What do you know about elephants at circuses?”
“Humans ride on their backs and they walk in circles?”
“They walk in circles. Do they have ropes on their feet to guide them?” we all shook our heads.
“What you don’t know about elephants is that they were trained ever since they were babies to walk in circles. A metal chain was attached to their feet, forcing them to stay in one area. So when they see their mothers,” Jess ran, but came to an instant abrupt stop, “They would stop, because they couldn’t get any further. Elephants were forced to stay in a small area, so they are only able to walk in circles. As they begin to get older and bigger, the elephants are no longer children they are teenagers. Because they were so used to walking in circles, the circus people changed their metal chains to ropes.”
“But can’t they just rip the rope?” One student asked.
“They can but they are so used to walking in circles that they don’t think that they’re capable of going anywhere else. Nothing is holding them back anymore, not the ropes, not the metal chains, the only thing that is holding them back is themselves. And that is what you guys are doing when you guys are putting yourself down and degrading yourself of your worth. So we need to break that rope, we need to break that habit. And we’re going to do it tonight.”
“What you want to do now, is grab the wooden board that is underneath your chair and draw a line right in the middle.”
I grabbed my wooden board and did as told. “Now, on the left, write ‘old me’ and on the right, ‘new me’. Write on the old me, the qualities you want to let go of. It could be the way you’re not able to trust people, or the way you have a fear of talking to people, whatever it is, write it down.”
I grabbed my marker and began writing down every quality that I disliked/wanted to let go of. This was difficult for me to write because I was realizing how many negative qualities/habits I have— the way I trust people so easily, the way I always degrade myself, how I’m unable to speak up for myself, how I let people control me, etc. I wanted to let go of my anxiety, I wrote that down. I wrote down every habit that I wanted to get rid of.
“On the right, write down who you want to be. What you want to achieve, your goals.”
I didn’t know who I wanted to be. I was so used to who I am now, it took me a small moment to realize—I wanted to be brave, to be kind and trustworthy, to be able to make myself and my family and those I love proud, I wanted to be caring and put others before myself, I wanted to be happy with who I am and my choices.
“Now that you’ve written that down. We’re going to break the board. Break the two sides in half. Separate the two. Don’t think that you can’t do it because of the way we break it, anyone can break it. It’s just a matter of if you think you could do it.”
Everyone stood up from their seats and made two lines in front of the cinder blocks. I was hesitant about breaking it. I was scared that I wasn’t able to break it.
When it was finally my turn, more than half of the students have already broken their boards so they were yelling and cheering and clapping both of their boards together, creating a loud wooden clapping noise for those who have yet to break their boards.
I was shaking, I was scared. I didn’t know if the anxiety was breaking the board or that I was taking a step closer to being who I want to be.
“You got this. You can do this, My, I believe in you,” Jess said as she looked at me straight in the eye, “I know you can do this. You are strong and capable. Now break this board.”
I took in a deep breath, retracting my arm back to break the board.
“One! Two! Through!” I pushed my arm forward as my hand hit the board, but the board didn’t break.
I took in a shaky breath, Jess grabbed my shoulder and put her face near my ear and whispered, “You are thinking that you can’t do this. But I know you can. I know that you are capable of so many things, not just breaking this board. Now let’s try this again.”
“One! Two! Through!”
The board didn’t break. I closed my eyes and sighed. Jess stood up from kneeling on the ground, hugged me, and whispered, “My, you can do this. You are so strong.” She released me and pointed at the side of the ‘new me’ and said, “This. This is how I see you. This is who you are.”
At this point, I was in tears. I was shaking. I didn’t know if I could do it at this point. After the previous failed attempts, I was slowly losing hope. If it wasn’t for Jess and the people around me who were telling me that I could do it, I would’ve just given up then and there. But because of the support that I was receiving, I was willing to do it again.
“One! Two! Through!”
Finally. I broke the board. I felt a sense of release and freedom. I broke it. I really broke it. Jess stood up and gave me a tight hug, “I knew you could do it.”
I grabbed the broken board and went and sat down on one of the chairs. The high school coach that attended the camp to help out, Sage, they went up to me and gave me a big hug and said, “I am so proud of you. Watching you break it and Jess encouraging you made me cry so hard.”
I smile softly at her, “Thank you, Sage.”
After everyone had broken their board, we left The Commons and walked back to the patio and around the building and to the campfire that was in front of the lake. Everyone gathered around the campfire, I sat in between two of my friends who I knew/met before the camp.
We took turns, from each row, going up and reading out our “old selves,” that was written on the board to the entire camp. I was in the middle, so I didn’t go first or last. A few people who walked up to the front and read what was on their board began to cry, due to the emotional and intimate experience, especially since after you read what’s on your board, you throw it in the fire.
One of the coaches/advocates went up and read hers, she then broke down in tears and was crying all the way through. As I saw her cry, both my friend and I, cried along with her, for we had been crying all the way through. A few people a few seats from me were crying as well, and we all were just comforting each other.
As it was my time to go up, I was shaking, sweating, and still crying. I read my board out loud, with a shaky voice, and threw the board in the fire. When I put it in the fire, I felt a sense of relief.
As everyone finished throwing their board into the fire, we walked back to the patio, where chairs were aligned in a circle and a table with candles and fairy lights laid in the center. I sat down, between the same friends again as countless thoughts ran through my head.
This time, we held a lantern and read who we want to become. Afterward, we would pass it on to the next person and say, “Pass the light.” This was less emotional, but it was still difficult for some.
At this point, my tears had officially dried, and I had finally caught my breath and contained myself. We all walked back into the building and did our last activity.
We all stood in a circle and Jess explained where this activity had come from. After she finished telling the story, half of the circle stood in the center with their eyes closed and arms to their side.
In this activity, those in the center will just stand there in the dimly lit room. And those on the outside will come up to one person at a time and either hug them, shake their hand, or pat their shoulder, whatever feels the most comfortable for not only the receiver but for the giver as well. We did this to give each other love. The reason why they had their eyes closed was that it didn’t matter where the love came from, it just mattered that love was coming towards them.
Will began playing the song for the activity; Angel by Sarah Mclachlan.
Those on the outer circle, I included, began walking towards the people in the center. I hugged my first person tightly, and then when I got to the second, I began to cry. It was a mixture of the warmth of the body that I held, the emotional song, the meaning of this activity, and just everything that we did, not only that night but the entire camp as well.
After the song ended, those who were in the center were now on the outside, meaning that I was now in the middle.
I closed my eyes. Stood there, and waited. The song restarted, “Angels fall.”
I received my first hug as I continued to cry on their shoulder. We weren’t supposed to be saying anything when you would be giving people love because it was supposed to be anonymous. But a few of my friends who I was comforting and crying with, came up to me and gave me a warm hug and whispered to me, “I’m so proud of you.” Which caused me to cry even more.
The end of the night was just a big reflection of everything that had happened that night. But for me, it was a reflection of the entire camp. I made so many new and amazing friends, I met adults who I knew I could trust, and I made so many memories that would be unforgettable.
This camp wasn’t just for fun like I thought it was. It was truly life-changing. Not only did I get to know new people and friends, but I got to know myself more. I began to come to terms with who I am as a person and had the opportunity to discover who I want to be, and soon to become.