Friday, July 10, 2009

PVI Peace and Love Camp 2009

I love camp. Really. In a creepy, I-wear-hiking-sandals-and-can-follow-a-trail kind of way. I lived and breathed Camp Ok-wa-nesset at the Kent County YMCA for four summers. I dealt with upper pond canoeing, archery, arts-and-crafts, and family nights. I even tolerated their hot dogs during the vegetarian years. I wore the yellow staff t-shirt and taught preschoolers hiking songs. It was the best job of my life—until now.

Naturally, I was pleased to start planning a Passionist Volunteers International tradition—Peace and Love Camp. For six years now, PVI’s have hosted summer camps in each mission village. The length and times vary each year, but the routine is consistent. Volunteers secure the village church and a classroom for a few days, and turn it into "PVI Land." The children receive a morning snack and a noontime meal, as well as instructional activities, sports and games, and arts and crafts. Volunteers employ a local woman to cook the lunches for a modest stipend, and ask church teenagers to act as counselors. Children receive a t-shirt, and one of the activities is to “tie-and-dye” it to make a camp uniform. Camp Ok-was-nesset it is not (no archery or swimming lessons) but we’re making it work.
The other volunteers and I have given our camp a “health and hygiene” spin and orchestrate daily hand washing and tooth brushing instructions and competitions. We’ve invited members from the Archdiocese of Kingston’s Family Life Commission to present talks about healthy living. Children leave on the last day with a hygiene kit, complete with soap, a toothbrush, toothpaste, and a pencil. We’re reinforcing our already-existing sanitation initiative by re-reading the Lorax during story time and insisting on proper recycling habits. But mostly, we’re playing, we’re laughing, and we’re being silly with the forty or so kids that come to each camp. At the present moment, we’re almost halfway through our camps. We’ve spent time in Devon Pen and Tom’s River, and Mount Friendship and King Weston await us in coming weeks. As I type this very entry, my hands are stained with the green dye from today’s camp in Tom’s River, and our car is packed with tomorrow’s rice, snacks, and equipment for relay races and jump roping contests.

Our days are hot and tiring, but every time I squeeze dye out of a t-shirt or help a camper braid a friendship bracelet, I realize how happy the camps make the children. This is one of the few opportunities they get for structured, healthy, and creative playtime. They are rewarded for good behavior, they have plenty of prizes, and everyone leaves with a present on the last day. Their snacks and meals may be simple, but they’re filling. They can sing and dance and run and jump to their hearts content. And, when I think about it, it's not all that different from Camp Ok-wa-nesset.

My friend Lisa was just here with us a few days ago for a visit, and she asked me if I’ve always loved children and camp. I’ve always loved children’s hugs and giggles over the simplest of things.

But I especially love children and camp in Jamaica. I’m in a country and a culture that I sometimes fear has hardened me. I must fight every day against the struggles of poverty, injustice, and all of the tribulations that life in a developing country presents. But kids, especially during these camps, help me to hug and to giggle. The routine of the day reminds me of the camp counselor I was for so many years and why I do this kind of work.

As my time here dwindles, the camps give me a structured purpose for each day and lets me know that PVI has a special place in the hearts of the families of these villages. And it shows me just how special these families and these children are to me.

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