[This guest post comes from Margaret Barton-Ross, a volunteer cook at Camp Ten Trees in the Pacific Northwest. Please make her feel welcome and spread the word about this great camp for LGBT families.]
It had never been my lifelong dream to cook in a summer camp, but after my daughter spent several summers volunteering her time to cook for the two week program known as Camp Ten Trees, I began to think it would be an interesting thing to do. And it had been a long time dream of mine to “drive” an industrial size Hobart mixer.
Camp Ten Trees has that very mixer in its kitchen. In August of 2008, I realized my dream of driving the mixer and was part of the kitchen staff at Camp Ten Trees.
I have long been a supporter of this non profit camp located in northwestern Washington. Camps tend to be special places to those who attend them. Camp Ten Trees has become much more than that for many of the campers who return year after year. The camp strives to develop “a camp community that honors creativity, individual choice, and community living.”
This camp exists to provide a safe environment for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning (LBTGQ) youth and their allies and for children of LBTGQ families. Camp Ten Trees has become home for these children and youth. Many of them say they spend fifty one weeks a year in the world, waiting for one week in the summer when they get to come home. For them, camp is home because they are safe and, after all, isn’t that what a home should be?
The weekend of staff training I began to worry that I had gotten in way over my head. It turned out that my daughter, who is known as Scout throughout the camp community, injured her back and had surgery just before the beginning of the camp session. She would not be at camp to provide support; I would be on my own. In the long run, that may have been just as well, since I had to forge my own way.
Training was filled with games, silly songs and activities, all referred to by Scout as “forced bonding.” It all began to make sense as the weekend progressed. We had to learn to work together in an atmosphere of trust and we wouldn’t have time to develop that after we arrived at camp. So, onward we went and by the end of the week, we were on the way to becoming a unit.
As the training continued, I was developing my identity as Intarsia; “it’s a knitting term.” Having a new name, and a totally new group of people who only know you by that name, is a new experience for me. Even now, when in contact with them, it takes me aback because many of the staff members have no idea who I “really” am. So when emailing them or communicating through Facebook, I have to identify myself as Intarsia so they know me.
All I can say is that it makes one begin to think about what identity means. And considering my identity gave me the proper perspective, because that is just how the campers would be spending their week in the woods.
Camp Ten Trees is designed to help campers “strengthen inner courage, make new friends, and develop leadership skills.” Many of the youth arrive at camp without ever feeling safe in their community or home environment. Many of them have had a difficult time.
Some are considering just what gender means; and with what gender they identify. The returning campers are looking forward to seeing friends from past years, both counselors and campers. Some of the new staff have recently been campers. It is like a family reunion.
It is also the beginning of a revolution. As campers become leaders in their own communities, as former campers become staff, and as members of the camp family re-enter the world; lives will be changed. As the camp community becomes greater in number and stronger in their support for one another; the world will be changed.
As the slogan (which is a quote from a former camper) on my T-shirt says, “It’s not just a camp it’s a revolution.” And the revolution will come in the form of changed thinking.
Meanwhile, campers are at camp. Many of the activities of Camp Ten Trees are traditional: crafts, boating, swimming, archery, campfire and songs. Some of the activities are unique to Camp Ten Trees: social justice discussions, questioning gender identification and Genderlandia.
I saw one camper who appeared shy and withdrawn upon arrival. In his tiny community he had never even met a gay person let alone a transgender person; he didn’t even quite know what those terms meant. But he wasn’t fitting into his community and somehow he had been helped to find this place where he could spend the week figuring it out. During the week this camper, who experienced difficulty in the traditional culture of his origin, blossomed. At the end of the week talent show he had gained enough confidence to sing a song in his native language that was beautiful and haunting; and as he concluded nearly everyone was in tears.
What a privilege to witness such a transformation. Camp has helped him develop an interior strength that will carry him through until next year when he comes home again.
At the last campfire everyone spoke and shared their wish for next year’s camp. I told the group that my feet had never been more tired in my life and that my wish for next year is that they all go out and tell their friends to come to camp so my feet can be even more tired.
It was incredibly hard work and yet, I’m looking forward to next year because it was all worth it. Not only did I get to drive the mixer; I got to be there to see the lives of children and youth changed and have a life changing experience all my own. Next summer I can go home too.