by Mitch Lehman
Jay-Jay, not his real name, kept his distance from the hundreds of other young people who were milling about Long Beach Harbor, many rekindling year-old friendships, others wrangling leaders to reveal the names of their soon-to-be cabin-mates, forming bigger packs as they bandied about in a toxic combination of adolescence, anxiety, fear, anticipation and barely bridled joy.
Finally, he made his move.
“Remember me?” he said, extending an unsteady hand.
“Of course I do,” I exclaimed, passing through his offer of a handshake for a hug.
Remember him I did. Jay-Jay had been part of our Camp Fox family two years earlier. Though that experience had been mostly fulfilling, Jay-Jay – who was sent to us by a foster agency – had been at the center of a large disturbance (OK, fight) that occurred at a most inopportune time; the end of our final all-camp game on our last full day on the island.
We let Jay-Jay and the others involved in the fracas stay, but with stringent requirements on their behavior, which were strictly enforced and dutifully followed.
Jay-Jay’s outburst was no different than many I had witnessed in the two-plus decades that preceded him. Young people from group homes and other placement agencies often follow a similar tack: they start out with a suspicious approach to the whole crazy affair, then jump in with uber enthusiasm only to return to a sadly bitter, aggressive state as the days grow short before they will return to their unfortunate circumstances. It’s a sad, brutal truth, but we as leaders live with the consolation that we provided at least a few days of normalcy and happiness.
Two years later, there stood a slightly larger version of a young man I remembered all too well. In full tribute to our program, Jay-Jay had remembered the many good times he had experienced at camp and in full tribute to his newly minted maturity, he was brave enough to come back. Suffice to say, Jay-Jay wrote a different story and while his effervescence frequently approached the border of tolerable behavior, he was a model camper.
At our training a few weeks before we departed for camp, our leaders assembled, ironically, at Paint the Town San Marino where we all took a crack at painting a particular part of Camp Fox. An example of that less-than-inspiring artwork is shown above. At our final campfire, I asked each leader to present their masterpiece to a camper who had shown development and growth during the week. I gave mine to Jay-Jay, we shared a hug and both felt miles and miles away from that most unfortunate afternoon when I was pulling him off someone, we were now drawn together.
The Old Man Marathon was designed to give a kid something to do every single day. There are ten events, including a four-mile kayak trip, a one-mile swim and a grueling eleven-mile hike to Avalon. The campers and their counselors ‘keep score’ all week, punching the required events off a laminated card that hangs by a lanyard around their neck.
Each morning, a fresh challenge is set before the young people to “keep up with the Old Man” – me – during whatever activity that day might bring. It works.
During its maiden voyage that summer of 1998, approximately 20% of the campers were able to complete a sufficient number of events to be considered “finishers.” This summer, I must walk onto the boat expecting every single camper to get ‘er done. Your donations help provide backpacks, water bottles and bandannas for the hikers, prizes for those who complete the tasks, the boat ride from Avalon back to camp and funds to help needy children afford the fee.
Rarely do we as humans receive the opportunity to observe the transformation that takes place in a young person like Jay-Jay who is able to accomplish something previously believed to be impossible and that is the miracle I am fortunate enough to witness first-hand.
The hardware necessary to pull this affair off can be quantified on spread sheets, but I can provide no statistical data that does justice to the true magic you help provide – that first kindling of self-reliance a child gains through challenge and exploration.
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