Access Camps 2014

by Tabitha Kidwell

Some of my happiest memories of childhood are from camp: milkshakes in the craft cabin; canoeing across the lake; watching the sunset while roasting marshmellows. For me, and for many American children, summers at camp were a time to be in nature, make new friends, and learn about ourselves. I went to camp every summer from 1991-2002, spending my final two summers there as a counselor. The time I spent making friendship bracelets, playing tag, and telling ghost stories had an influence on my life that can’t be measured.

Because of all that, I was thrilled to be invited back to Indonesia to help lead English camps this January. The campers were participants in the State Department’s Access Microscholarship program, which provides extra-curricular English classes to talented but underprivileged high school students. In America, bright high schoolers are overbooked with swim meets, music lessons, community service, student council, and other activities that build their confidence and shape them as future leaders; these Indonesian students have comparatively few opportunities. That made the camp experience even more meaningful for them!

Our first camp was the National camp just outside of Jakarta. It involved about 50 students from Jakarta, and 70 from 7 locations across Indonesia. For many of those students, this was the first time they had been to the capital, or even on an airplane! As they arrived at the airport, they were bussed into town to the @America cultural center at a mall in central Jakarta. They were split into teams named after national parks (Yosemite, Glacier, Everglades, etc.) and asked to create a “yell-yell” to perform for the Ambassador, who was in attendance to open the camp and judge their enthusiastic cheers. Then we climbed back on the bus to get a photo op at Monas, the National Monument, before heading out to a retreat center at Sentul, the closest we could get to wilderness in the outskirts of urban Jakarta. We spent the next three days out there singing campfire songs, playing games, and spending time with a remarkable group of young people. Indonesian people are unfailingly positive and happy, and these high schoolers were no exception. There wasn’t even a hint of the attitude and sarcasm you would expect from American teenagers; no slouching or rolling of eyes! In fact, they were easy to please and pretty much loved everything we did. To get feedback at the end of each day, we passed out post-its and asked students to write “old-fashioned tweets” about their opinion of camp activities. To be perfectly clear, this was basically just writing. On paper. With pens. But the kids loved it – they ran all over the room sticking “tweets” on the posters, the counselors, and each other. They begged for more post-its. Some of their comments:
“When I go home, I’ll tell my friends about how fun the national camp was.”
“I’ll never forget sleeping in a tent.”
“Today I learned how to make a teamwork.”
“Today I learned we must protect our planet… go green!”
“Because of Access Camp, I will be someone better than before.”
“Because of Access Camp, I will make my dreams come true.”
“Because of Access Camp, I will have a girlfriend.”

Even though we were all together for less than 72 hours, the intense nature of camp meant that relationships formed quickly. Muslim kids from Madura made inside jokes with Christian kids from Papua that were indecipherable to any of the adult leaders, Indonesian or American. Kids put up facebook pictures of them with their counselors and new friends. Tears were shed as the kids boarded the busses in the early hours of the final day. The campers left with the message that they are important, talented, powerful people, and we all left with happy memories.

Now, we’re taking the show on the road. Less than half of the students from the remote sites were able to come to Jakarta, so we are leading a series of regional camps. I, along with a rotating crew of counselors, will lead the first three camps – first in Manokwari, almost as far east as you can go in Indonesia, on the island of Papua New Guinea; then in Ambon, a little island in the Malukus that is still recovering from a period of Christian-Muslim violence; and then in Kendari, a city perched on one of the four arms of Sulawesi, the funniest shaped island in the world. After that, my tenure as an English Language Specialist will come to an end, and I’ll pass off camp leadership to the English Language Fellows for camps in Banda Aceh, the city at the top of Sumatra that was struck by the tsunami in 2004, Pekanbaru, a city in central Sumatra, and Kupang, which shares an island with newly independent East Timor in southeast Indonesia, far closer to Australia than Jakarta. The diversity of the camp sites is incredible, but the diversity of the individual campers is even greater. Each one is talented in their own way, and I hope that, by sharing a little bit of American culture through the camp program, we can help them to grow into leaders who will shape Indonesia’s future.

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