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Attending an LGBT Camp: My Experience and How It Shaped My Future
Once a year, on the first weekend of September, the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) youth in Arizona and surrounding states can congregate without fear or judgment. This safe haven is called Camp OUTdoors. Their slogan, “Out of the closet, into the woods,” is very fitting. LGBT youth of ages eleven to twenty-four rough it up in the Prescott area, living in cabins, making s'mores, singing songs around a campfire, and even brave the experience of being without their phones for the full camp experience to name a few.
The camp is provided by the organization, one n ten, located in Phoenix, Arizona. Their focus is creating a safe space for LGBT youth and spreading awareness for the community as a whole. They offer support groups on a weekly basis, as well as providing food and clothing for those youth that are homeless.
In 2016, I was chosen to attend Camp OUTdoors as a camper for the first time. The process goes like this; you fill out an application on the camp's website, answering questions such as “Why do you feel you should attend camp?” or “What was a challenge for you in the past year? How did you accomplish it?” After you fill out the application, they give you close to a month to make any changes to your answers as you wish. Furthermore, after the applications close, you wait around another month until you receive an email regarding if you got accepted or not. If you do get accepted, the last step is to go over the checklist of items they send you. These items range from sleeping bags, toiletries, flashlights, clothes for different weather occasions, and so on that would be needed for a camp experience. Finally, after your checklist is complete, congratulations, you're ready for camp!
When I first got dropped at the one n ten building with my bag of supplies over my shoulder and a Pokemon pillow attached to my arm, I was apprehensive about taking the walk upstairs to the entrance. I knew there would be a lot of other campers already waiting to board the buses to camp. Large crowds in enclosed spaces is one of my fears; especially when I don't know anyone other than one supervisor, who was attending as a camp counselor that year. I made the trek upstairs and walked through the front door to have a few eyes land on me. My body tensed, as I didn't know where to look or what to do. So, I just stood in place and scrolled through my phone looking for something to watch or listen too, to hopefully not make my feeling out of place there obvious.
I kept my distance from people during the wait to board the buses and during the bus ride over, until I was placed in my cabin with other cabin mates and literally couldn't. That year, I was placed in the Silver cabin. The staff there give you a shirt with the Camp OUTdoors logo on it with your cabin color, so all the campers had a shirt to distinguish who was in what color cabin. It was evening when we all arrived at camp, so that night was getting settled in and eating dinner in the dining hall with my cabin mates and making small talk. Before bed, we all filled out the activities we wanted to do during our stay. I chose a suicide prevention workshop, making crafts, taking a Judo class, and participating in a zip line.
The subject of suicide is one that has always interested me. I wanted information on how to prevent someone from taking that action if I could. It's a part of me, to want to help someone in any way I can. During the workshop, we all sat in a circle and discussed warning signs of suicide and resources we could give someone, or even ourselves in times of crisis. There are hotlines you can call, therapists to seek out who specialize in that area, and web links to activities you can do instead of self-harm or suicide. Last but not least, we were told to always listen to someone who has these feelings and to never take it as a joke, even if someone has spoken about the subject before. It is always a serious issue. Especially with LGBT youth, the suicide rate is over forty percent.
At the time I was attending camp, I was really into skateboarding. When the crafts activity came around, we were instructed to make a pillow out of a t-shirt and bits of newspaper for the stuffing. We could also decorate it with markers and stencils. I chose to draw skateboards on my pillow with the word Thrasher, a skateboard magazine, read on the pillow. The person in charge liked what I did and took a picture of it. That made me feel good about what I had made. I still own that pillow.
The Judo class was a struggle. I had never taken Judo before, but had taken Karate at age ten. In my head, I should have known how to already do this, since I had some martial arts training years ago. I'm also a perfectionist, so if I don't get something on the first try, there's a high chance I will have a breakdown because of it; and I did have a breakdown during the Judo class. This happened in front of other campers which didn't help. I felt embarrassed by how people were seeing my weakness. After going through a few defense maneuvers, I ultimately gave up and sat on the sidelines until the class was over. By this point, I was becoming slightly more social with a cabin mate of mine and another camper in a different cabin while we waited for class to end.
Last, was the zip line. This was the activity I could not wait to do. I was so excited that once we got to the tree where the zip line was held up above, I volunteered to go first. I climbed the tree like you would do rock climbing. Even making it to the top with little nerves was an accomplishment to me. However, once I saw the sight of the drop, even being told repeatedly that I was secure and the instructors never had an accident, I froze. I sat on the edge, thinking that if I pushed myself off, instead of jumping forward, it would be better for me. I felt horrible for stalling and keeping everyone waiting. I didn't want to be the cause of people missing out, so I climbed back down and began crying into a camper's shoulder. The one supervisor I knew came over and told me “You made it farther than I would have.” He always knew what to say to make me feel better about myself.
The rest of the day, I couldn't really shake the feeling that I hadn't tackled my fear of the zip line earlier. As a kid, it was an activity I loved to do. However, I realized that as I aged, fear in certain activities that I used to enjoy was becoming more present. This fear has caused me to not do things that I enjoy: whether it was zip lining, jet-skiing, or reaching a new goal in skateboarding. That night, the fear was replaced by excitement. The reason behind the excitement was a drag/talent show. I was most excited to see drag queens perform. My worries from the whole day disappeared once the drag show commenced. As far as talent within the LGBT community goes, I remember there was a boy who played a Twenty One Pilots song on his guitar, a cabin mate of mine read a poem with impact on the whole audience, and there was a young man who sang 90s television shows which got everyone my age and older truly nostalgic.
After the show was over, we sat around a huge campfire. Some sang songs with guitars in their hands, some mingled, and others roasted marshmallows and made s'mores. I overhead that a camper in the cabin next to mine would not be able to attend next year in 2017 because he had reached the age limit to attend. Twenty-four is the last year you can attend camp as a camper because that is the last year that you are considered a youth to one n ten. Individuals twenty-five and older can apply to be camp volunteers, but not campers. I wanted to do something special for him so he would have another memory to cherish. I talked to him enough to know that he liked the band, Green Day. Excusing myself, I rushed to find a camper with a guitar and asked if I could borrow it. The owner agreed, and I brought the young man over to sing “Time of Your Life” by Green Day, while I played along. People heard what was going on and decided to join in in the sing-a-long. The camper who I wanted to help gave me a hug after the song was finished. If he reads this, I hope you still cherish that moment in time like I still do.
The morning of the last day at camp was bittersweet. The camp counselor/supervisor I had clung too whenever I could all throughout camp approached me that morning and asked me, “Are you ready to cry?” He was referring to the closing circle that was to be held in the field before everyone is sent home.
I told him, “I'm not going to cry.”
All he replied with was, “We'll see. Everybody cries.”
The closing circle is when all the campers sit in a big circle in the field together, where one’s negative assumptions and beliefs about themselves are silently challenged. At camp, it is the single most powerful and affirming experience one can go through. By experiencing this, you come out with a new perspective on yourself and your impact on others.
With all the cabins sitting in a big circle, it looks like a circular rainbow. Somehow, I don't think it's a coincidence, looking back on it. When my group was asked to stand up, the head counselor instructed us to “Tap someone on the shoulder who you think is an awesome person.” Then, we would walk once around the whole circle and tap anyone who we thought fit that description. Everyone else who wasn't standing, had to bow their heads and close their eyes, so they wouldn't know who picked them, but they would still feel a sense of worth, regardless.
All the times I sat down, I got tapped for being a “strong leader”, “beautiful spirit”, “source of strength”, a “person to reach out too after camp”, “rock star”, and a “person who will tell you everybody is awesome.” How do I know this? I wrote down all that I could remember on a piece of paper, and carry it around in my wallet to this day, almost two years later. Knowing that I had made this impact on people in the span of four days, made me cry. My camp counselor was right. Luckily, we did not make a bet on this matter.
In conclusion, what this experience showed me is that I have a natural ability to want to inspire people and help them. I've always known I wanted to help people, but before this, I never put that want into a need. I never put it into action like I do today. Today, I am a member of a public speaking group called Toastmasters. I have given speeches on Japanese youth suicides which won first place. Currently, I'm working on a speech related to autism. In addition, I've participated in online forums, helping people with anxiety, break-ups, depression, and it's better than any paycheck. Thank you, Camp OUTdoors for showing me what I want to do with the rest of my life. For those reading, I hope it has inspired you to find what you want to do with your life.