A Flash of Discovery

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(names of campers have been changed to protect identity)

This is Jake. He’s a sibling camper with Over The Wall, a children’s charity which provides free therapeutic camps for children affected by serious illness. This photo was taken by his fellow team mate Charlie, a camper with a natural talent for photography who I’d entrusted with my camera whilst I filmed the rest of the Blue Team (made up of 15-17 year olds) tackling the climbing wall. Charlie was snapping away, producing some great shots, but here I believe he has captured one of the best photographs to have come out of camp since a group of us created the Camp Recorder role a few years back. Charlie has captured something that we’ve only managed in a handful of our shots; something that encompasses everything we as volunteers aim for at camp; a moment of discovery, the key element of the Therapeutic Recreation programme underpinning every minute of camp.

On the surface, camp looks like a week filled of fun and laughter. Look a little deeper and you see a one-to-one camper to volunteer ratio with highly trained team mates enabling campers to push themselves, achieve more than they thought they ever could, and then crucially to reflect on these successes in deep and meaningful ways. Look deeper still, and you might just find the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. The end-goals of constantly reflecting on endless successes and achievements are profound breakthrough moments for each and every camper. By combining challenge-by-choice, success and reflection, we can lead our campers towards discovery. A realisation within of something lost, forgotten or not previously there. Discovery of childhood milestones stolen by illness and missed opportunities. Discovery moments don’t always happen whilst we’re at camp, but we know from extensive feedback and now reproducible international research that they happen and that, importantly, they last. This photo beautifully captures one of these moments…

This is Jake. He’s a sibling camper with Over The Wall, and has returned again this year for another week of fun and games with other siblings of children affected by serious illnesses. His fellow team mate Charlie has captured a single moment of discovery in this candid shot; a moment to which all the support, positivity, challenges and successes of the week so far have been building. Jake and Charlie are the the climbing wall along with the rest of the Blue Team. Charlie has been snapping away, honing his already-great photography skills, having zoomed up the climbing wall numerous times already. Jake is in his Honey Monster onesie cheering on the other campers whilst they climb, getting fully into the supportive nature and ethos of camp. Although keenly enthusiastic for the success of his team mates, Jake has declined attempting the wall himself. Afraid of heights to the point of not wanting to step foot on the wall, Jake’s challenge-by-choice for this session is being as supportive as he can to the other campers, donning a harness and helmet so he can get up close to the wall to do so. Usually quiet, Jake is finding his voice from the foot of the tower.

With him in the photograph is Giulia, the Blue Boys team leader. Giulia has spent the week along with the Blue Boys team mates enabling success and facilitating deep and meaningful reflection in the boys, though informal discussion and structured cabin chats each evening. For a while before Charlie took this photo, Giulia had joined Jake on the opposite side of the tower to the rest of the group. Between cheering and whooping the climbers, they chatted about camp, about life and about the nature of challenges and successes. We like our campers to be in their stretch zones (it’s where the magic happens), but we never want anyone in a panic zone. We like campers to choose their own challenges that we can then support in whatever way possible. After their chat, Giulia goes back to cheering on the climbers as the session draws to a close. Jake looks quietly up at the tower. Charlie presses the shutter button.

The mini-bus arrives to take the team up to dinner. There’s not enough space for everyone, and Jake opts to wait for the bus to return, along with Giulia and myself. As the bus drives off, Jake approaches the climbing instructors. Before we know it, he’s hooked up to the ropes and placing a hand and foot on the base of the tower. In seconds he’s halfway up the wall. I grab my camera just in time to film Jake reaching the top, triumphantly hitting the last hand-hold. Beaming the entire way up to the dining hall, Jake turns to Giulia.

“I never thought I’d be able to do that. You showed me I could Giulia. Thank you.”

That evening at cabin chat, talk turned to the huge impact childhood illness has on the siblings of sick kids. A camper points out that many people don’t think siblings need extra support, and even suggest they wouldn’t need a camp such as Over The Wall. They couldn’t be further from the truth, as the campers and volunteers discuss the impact illness has on the family, and the significance of al the achievements and successes they’ve had in spite of this over the week. The volunteers hand out ‘Brilliance Beads’ to the campers. Simple beads, colour-coded to represent achievements. Fun, Support, Positivity, Team Work, Courage and Creativity. At the end of every day, each volunteer awards each camper with a specific bead, positively labelling something from the day, represented by the Brilliance Bead. It doesn’t sounds much, but even the older boys value these tokens of their successes, deepening their own reflective processes. At the end of the week, a camper can turn their unique combination of beads into a bracelet or anklet, many wearing them year-round.

That night Jake was given a Courage bead. Charlie go a Creativity bead. We got this photo: a breakthrough moment of discovery, captured beautifully by another camper. It’s everything we aim for at camp.

Camp truly changes the lives of everyone involved. So much more than just a week of fun, the intense therapeutic model we use has profound effects. I think this photo captures a breakthrough, a discovery. It’s in these moments that the magic really happens.

After the campers had left, as the volunteers were packing up the camp bubble, our Camp Director shared with us a phone call he’d received from one of the bus drivers. The driver, along with a chaperone from camp, had driven a single camper back home. They’d been stuck in bad traffic the whole way, and the journey was hours long. The same driver had driven the child to camp at the start of the week. After he’d dropped the camper off home, the driver rang to express his disbelief. “What do you do at camp? How have you done this? It’s a different child. Unrecognisable. The child I drove here was shy and quiet. They hardly spoke. They never smiled. The whole way back they were sat up front, laughing and joking, singing and dancing in their seat. Entertaining us in traffic, filled with joy. A different child.” The bus driver has applied to volunteer at camp next year already!

There have now been two international outcomes studies at SeriousFun camps across the world, including Over The Wall, conducted by the Yale Child Study Centre. They show the significant lasting benefits of camps using therapeutic recreation.

  • 79% of parents reported noticing an increase in their child’s confidence;
  • 77% reported an increase in self-esteem;
  • 75% reported an increase in maturity;
  • 74% reported an increase in independence;
  • 76% reported an increased interest in social activities;
  • 80% reported an openness to try new things.

I’ve been a volunteer with Over The Wall since 2009, and with somewhere in the region of 25 camps behind me I’ve seen hundreds of wonderful discovery moments in our campers. Seeing campers return each year, watching them grow and flourish unrecognisably is a privilege and something I’ll be forever indebted to camp for, as it’s truly enriching and life-changing. Even if the campers are better photographers then me.

See if you can spot Jake reaching the top in the film below!

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One comment

  1. katiejoneill · April 25, 2015

    I really loved reading this new post, thank you.

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