It All Happened at Summer Camp…

Last week and this week I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to revisit one of my favorite places on earth. Strangely enough, as the title suggests, it’s a summer camp.

When I was younger, I never had an interest in attending summer camps. My first thoughts were of the stereotypical camps out in the woods, living with three other people in a cabin and doing outdoorsy activities. Honestly I imagined every summer camp being the one like the Lindsay Lohan version of The Parent Trap.

In seventh grade, I saw a brochure for a camp at the University of South Dakota (where I currently attend) for South Dakota Governor’s Camp for the Gifted. I don’t remember what exactly drew me to wanting to go, but that was the first time I ever considered it. Especially when the thought of leaving home for a week into the unknown conditions was completely outside of my comfort zone. I never even liked sleeping over at friends’ houses, so sleeping in a dorm room with a complete stranger? What was I getting myself into?

And boy, that week at camp was uncomfortable. My first-ever experience living with a roommate, I ended up with a girl a year younger than me but somehow already accumulated an entire box worth of high-end makeup. Very intimidating for awkward little ol’ me. I took some fun classes like musical theatre and caking decorating, but I really didn’t reach too far out of my shy personality. Until Thursday evening the entire camp saw the high school campers (the Ambassadors of Excellence) perform a show they have been working on for two weeks (similar to show choir, but not…anybody who attends either camp knows how hard it is to truly describe it to others) and I was completely hooked. I knew I had to be an Ambassador. I even skipped a year of Governor’s Camp in anticipation for my Ambassador years.

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Little did I know stepping into my first days of Governor’s Camp that my life would ultimately change for the better. That the hardest moment of my senior year of high school would be leaving this place.

Even my first day being an Ambassador, I was a little weary, again not really knowing what I was getting myself into, but I knew it would be worth it. A main message camp stresses is the importance of stepping outside of your comfort zone and not being afraid to fail, two things I can still struggle with. When I’m in a place where I feel myself closing up and resorting back to my awkward tendencies, the camp director’s booming voice sounds in my head, “Change happens just outside your comfort zone.” And when I use “keep the faith” when I close every post? Also from camp, the entire quote going something like this: “Keep the faith; the best is yet to come.”

You wouldn’t expect the best to come from a camp where you take some classes, listen to some speakers, participate in some team-building exercises, and spend hours learning singing and/or dancing routines to ultimately put on a show, costumes and all. I have always loved singing and dancing, but for some of these kids, they have never danced a day in their life or seen a piece of sheet music. What draws these kids to a camp like this? The community it creates: many of these kids never meet people they can relate to their hometowns, but at camp, over one hundred like-minded individuals come together, and the mosaic it creates is breath-taking.

When I say the camp really opens you up, I’m not kidding. Late into the camp after a final dress rehearsal of the show, the entire camp grabs their pillows and blankets and sits down to hear the senior members of the group show their vulnerable sides and talk about what camp means to them. This experience is eye-opening as each person opens up about their personal demons and struggles and how a simple thing like camp became their safe haven. You really realize how every single person faces the worst of life’s challenges, but having the messages and people of camp saves them. When my senior year rolled around, even I ended up sharing my personal hardships, many things I have never spoken out loud until then. But I can’t tell you how many hugs I received, or people coming up to me later about how they could relate and how much I inspired them. I tear up just thinking about it. Nothing compares to that feeling. Nothing.

From this camp, the ultimate goal is to regain back funding for gifted programs in the region that are severely lacking. But I think the main takeaway from this camp is that being “gifted” comes in all areas, whether it’s academics, athletics, fine arts or leadership. Gifted kids don’t all look, act or think in the same ways. This small but important minority is as diverse as rest of the younger generation, but these kids possess a drive to think beyond what’s expected.

Lucky for me, I will be writing a feature story on camp and gifted education for my internship, and coming back to the place I love two years later is great but strange. I realize how much I’ve grown in such a short amount of time, but I look at these young people with in awe. The first-year campers I met my senior year are now seniors themselves, which is still hard for me to comprehend. But no matter if you’re an alumni camper or have never heard of it before, just spending an hour with these kids, you can tell they are special. They are driving the future forward. They are the ones who will do great things in this world. And I am so lucky to be a part of that.

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Within the first hour of walking around camp from an outside perspective, I am blown away by the spark of creativity and innovation I see in all of these people. I hope my work can do this place some justice.

Simply put, the Ambassadors of Excellence camp, especially my last year, was fantastic. The amazing people I’ve met and the experiences I’ve had are irreplaceable. The connections I’ve made are truly of family quality. I don’t know who I would be today without it. It may sound like I’m being dramatic and exaggerating the impact this camp has made on my life, but I’m dead serious.

Have I ranted long enough? No; I will never be able to convey my emotions toward the Ambassadors of Excellence program well enough to fully describe them, but I’ll sure try. For anybody reading this, I hope you stumble upon people in your lifetime who you can relate to on a deep level, who make you think and grow, who support you in your darkest moments and help you celebrate every accomplishment, no matter how far geographically you may be. That is what makes this life truly worth living.

Take care, and keep the faith. -Allie

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