For six years, I had the pleasure of working as a district-level coordinator for the ESL program in the third-largest school district in Ohio.
In addition to overseeing teachers and connecting them with cultural and instructional resources, I also took on the role of working with school staffs on issues of diversity among their students.
So when my camp director asked me to present a session on diversity at a staff orientation several years ago, I figured it would be a piece of cake.
Mingle camp with diversity? Mix two of my passions together? I was up for the challenge.
Although I am blessed with a phenomenal staff, there was grumbling at first.
“We don’t need diversity training,” they said.
“We know what to do with kids when they come to camp,” they said.
“We accept everyone here regardless of color or culture,” they said.
I didn’t disagree. Over the years, I had witnessed the exceptional job the staff did to include every camper in every activity.
But in retrospect, there were times when some campers didn’t quite seem to fit in to their cabin groups, or a camper or two didn’t fully participate in an activity or learning session with the same level of connection as the campers around them.
Neither a black/white nor a culture/race issue, I set myself to figuring out just what kept those campers self-segregated.
What I realized is that the traditional notion of diversity goes wide, as in race, color, ethnicity and culture--things we can see on the surface--but not always deep.
More than the diversity of the person, I became curious about the diversity of the experience.
Maybe these campers who kept to themselves had such a different experience in their daily existence that they couldn’t relate to or didn’t feel comfortable with the experiences of camp week.
Maybe they wanted to have fun, wanted to be a part of the action, but didn’t know how to bridge that gap because they lacked the skills or self-confidence.
Some diversity of experience examples we discussed were:
• Nature and how to relate to the natural world
• Age/peer group relationships
• New relationships and team-building
• Gender interaction
• Financial/socio-economic situation
• Camp experience
• Routine and set expectations
• Food and mealtimes
Interacting with each other in an activity incorporating these examples was a lightbulb moment for many of our staff.
Veteran staff recalled experiences and were generous in sharing with others what worked to break down the camper resistance: getting to know the camper as a person, not just as a camper.
I even had one staff member who had come up through the ranks, who had begun as a camper, moved to a counselor-in-training and was now a counselor, who said she didn’t want to return after the first week of camp, but her counselor had taken the time to listen to her fears and build the trust necessary to encourage her to participate despite what she perceived as keeping her separate from the camp group as a whole.
While our limited time with campers keeps us from getting to know everything about them and their lives, remembering that diversity goes deeper than the color of skin reminds us that a little patience and building of personal relationships go a long way in helping to create the trust necessary to bridge to enjoying the full camp experience.
Beth Morrow is a teacher, author and Senior Week program director for the Central Ohio Diabetes Association’s Camp Hamwi. She has also worked as a diversity consultant and presenter at schools, community organizations and state education conferences. She can be reached at Beth@bethmorrow.com.