The Saturday of Spring Break 2016, my phone alarm started ringing at three in the morning. With a groan, I got out of bed, turned it off, and went into the bathroom to wash the sleep from my face. There were already bags under my eyes from a demanding semester. Part of me wished I was either going with my friends on a tropical beach vacation or spending the week on the couch binge-watching Netflix instead of volunteering as a cabin leader at a science camp.
I grabbed my luggage and walked to meet the nine virtual strangers accompanying me on the trip. We piled into two vans and were off on a cross country adventure. Over the two-day drive, awkward silences soon were filled with laughter as we slowly bonded over the 20-hour drive. We ate lunch marveling over the beauty of Utah’s rusty landscape, watched the magical Bellagio Fountains in Las Vegas, ate fish and chips at Fisherman’s Warf, and finally made it to Camp Campbell in the towering Redwood Forest of Northern California where we would spend the next five days.
Our first day at camp was without any students, and we spent the day training with other volunteers from all over California about how to deal with common issues for 5th grade students spending a week away from home. We learned how to mitigate homesickness and what our duties as a cabin leader entailed. In each cabin there would be two volunteers who made sure the campers had all their gear for the day, arrived on time to the various activities, and were happy and healthy. We were given a list with our camper’s names and the name of the other cabin leader we were working with. My heart dropped when I looked at my paper and saw the name of twelve boys and another volunteer I did not know.
At that time, like the morning we left, I had a choice: to shrivel up because I was intimidated, or try to make the best of the situation and rise to the challenge. The following four days with our twelve boys flew by. There were moments of complete chaos like when Xander decided to hop a creek and fell in, or when the boys locked me and my co-cabin leader out of the cabin as a prank. But for every chaotic moment, there were two that took my breath away. For instance, watching the triumph in Excel’s face when he finished his first hike, Laughlin humming “Work” to lighten the mood on the night hike, or when a camper on the Autism Spectrum put his phone number on each of the boy’s pillows, so his new friends could contact him once they left camp.
I returned to Boulder sleep deprived, un-showered, and utterly changed by the people and experiences I had endured the past week. It was not a restful Spring Break by any means, but I felt rejuvenated by the friendships I forged and the compassion I witnessed. Although I was touched by each of the people I had met, I did not realize my impact until this past December when I got an email from one of the trip leaders saying he had presents for us. I was overwhelmed when he gave each of us a stack of handwritten thank you notes from our campers. Their sincere notes included drawings and inside jokes all indicating the hard work we had put in was appreciated.
Elizabeth McNichols is a junior at the University of Colorado Boulder majoring in Speech, Language, and Hearing Sciences with a minor in Leadership Studies. She is working towards starting her research for her honors thesis this summer and plans to attend graduate school for Audiology.