Earlier this month, I was able to return to the Amazonia for a week in order to help my two former sitemates host 40 local high school students (ages 12-16) for the inaugural Amazon GLOW Camp! GLOW stands for Girls Leading our World, and this camp also incorporated elements of the BRO, or Boys Respecting Others, curriculum. My thoughts leading up to the camp were a mix of excitement – I love working with teens! And it isn’t an opportunity I’ve been able to do much of here in Cuenca – and also disappointment, as the camp was originally designed to host my students from El Chaco, as well. But during the camp itself, all I felt was excitement mixed with nostalgia for EDGE Youth Leadership, the leadership camp I’ve worked with ever since attending myself as a sophomore in high school.
Daniel and Emily, the volunteers who brought their students to the camp, had done an amazing job prepping them over the past months for what would be an intensive five day experience. There was a wide range of ages present, but in my group it helped the older girls (14-16) act as mentors to the younger (12-13), leading by example with their confidence and willingness to participate.
I want to share the story of one of my students that stood out. My role as a camp counselor was to guide a group of 10 students through the scheduled events: sessions on gender or leadership, public speaking exercises, and fun afternoons spent playing games or going to the pool. At the beginning, my kids were excessively shy – glued to the cell phones that three of the older girls had brought with them (I quickly instated a no-cell-phone rule, although I admittedly didn’t always adhere to it myself). The youngest boy in my group, Tony*, started out travieso, or mischievous. He wouldn’t stay focused during the sessions; he would wander off or start playing tricks on the only other boy in the group, 13-year-old Jon*. The girls would get frustrated and tell them both off in their big-sister voices. It saved me the trouble of trying to discipline with the right balance of firmness and kindness in Spanish but promptly lead to the whole lot of them distracted and off-topic.
When Tony first arrived at camp, he attracted attention for his distinct scars: a tattoo-like half sleeve on his left arm, drifting past the sleeve of his shirt and across his chest. The kids initially asked incessantly about it: he got it at age five, he explained, when his dad was working with gasoline too close to the little boy. The scar embodied his tough-guy attitude: despite being less than five feet tall and 13 years old, he boasted stories of riding (and crashing) motorcycles. But by the end of the week, his persona completely transformed. Our last camp-wide activities was a dance contest against each of the teams. Despite his initial reluctance to participate, the grand finale of our team’s dance featured Tony in a solo move. As the music faded away, he launched into a front flip and somersault, nearly landing on camp-leader Emily’s lap. He removed the rose clutched between his front teeth with a flourish, and presented it to her with a grin.
A personal highlight of the camp was the opportunity to reflect back on my own leadership camp experience. I attended EDGE Youth Leadership in Menlo Park, California, when I was a sophomore in high school, newly 16 years old. The camp is designed to bring together a diverse bunch of students with leadership potential, each handpicked by their high school counselor or other leader. It mixes in around 150 students, and with just one representative from each high school, I showed up at Menlo College’s campus knowing no one. Considering my graduating class had just 42 students, this initially felt overwhelming. But EDGE’s activities worked exactly as designed: they brought me out of my shell, and brought me coming back for more as a volunteer, year after year. Over the following six years, I held roles ranging from camp counselor to senior director of mentorship. One of my favorite parts was watching new generations of students experience the same activities I had as a sophomore.
Coming to Ecuador as a Peace Corps volunteer, I knew that it meant giving up the opportunity to attend three Memorial Day weekend EDGE leadership conferences. But the perfect opportunity arose when camp leaders Daniel and Emily asked for help planning secondary activities during the camp. My mind immediately turned to EDGE activities like the Odyssey, Glassophobia, and Secret Support. How could I get them translated to Spanish? Would they be culturally appropriate for this rural Ecuadorian audience? I asked a former Executive Director from EDGE, Dan, if he could share some of the planning materials from EDGE with me and go to work adapting the material for our 40 students.
When it came time to execute the events, we had changed team-building games like the “Nuclear Reactor” to navigating hydroelectric power plants, reflecting a more relevant alternative power source. Glassophobia, or the fear of public speaking, became “Glosofobia”. Fellow camp counselors came up to me after we finished the activity to share that their camper, who was formerly terrified of speaking in front of the group, had confidently shared speeches in front of 20+ students. Although speaking in front of the class is a typical part of the school year in the United States, it is not part of the education system here. Instead, students focus their time on rote memorization and test-taking.
Reflecting back on that week, it was the perfect opportunity to blend my volunteer experiences in the US with my goals here in Ecuador. I’m looking for the opportunity to collaborate on more GLOW camps in the upcoming year!
*Students’ names changed for their privacy