Experiencing growth and grief as a camp counselor

Cameron Gardiner reflects on lessons he has learned from working at The Oaks summer camp.

Cameron Gardiner and Cameron Gardiner

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I held his head to my chest. The grease in his hair slicked my fingers. I felt so helpless, but it was all I could do in that moment. I couldn’t help myself; I had to weep for him. I had to weep with him. I always considered myself passionate about those who are socially outcast, but at that campfire, with my sobbing camper, I was reminded that social justice was more than a cliché. It is a way of life to be lived every day. It was high school weeks at The Oaks summer camp and I knew that God was speaking to me again.

As the summer approaches we students will probably focus on finding a job, completing our finals, graduating and planning our futures. While this is both normal and admirable, I think it’s important that we always look for ways serve even during this coming summer. There are plenty of different camps here weekly. Perhaps some of you should try one. It’s an experience that I know will not only transform the children you minister to, but your own soul. Three years of doing this under-appreciated job has taught me crucial lessons in being a Christian.

Societal issues reflected in children

My three years as a camp counselor at The Oaks, a camp for inner-city children, have been the best summers of my life. I have ridden more out-of-control inner tubes, won more camp championships and eaten more fattening camp food than most people will in a lifetime; but more than giving me a keen sense of adventure, camp has taught me crucial lessons about Jesus and his kingdom. Leading inner-city boys for a week is not something most people are eager to sign up for, but it has educated me more about God than my $5,000 Bible classes. At The Oaks, heartbreaking stories have taught me that being a Christian is more than something you talk about; it’s something you go out and do.

Every year I’ve returned to The Oaks, I’ve come away with a new perspective on life. My biggest shift was when I started to see my kids and their problems not only as individual issues but as reflections of a whole society. A lot of the kids who come to the camp don’t behave badly because they enjoy being a nuisance. There are deeper issues.

One night at devotions, half the fourth- through sixth-grade boys cried about their fathers being in prison. Nights like that forced me to ask what was wrong with the communities they came from, and, even more painfully, what was wrong with a nation in which stories like theirs were the norm. My campers’ brokenness shocked me out of my individualism and forced me to ask why.

Changing lives and being changed

My biggest blessing has been how my kids changed me. I always go to camp intending to show my campers Christ; but over and over again, while I’m trying to show them Christ, I see him in them. I’ve seen kids overcome their fears, learn to trust in a world that has taught them suspicion, and resolve to forgive those who have destroyed their lives. In those moments I saw Jesus looking back at me, challenging me to follow him more closely and to love him more deeply. When I’m a counselor I like to think of myself as a molder of men, but over and over again those young boys have molded me.

At camp, God is willing to change anyone who is open to him. I’ve seen many kids make decisions that will change their lives and perhaps change history as well. But I was changing also. When my young friend cried on my chest, I thought I was comforting him, I thought I was living justly. But his tears were the tears of our Savior washing away the part of me that needed to change.

In those moments, I realized that my campers were not the only ones being counseled. I needed to see that there was hope in the midst of so much pain but paradoxically my teachers were tears. So as we enter the home stretch of the semester, I advise you to listen the wonderful counselor, Christ. Maybe you too can have some of the unforgettable moments I had at camp.

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Experiencing growth and grief as a camp counselor