Camp Quest: My Week as a Counselor at a Secular Camp

By Sara Sheppard

As I looked up at the clear night sky in the Hunt, Texas (which feels like it’s out in the middle of nowhere) hope flooded over me. I leveled my head back to Earth and I remember thinking to myself, “Wow. This camp is something powerful." That moment was during my first year I volunteered for Camp Quest as a cabin counselor. Since then I have volunteered with Camp Quest Texas for three years and Camp Quest Northwest for two years.

It has been life changing.

Camp Quest is a secular camp for ages eight through seventeen. It was founded in 1996 and is still growing. Currently there are fourteen different camps within America and a couple camps internationally. The mission statement of Camp Quest is to "provide an educational adventure shaped by fun, friends, and freethought, featuring science, natural wonder, and humanist values." Even though it is known as an "atheist camp" campers are not required to be atheist as we encourage the kids to think for themselves while they have fun during camp. At Camp Quest people really are more important than beliefs and everyone is accepted.

Walking around camp you will see tons of kids with color in their hair while wearing all different kinds of fashion. There will be a kid with a cow onesie that he wears with pride all week as all the young boy cabins jokingly call him their god (and when they do you see the big smile go across his face as he feels accepted by his peers). There will also be a few kids who brought their full collection of Pokémon cards as they battle every day during the break period while others may play games, participate in crafts, or pick fresh berries that end up all over their faces. You will also see the gender-neutral cabin displaying a rainbow flag outside their cabin to show their pride. Watching these campers express themselves fully really makes me think to myself every year "Wow. This camp is something powerful."

The one week each year I volunteer at Camp Quest I gain immense meaning knowing that I am making a difference. As a camp counselor I am a role model to kids who will one day be scientists, politicians, teachers, etc. Over the five years I have been a camp counselor I have had about forty-five campers that were in my cabin (about nine campers in my cabin on average each year). I have had meaningful discussions with many of these campers (including campers outside of my cabin!) and the fact they trust me enough to share their hopes and fears with me shows me that I am making a difference in their lives.

It's been inspiring to watch these campers grow over the years and knowing that I have been a part of their experience of growing up. The coolest part about being a camp cabin counselor is that you grow as you learn from the kids. Looking back on these past five years I have learned tons about different situations that provide conflict and learned the best ways to resolve the issues. I’ve had to talk to a few campers outside the cabin in the middle of the night as they experience homesickness, emotions of growing up, and other fears. I was there for one of my campers when her menstrual cycle started for the first time. It felt very fulfilling when her mother looked me straight in the eyes and said, “thank you for being there for her” after her daughter whispered the news in her ear. I also had a nine-year-old camper look up to me and say, “You are going to be a great mom one day! I mean if you can take care of eight of us so easily (HA!) you will do awesome with one or two kids of your own!"

When I start talking about Camp Quest to people I have a hard time stopping. I have tons of stories where I have laughed or cried at camp because of something powerful that happened. Being a role model at a secular camp that holds values I treasure is what keeps bringing me back. Not only will I be coming back year after year but one day my own children will be campers at Camp Quest. I jokingly (but seriously!) tell my campers, “You know you might be the cabin counselor to my kids one day!"

Watching these campers interact with one another and the world around them fills me with hope of the changes they will put forth and the role models they will become.

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