What Working At Stomping Ground Has Taught Me

A post by Nigel Sullivan. Summer Staffer 2016-2018 (and beyond!?), Great Guy, City Year Volunteer, Grad School Goer, Lover of Ohio, and An Awesome Friend.

It is hard to quantify what I have learned in my two summers at Stomping Ground. To give some context, I spent parts of 6 summers working at the camp I grew up at in Kentucky and 1 summer at a camp in California. Those opportunities taught me so much about how to be a successful counselor and how to operate as a staff member in a summer camp context. Although Stomping Ground is a summer camp, it is not like the other camps I have worked for.

Start With Trust

First off, the community is based on trust. We are allowed to trust the campers to make good decisions, but are there to support them in case they make mistakes. I had to unlearn a few things when I arrived at Stomping Ground..."campers can have their phones?...campers can be barefoot?...campers can sit with other cabins during meals?"...all of these things and more would have been red flags at my past camps. It would be unthinkable to let a camper be barefoot for any time when not swimming. To my wonderful surprise, however, campers not only embraced this freedom, but most of the time got to find the boundaries of their own comfort themselves…

"Actually, I don't want to be on my phone all the time...I'll be barefoot, except on gravel, that hurts!...I want to sit with my sibling who is in a different cabin at breakfast, but then I'll switch back to my cabin-mates at lunch..."

These sensible answers were child-created and staff-supervised, and almost always, things would work out. Campers would make decisions that made them more comfortable, safer, and having more fun. This was a concept that was foreign to the other camps and the schools I have attended/worked for. Children, when given enough freedom and support, make good calls a lot of the time.

Kids Know Themselves And What They Like

Something else I have learned is that children know what is fun for them better than anyone else. Sure, we can design great games and employ killer icebreakers, but at the end of the day kids know what is fun to them. At Stomping Ground we let them have the opportunity to choose what is the most fun. We might plan the coolest night program of all time, but if a camper is tired and wants to relax in a hammock, it is a no-brainer at Stomping Ground. We let the camper choose to opt-out of the game and engage in camp the way they want. This seems so simple, and it is, but suggesting this at either of the camps I worked at previously, I would get coached to convince the camper how fun the game is, with the choice either being 'play the game' or 'talk with a higher up'. A camper opting out of a game they don't want to play isn't misbehavior, it is choosing what is best for them in the moment, and at Stomping Ground those choices are allowed to be made by campers, and that is a wonderful and democratic idea.

Constantly Trying to Be More Inclusive

Another thing that has made me fall in love with summer camp again at Stomping Ground is their commitment to diversity in their campers and staff. I know so many camps and other organizations claim to be inclusive and welcoming, but Stomping Ground has really proven to me that they care about hiring a diverse staff, and recruiting campers of a diverse socioeconomic background. Making Stomping Ground accessible to people across different dimensions of identity has led to a richness of experience that I cannot express concisely. Seeing campers come from distinct socioeconomic backgrounds, distinct schooling backgrounds, and distinct racial identities, and come together, befriend one another, find their place at camp, and encourage connections elsewhere is a glorious process. Their commitment to inclusion for individuals on the LGBTQ+ spectrum has been a boon to camp as well.

The Next Big Idea Is Something We Haven’t Thought Of Yet

The main lesson I have learned from Stomping Ground is that the next big idea is just around the corner. With enough perspective, enough friendly faces, and enough brainstorming, we can make small changes day in and day out and incrementally change the world. Jack, Laura, and Kate are the three hardest working camp professionals and the three most open-minded camp professionals I have ever met. They are encamped in their values, but they welcome feedback and incorporate ideas seamlessly. Best of all, they give the freedom for staff and campers to incorporate their own ideas as they are discovered. Jack, Laura, Kate, and other staff imagine what camp can be all year long, but they know as well as I that the missing ingredient is the camper. And that's why we love summer so much. Campers are in on the creation of a better world, one day and one decision at a time.

In a time when we need more pillars of strength to hold on to, and more creative minds working together to create a better world, I feel blessed to be a part of a community that helps bring everyone's voice to the table, especially the campers. When camps say that the campers are their priority, at Stomping Ground, I really believe it.


Nigel Sullivan
CREW Leader 2018