Teenage leaders in summer training

YMCA program at Edgewater camp focuses on team-building and goals

July 27, 2008|By Susan Gvozdas | Susan Gvozdas,Special to The Sun

The teenage campers huddled together to boost one of their own over a wooden beam 8 feet above the ground. The goal: Get everyone over it without falling. Heaviest and tallest went first, so they could support the lighter ones on the other side. The strongest person, who could climb over by himself, went last.

"We didn't have any rush-ins and failures," counselor Kyle Felix told the group, before congratulating them on a job well- done.

The group of 14 teens are in the middle of a new two-week, leadership-in-training program at Camp Letts in Edgewater, run by the YMCA of Metropolitan Washington. Felix, who trains campers to become counselors, said he loves watching kids become leaders. In as little as a week, the group had progressed from being strangers to budding friends who are learning to trust one another.

"They've really grasped the concept of building a team and establishing goals," said Felix, who is on break from law school in South Africa to work at the camp.

The leadership-in-training course, which will end Friday, is an attempt to revive the camp's leadership training program and make the camp the crown jewel of the YMCA system, said Matt Garcia, summer camp director. The 102-year-old Edgewater camp not only revamped the team exercises, but it also is in the process of building separate living quarters for the leadership-in-training teens, or LITs.

Camp Letts built a yurt for the girls and are nearly finished with one for the boys. The buildings are circular wooden structures covered with a dark green canvas. They sit on wooden decks and have a built-in fan and lighting.

"It helps them to focus, and they feel special," Garcia said.

Some of the teenagers who decided to take part in the LIT program chose to do it before they arrived in camp. Others were presented with the option of accepting the challenge on registration day.

Maddy Dolan, 16, of Frederick picked out the program before she arrived at Camp Letts because it will help her earn a Gold Award, the highest recognition in Girl Scouting. Dolan, who will be a high school senior this fall, believes the LIT program will be an asset when she majors in international relations in college.

"It will help me to better understand how to be my own person and be myself and stand out from the crowd," she said.

The two-week LIT program costs $1,250. The teens come from all over the United States, as well as overseas.

Garcia, who has been at Camp Letts for two years, designed the program from others that he has used at YMCA camps nationwide. The teens learn seven steps to problem-solving: stop and think, goals, options, consequences, choice, commit and evaluate.

Each day, the teens learn a different step in the chain. On the first day, the teens took a hike and then went off by themselves to write in journals. The exercise taught them to stop and clear their minds when they are facing a problem, Garcia said.

The next day, the teens learned how to set goals, brainstorm options and face the consequences. As they did with the beam exercise Thursday, they found that the consequences of letting dissension interfere with accomplishing their team goal was a potentially painful landing in the dirt. Luckily, no one fell going over the beam.

During the first few exercises, the teens butted heads, which is expected, said Sommer Johnson, who is in her second year as a counselor. They have to learn to listen to others and take into account other perspectives.

"There's a point where everyone's nature comes out, and you have people who say, 'Let's just get it done!'" said Johnson, who lives in Long Beach, Calif., and attends California State University. "It was a tough day."

The teens absorbed that lesson and worked well running booths for the camp carnival. "They really soaked it in," Johnson said.

On Friday, students got together to vote on which options they should follow. Everyone had to commit to those choices and then review and evaluate whether it was the right method.

Tomorrow, the teens will enter "the crucible" stage, a decision-making marathon, Johnson said. The team has to go over each of the seven guidelines each time a member makes a mistake during an exercise.

The idea is to cement the problem-solving process in each person's head, so that they can apply it easily to any problem they encounter in life, Garcia said.

Several of the teens in the program have been going to Camp Letts for years. This is the seventh year for Amanda Palmer of Scaggsville. The opportunity to water-ski on the Chesapeake Bay drew the 16-year-old at the beginning. Now she enjoys being at the camp because of the friends she makes and the bonds she forms with counselors.

"I feel at home here," said Palmer who, like Dolan, is scheduled to graduate a year early from high school. "It's just kind of like a feeling of family."

Tyler "Tex" Baumgardner, 16, said his peers tend to come to him when they have a problem. The gregarious football and rugby player used to be involved in student government at his high school in McKinney, Texas.

"I'm usually put in a leadership position, so I want to be a better leader," said Baumgardner, who lived in Laurel until 1999. He said his goal is to learn to step back so that others can shine.

Felipe Vargas of Madrid, Spain, returned for his second year at Camp Letts because he wanted to improve his English.

Vargas chose the LIT program because he wants to be a camp counselor.

But because he is 16, he will have to wait one more year before he is eligible.

The early trust exercises - falling back into another camper's arms - were scary at first, but Vargas said he is opening up to letting go.

"I did it, and it was a good experience," Vargas said.

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