YMCA Camp Kitaki

Just Kids

Just Kids

I spent much of my fall running our new Overlook Zipline for groups of students joining us for an Outdoor Education experience. It is exceedingly fun work, but it is also a fairly high-stress position. There are so many safety checks to make, and to stay on schedule you really have to be in constant motion; as soon as one kid goes, you are preparing the next to zip. Luckily, I am generally an in-constant-motion sort of person, so the days flew by in a blur of harness inspections and enthusiastic zippers.

When you are zipping 100 kids in a day, the groups sort of blur together after a while. But one notably rambunctious group sticks out in my mind. The kids were great, but squirrelly in their post-lunch enthusiasm, and getting them to focus as I reviewed safety protocol was a bit of a challenge and took longer than normal. To add to the time crunch, the last of the students in the group to go was feeling extremely hesitant about the zip line, but was eager to try all the same. After about 15 minutes of explaining the equipment, the safety measures, my credentials as a qualified facilitator, and just generally chatting about her life, she stepped off the edge and I smiled with satisfaction as the zip trolley hummed along the cable.

As I turned to reach for my water bottle, the chaperone with the group complimented me on my patience. I sort of awkwardly mumbled thanks (I am trying to get better at accepting compliments, but like all skills it takes time). Then she asked “What about the kids you just want to scream at? You must have those moments, right?”

I really didn’t know what to say. Because the truth is I don’t ever feel like screaming at kids. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of times when I am frustrated with a kid’s behavior. And there are times when I’ve realized my tone was less caring than I wanted it to be when I ask someone to do something, and have had to go back and apologize for not giving the level of respect I should have. I am not perfect, so I said as much in response to the chaperone’s question. But the question, and my actual answer, stuck with me.

There aren’t kids I just want to scream at, and I think there are two important reasons for that fact. The first is that I have grown up and spent my career working at a place that emphasizes the importance of speaking to kids with respect. Kitaki is incredibly fortunate to have a long history of providing training to our staff and SKs that breaks down the steps for how to show kids respect (staff alumni, remember K.P.A.L.S.?). I remember vividly the first time I heard Kel, our long-time resident kid expert and rockstar training consultant, talk about getting on kid level and realizing what a powerful message the simple act of kneeling down to talk to a kid eye to eye sent to that kid: “I see you, I respect you, and I value you.” It was so simple, but it made me so much more aware of the impact my words, and especially my actions, had on those around me.

It also helps that Kel, and many others like her in the camp family, are exceptional role models for the kind of patient, supportive approach that was the reason for the chaperone's compliment.

The second reason that I don’t look at a camper and think “time to yell” is that when I look at our campers, I know that they are just kids. Just kids. And while working with kids can be challenging at times, when I look at them, even when I look at them while they struggle to show respect, even when they are downright rude to myself or others, I see tremendous capacity for growth and endless opportunity. Why? Well, I have been fortunate enough to work at Kitaki for 16 summers now, and as a result I have watched some of those frustrating 7 year olds grow into some of my best staff, my best unit directors, and then move on to go out into the world and change it for the better. And not just a handful of exceptional kids. Time and time again, I have watched us reap the rewards of that patience and respect given to our campers, have seen individuals mature into incredible human beings with so much to offer our world. And this transformation is always so much more meaningful when I watch it happen with the kids in whom it was hardest to see that potential at the start. They are just kids today, but I know that someday soon they will be so much more.

This past November, I was fortunate enough to attend the YMCA’s first Global Camping Conference in Colorado. At the conference, I was introduced to Emma, who works for the YMCA of Greece. Emma and I were connected because at Kitaki we have been developing some programs and partnerships to serve refugees and recent immigrants, and Emma coordinates volunteers and provides direct service work to Syrian refugee families in Greece.

Emma began to share the challenges they have encountered as they work to provide youth programming within the refugee camps. She spoke about volunteers going into tents to try to encourage the kids to come out and play, and being met with resistance at first. The kids, Emma said, have forgotten how to play, how to have fun, how to hope. Her staff and volunteers have to show them it is safe, and that it is okay to just be a kid. Just kids. Kids full of potential. Kids who need love and patience and opportunities.

As I listened to Emma describe the beautiful, heart-wrenching process of serving the families in the refugee camps, I was overwhelmed by the drive to do more. For kids. For families. I think it starts with the sometimes difficult work of loving the kids in my own backyard...the kids who come to camp. And the kids who are in our community that aren’t coming to camp yet, but that need camp, and need us to do the work of breaking down barriers to access, of building trust, and of creating spaces that honor their experiences and needs. They are all just kids, and kids are all deserving of our love and our respect.

At Kitaki, we take that work, and then we move beyond our borders, so that we can create not just a camp, but a world that is truly for all.


Natalie Roberts-Day

Associate Executive Director