One by one each camper takes turns roasting a marshmallow over the campfire. For some it is their first time. It is an unusually cold June in Clarksville, OH so the campfire is fantastically warming. The counselors stand by and occasionally offer a guiding hand to the first-timers while simultaneously reminding the big kids not to play in the fire.
Camp Quest is a traditional summer camp with a slight twist: it is for children of freethinking parents. Who are freethinkers? Tons of labels fall under the heading of “freethinker” including Atheist, Humanist, or Agnostic but a freethinker is ultimately someone who holds a naturalistic (rather than a supernatural) world view. In addition to all the usual summer camp activities (swimming, team games, archery, and canoeing) Camp Quest also spends time exploring the mind through critical thinking, scientific exploration, philosophy, and comparative religion. Fellow camp counselor and future camp director, Chuck Wolber, tells me, “Camp Quest provides the opportunity for inquisitive children to explore the boundaries of their minds.”
I first became aware of this camp when I was sharing my current profession (working for an after-school program for kids living in the public housing projects) with Camp Quest Ohio Director, August Brunsman, at a conference we were both attending. I could see his ears perk up when I mentioned that I worked with kids. “Kaleena?” he asked gingerly, “would you be willing to join my staff as a camp counselor this summer?” I told him I would think about it but completely forgot until I received a nagging email in my inbox a couple weeks later. With my “just say yes” attitude towards life I said “Yes!” and jumped in feet first to an incredible and unforgettable week.
Early on during the camp session, each cabin was tasked with creating a skit that would debut on the final night of camp. My cabin was full of 10-12 year old girls, which turned out to be a fun age for creating skits, as they came up with all sorts of imaginative scenarios. Our prompt, “How would the world be different if the majority of the population was non-religious?” (as opposed to religious as it currently is) generated some fascinating discussions among my young campers. As we watched the skits the final night, my fellow counselors and I were astounded to find that nearly all of the cabins included gay rights issues as the primary focus of their skits. These kids are not only smart but are also excited about becoming engaged in their communities for real social change.
Executive Director, Amanda Metskas, tells me her story of how she fell into her job working with Camp Quest, Incorporated--the umbrella organization to the dozen (and growing) individual chapters sprinkled across the country and around the globe.
I first found out about Camp Quest when my partner invited me to dinner with founders Edwin and Helen Kagin. Edwin signed me up to be volunteer camp counselor that night. After working as a camp counselor for several years at the Camp Quest in Ohio, I joined the board for Camp Quest, Inc. in 2004. I became president of the board in 2005 and then in 2007 proposed adding a paid position to the non-profit. I filled that position in 2008. With my degrees in International Relations, Political Science, and Psychology, I’ve never done anything like this, but it has turned out to be a perfect fit for me.
As the sole paid staff member for Camp Quest, Metskas spends her days as the jack-of-all-trades by fundraising for the organization as well as updating and coordinating the chapter organizations. She serves as secretary, treasurer, public relations manager, and webmaster all rolled into one.
When I asked her what her favorite part of the job was, she answered “Easy. Playing with the kids. They are amazing. I love watching how they work together and I love providing a safe environment for the campers to have a safe place to just be kids. This is a place that tell kids, ‘It is OK to question everything.’” This strongly paralleled to my own experience with Camp Quest. During my week with these extraordinary kids I heard stories of them being chastised and bullied repeatedly again by their peers back home for being different and for daring to question the status quo. One camper (age 11) even told me, “I love Camp Quest because for one week of the year I get to just be me.” As a first-time counselor, the lasting relationships the campers had formed through attending camp year-after-year were obvious, and the same was true of the tightly knit staff--most of whom had started as campers at this 15-year-old camp themselves.
The final morning of camp is a bitter-sweet one. The campers are excited to see their families, but sad to leave their new friends as well as the safe haven of camp. One parent tells Metskas, “Oh great, I hate this part. We dread the weeks after camp because our daughter mopes around the house wishing she were back at camp. Can we somehow skip to next year? Or better yet, can you have Camp Quest year-round?”
I cannot wait to go back next year and as the season is changing to fall, June of 2012 seems impossibly far away.