Tent of Nations 2019 [6]: Lessons for Volunteers

Please read my fifth blog about the approach I took with Daoud to build the volunteer lessons/talks before reading these, as the background I give is important to understanding why I structured these the way I did. I’ll post first the planning document of what I discussed, and then below this I’ll include what this looked like in practice. 

Day 1: beginning goals for our campers and volunteers:


Tent of Nations Summer Camp is designed to help children realize that they are strong, worthy, and special, and loved, regardless of circumstances outside of Tent of Nations. In order to foster this feeling in the campers you care for, you must allow a child to feel ownership and control over their own experience at Tent of Nations, and help them understand that their role in a group is important (and the rest of the group is important, too). You should focus equally on each camper in your unit as much as possible, focus on the positives of the group and individuals, and foster an environment where campers make friends and grow in their connection with other campers. 


We have split up campers by units for several reasons: to make sure activities are age appropriate and to make group sizes more manageable are a few, but most important is that children have peers in their groups they can relate to and talk to. Your first job as a counselor will be to introduce campers to camp, and to provide them with the resources to get to know one another and get to know you as their counselor. 


Get to know everyone’s name!

Make sure that every camper knows their group-mates’ names, and that you learn all their names as soon as possible. Recognizing a camper by their name is the first step to recognizing that child as an individual, with gifts, thoughts, and dreams. (Have you ever had a teacher or caretaker who was not very invested, and didn’t learn your name or who you were? It feels terrible!) If a child trusts that you care about them, they can begin to trust that you will help them control and take charge of their experience at camp this summer. [maybe play a name game with the volunteers]


Get started with a name game for the whole unit, and make sure the counselors participate too! Start a name game by explaining the game (“introduce yourself and then…”), and then doing the actions yourself as an example. Incorporate ways that campers repeat each other’s names so they can learn them. Here are some examples of name games, but it’s the most fun to come up with your own:


  • Animal name game: introduce yourself, say your favorite animal, and then act out that animal! Everyone acts out that animal with the campers (good for younger children)
  • Gifts: Introduce yourself, then talk about one thing you love about yourself/one thing that makes you strong/one thing that you are proud of. Optional: when everyone hears what the gift is, they take one step in if they feel they have that gift too.


Throughout the two weeks that campers are here, engage actively in your group as a counselor: play games with them, listen to your campers, and affirm them. Do not stand back passivley and supervise–be a part of your group! It’s important that you are a part of your campers’ lives and that they feel heard. Point out the positive things they do, and the skills and talents that each camper has. Let them know when the group is doing well, and when the group is struggling with something, focus on growth rather than what cannot be accomplished. 


Day 2: Self-Efficacy


At summer camp, we are aiming to build self-efficacy. That means that we are trying to show children that they are strong, capable of great things, and in control of their own lives as much as they can be. There are many ways to build self-efficacy in children, and I’ll be talking about ways to encourage it:


Social support: the best way to start building strength within your group is through building a supporting, nurturing environment where you lift up the children, and the children lift up each other. 


Team building activities are so important for this reason. Your unit of campers will become a family, and your goal is to make that family as supportive and loving as possible. Make sure to get every child involved if you can, and engage children who are nervous.


Know that just because there may be conflict between children doesn’t mean that the team is failing; in fact, it’s quite the opposite! As your group grows to know each other better, there may be disagreements, but storming within the group allows children to get to better understandings of who they are as individuals. Help children work through conflict and be patient.


Predictability: children can feel the most in control and comfortable when they are in a space where they feel they know what’s coming next. You don’t have to read children the schedule for the whole week, but you should let children know what is expected of them, and what they can expect of you and out of each activity so that nothing is a huge surprise.


Faith & Optimism: helping children to believe that they can accomplish anything, that their future is bright, that opportunity awaits them, and that they are loved and gifted beyond what we understand is a huge task. How you build optimism when you act as a counselor is up to you. Faith can play a huge role in encouraging self-efficacy. Children who have a consistent faith they know they can turn to have a greater sense of self-efficacy, so encourage children’s faith as they grow.


Day 3: Active Listening. This is an important topic when talking to children or to other volunteers!


Do you ever find yourself thinking about what you are going to say next when you are listening to someone? Maybe you’ll be thinking about how you can respond to what your friend is saying, and you forget to fully listen to them. Maybe you are just trying to keep a conversation going. Active listening is all about keeping the conversation about the person you are talking to–in this case, your campers. Ask questions that are relevant to what the other person is saying without trying to steer the conversation towards what you want to hear.


Let’s do some skits of distracted, passive, or self-centered listening. 


Let’s practice some active listening. Get into pairs to actively listen to your partner talk about something they are passionate about. Don’t steer the conversation about you, or in a direction that you are just more comfortable with–focus on what the other person is saying. Ask questions if it feels organic. In the same way, you have to actively listen when talking to campers, about their dreams and passions, or about their worries. By truly actively listening to campers, you are giving them a voice and helping them feel powerful, and allowing them a space to express themselves. 


Show you care by telling campers what you find interesting about what they are saying, and be honest with them. Ask questions. If you don’t understand what a camper is talking about, it’s a lot more productive and meaningful to ask the camper what they mean rather than just nod along–plus, you’ll get the know the camper better. Engage with each camper approximately the same amount, but make sure you are letting each camper know why spending time with them is special by pointing out why their gifts and interests are exciting, and do so in a genuine and age appropriate way. 


Day 4: Body language & talking to campers.


When talking to campers, be sure to show that you are interested in and care about what they have to say. Look at them when they are speaking. Smile at them often! Encourage their positive and happy behaviors actively and verbally. 


When talking to a camper alone, especially about a serious situation, be sure to get on their level–emotionally, physically, and mentally. Crouch, sit, or kneel so that you and the camper are on the same level physically, and can have a talk about how they are feeling or behaving. Ask questions about how the camper is feeling–don’t assume you know the answer. Phrase your conversation in ways that the child can understand. 


If you don’t have time to talk to a child right away, it’s better to be honest about your time than to be ingenuine about your listening. If you have to handle a situation and a child wants to talk to you about something that isn’t as urgent, don’t pretend to listen to them while you do something else. Say to the camper, “I am very interested in what you have to say. Tell me more about it once I’m done with this!” 


Day 5: Difficult Conversations


This is information on how to talk to campers if they bring up some source of pain or trauma from outside of camp. For each example here, have volunteers think of times people have approached consoling them or comforting them incorrectly, and times people have helped correctly. Allow volunteers to talk about them if they are comfortable doing so. 


Don’t talk about this with other campers around unless that camper wants to do so. Discreetly move to the side and sit down at the same level, unless multiple campers come to you to talk. 


Don’t prompt or force children to talk about their traumatic experiences. Tent of Nations summer camp is a safe place for children to be themselves, play with other children, and develop their own strengths. Some children will grow close to you and may want to speak to you about their experiences, but don’t ever force a child to relive an experience that may cause them great distress. Often we think that speaking about something traumatic will make us feel better about it, but that is not the case in many situations. Allow children to decide what they want to talk to you about. 


You are not this child’s psychiatrist. You are here to help children have fun, grow, and believe in themselves. If a child discloses something they are struggling with (emotionally, physically, or otherwise), don’t spend your time trying to figure out what in their past made them struggle, or try to provide them with therapy. Focus on the children now, and how to make them happy now, so they can work towards growing throughout camp. Definitely do not throw around psychological terms like trauma, post-traumatic stress, depression, disorder, or other words to describe what children are experiencing. These terms are unhelpful to these children, and mental health diagnoses can add extra stress to a child. 


Listen to children without interruption, and do not interject your feelings about what they have been telling you. It may be very difficult to hear about the trauma that children have experienced, but it’s important not to let your own feelings about their worries consume you, or show through your body language. Don’t say things like, “That’s horrible!” or, “Well, at least you’re alive.” These reactions can either escalate or trivialize a child’s experiences. Instead, focus on the present with the child: “you are very strong”, “I’m happy you are here at camp with us”, “you are so very special”, “I love you very much, and so does God”. 


Don’t make promises that you can fix their situation or that everything will be okay. You are here to be this child’s friend, mentor, and supporter, but you are not going to be here for the child forever, and you cannot protect them from everything that faces them in the future. Rather than promising that things will get better, focus on what the child can do to feel more in-control while at camp (by establishing a support system within the unit, giving them the opportunity to be a leader during games, and focusing on their dreams and what gifts they have). 


Assure children that whatever they have gone through is not their fault. A child may blame themselves for what they’ve gone through, but one thing you can assure them is that whatever happened to them wasn’t a consequence of one of their own mistakes or actions. 


Assure children that they are loved. While you can’t personally solve a child’s personal trauma, you can assure them that they are loved by you, Tent of Nations, their family and/or community, and their God. This is why it’s important to have team-building games which allow each child to share what they love or admire about another child. 


Have debriefs at the end of the day, where children can talk about what went well for them, and what members of their group stood out as particularly strong leaders/friends/planners/artists/anything else. You telling a child you love them is special, but another child showing a child that they are loved means even more!


Day 6: Be aware of the interpersonal gap


Everyone is different–even when working with other volunteers, we never know what the other person has been through in their lives, what cultural differences exist between each other, and what they are thinking right that moment. We should always be mindful of our different experiences when talking with other volunteers and with campers. 


Do an interpersonal gap activity: find someone you don’t know very well, and find out what is surprisingly similar or surprisingly different. 


Avoid humor like sarcasm or self-depricating humor when working with children, because some children may not understand and may be hurt or worried by it. Don’t assume anything about a child’s life, either positive or negative. Even if you’ve done a lot of research, you still can’t know what an individual child has gone through. 


It’s important that other children understand the interpersonal gap too; there is strength in diversity of experience, so make sure all children are respectful of other campers’ faiths, home situations, and personal needs and traits. One of the days of camp is devoted to this, so be sure to talk to children about how everyone is loved and accepted at Tent of Nations. 


When talking to a child about any behavior, don’t assume that you know why they are acting a certain way, and don’t attempt to tell them or explain to them why they are acting a certain way. 


Accept that you don’t have all the answers
Here I will describe what the workshops actually looked like. 
Day 1:
Group Dynamics conversation: what is the purpose of putting campers into groups? What is the role of a volunteer in a group? Let’s tell stories of leaders in our lives who were (and were not) invested in us. Talk about group dynamics: forming, storming, norming, performing, transforming. It’s important that everyone knows names. Actively engage as a team member shows you car. Focus on positives always (behavior, life, skills).

Active listening is a skill we must build (think of examples of passive listening). Practice active listening with someone you haven’t talk to in a while. Relate to how to talk to children about talents. Giving them a voice. Try to understand a camper, even if it takes many tries. Using “I” language.

Day 2:

Conversation about self-efficacy & affirmation: encourage through social support, team building, predictability, faith & optimism, self confidence & encouragement. Beginning a conversation of any kind begins with getting on their level physically, mentally, emotionally.

Smile often! Ask questions about how they feel & don’t assume you have the answer. If you don’t have time for a conversation make sure you make time later. Think of examples of times consoling went right or wrong.

Don’t talk about things that are distressing unless they bring it up first. Don’t prompt children to relive experiences or use leading questions. You are not this child’s psychoanalyst. Listen to children without interruption and with respect, without your feelings. Don’t make promises (about safety, etc.). It’s not their fault. Assure children that they are loved and they are so much more than what has hurt them in the past.

Have debriefs at the end of the day with your group and do positive shout-outs! Do this with your volunteer coworkers too.


Day 3:

Assumptions and the interpersonal gap. Ask about the day and group dynamics progress. Interpersonal gap–important, for working with children and volunteers too, to understand this. What makes up the gap? (culture, language, personal experiences, needs, family & friends’ influences, goals & desires, etc.). Split into partners and talk about what some things are to keep in mind while working together that you may not know about the other because of the interpersonal gap.

These are conversations you should have with the people you are working with, even if they are hard. There’s an interpersonal gap between you and your campers, too, that you must always remember, to avoid making assumptions about them.

One assumption might be that children will have serious behavioral trouble or developmental delays due to trauma, but considering the gap in our experiences we can see that the way we may respond to a situation is different that how they will respond. This is why when talking to a volunteer or child about behavior you should use “I” language. “I’ve observed that ____”, instead of “you are doing _______”.

Discuss how groups are going, and how we can continue to support each other!