Many children have memories of summer camp they look back on and see all the different things they did with all those new and interesting people. Going to a majority-populated Jewish university (shout out Brandeis!), I heard tales of Jewish camps and saw many people meet over the phrase “Did you go to camp with so and so?... She went to my school!”. Being one of a few token Christians at this school, I always felt left out of these conversations. I never went to an overnight summer camp. I distinctly remember being a terrible Brownie, meaning Girl Scout camp was out. I hated camp Sargeant, a day camp in Merrimack, so I cannot blame my parents for not sending me to overnight camp. I can’t even remember ever asking my parents to go to one. Why go when you have a built in play buddy in the form of a twin sister and an activities director in the form of an Auntie Carol? My summer camp included bubbles, cookies, blueberry picking and hanging with Rosie, the dog. When I got older, sports camps became the theme of the summer. Then my first overnight camp was an overnight soccer camp with my teammates from high school. This wasn’t a summer camp; this was a kick-your-butt into shape, triple-session exhaustion fest. It was still fun, even though it wasn’t traditional.
This is why, a few weeks ago when I was asked to be a summer camp counselor in charge of activities, my immediate response was “What?”. You see, in Azerbaijan, there is a camp called G.L.O.W. The acronym stands for “Girls Leading Our World”. It’s a camp that is run in many countries around the Peace Corps, but the curriculum and set-up is the brain-child of the PCV’s of the host country. The camp’s purpose is to empower young women and show them that they can do whatever they want to do, and show them examples of women in their community who are successful. This is an especially important topic for women in Azerbaijan because most of the people that this country looks up to are men.
The camp took a lot of man power and hours to put together. Our first meeting for the camp was in February during the Super Bowl. Baku was in the midst of a blizzard, and my site-mate Kate and I walked 10km (a little over 6 miles) on the empty icy highway to the Peace Corps office to make it to the meeting. We were the most extreme case, but some spent 3 hours in a taxi to make it. Needless to say, people were dedicated to the cause from the start. Myself and 5 other female PCV’s worked on the curriculum part of the camp for months while other groups worked on finance, finding host country counterparts, finding a place, applications and advertising the camp. The camp took many PCV’s to make it happen and it was a huge group effort pulling it off. Six PCV’s were chosen from my year (AZ7, the newbies coming in September will be AZ8) to be counselors, and when I got that call I was super-psyched.
The problem was, I had never been to a camp like this and another PCV and I were in charge of activities for the week. I thought about all the camp references I had ever seen (Friday the 13th, Wet Hot American Summer, Heavy Weights) and realized they did not help me at all in this situation. Luckily, my mother is a crafty genius and she had done tons of fun stuff with the kids from church. I also took from my team-building memories from soccer and just summer inside fun I had with Auntie.
Activities were a success! We tie-dyed shirts, did team-building (trust falls, human knot), made friendship bracelets and popsicle stick picture frames, did a hand-jive competition, and Olympic events such as a water balloon toss, Frisbee throw, blind-fold maze and three-legged race. The girls were thrilled with these new games and we had a lot of fun doing them. Each night we had a different event. The skit and talent show were a lot of fun (especially since the Spice Girls showed up, yours truly as Baby spice). I was the smart pig in our version of the Three Little Pigs. It was the Three Little Sheep, because pigs-themed plays don't really hit home in a Muslim country.
The best event was the dance party. We had “Club Glow” and tied ties around the girls’ wrists to say who was under 21, even though there was no alcohol. We had lights, a sound system and every girl up and dancing til 11pm, lights out time. At the bonfire we taught the girls how to make s’mores. I believe the counselors liked them better than the campers, but the girls liked the marshmallows, something that is not present in this country. One of my esteemed colleagues hid a package of Hershey Bars up her skirt for the counselors cabin later that night. We were so tired we forgot to eat them. :)
Activities were the sideshow to the main event, however, Our curriculum was great as well. The girls had two lessons a day and a guest speaker to listen to each day. The lessons consisted of things like community development, gender empowerment and how to be a leader. The guest speakers were successful women from Azerbaijan telling their experiences and how they succeeded in this country. The lessons were taught by Azerbaijani counterparts who learned the curriculum, made their own adjustments and taught the lesson in Azeri. They were the real rockstars of the camp. They did the most challenging work; the PCV’s got to play. :)
The girls were amazing as well. They listened to what everyone had to say, participated in every discussion and had really good ideas for development in their own communities. Any high school teacher in America would kill to have these girls in their classes based on participation alone! They loved going up to the front of the room and presenting their own ideas (something they don’t often get to do) and we got at least 20 hands for each question asked. I was ecstatic with the girls creativity and opinionated ideas.
The only problems we had were that the girls were scared in their cabins at night. I do not blame them, considering one of my references to summer camp went immediately to Jason Vorhees' mom. The six AZ7 counselors were in charge of 2 cabins each. We had to go around doing nightly checks and our cell phones were on us 24/7 to deal with problems. Examples of my problems: heard a rat in the room, toilet overflowing and key stuck in the door. I felt like a glorified landlord. I was lucky though. The other PCV’s got the girls who snuck out at night, the ones who missed their mothers and were up crying all night and the ones who stole off to the cabins during lessons. I had the drama-less 14-year-olds, if there is even such a thing as one of those in today’s world. I may have just been the Barney Fife of the group and was a terrible camp-cop and my girls just ran wild all over the camp!
We also had to eat bad Azeri food all week, but they served us watermelon at every meal, so we went on a watermelon cleansing diet! One of the counselors and I one night waited for the girls to leave the mess hall and stole all the left over watermelon and ate most of it. We regretted it immediately after, and even further into the night at our cabin...
All in all, it was a great first overnight summer camp. I enjoyed the experience thoroughly and cannot wait for next year!
Pictures: Me walking on the highway to our first meeting, Three Little Sheep performance, Katie hiding the Hersheys up her skirt, Club Glow dance floor and the counselors nearly singeing their eyebrows off roasting marshmallows on shish kebabs over a waaay too hot fire!