I can say with a half-smile on my face that this year is indeed different from the others. Nevertheless, there is a significant dose of constancy: we continue to work with disadvantaged youth, epidemic or not. As always, we have a wide range of projects, such as programmes for foster homes, mentoring programs, training for educators, conferences, and international partner meetings. However, we felt that one thing was missing.
After Gigi brought up in one of our online planning meetings earlier this year that she had long wanted to organize a camp for young people who, for lack of a better word, we refer to as disadvantaged (I prefer the Anglo-Saxon equivalent: youth at risk), our most recent love project, BASE!Camp (Alap!Tábor) was born.
There was no question that we would do our best in the first half of the year to make it happen this summer. Despite the lack of resources, we put everything we have into creating this project: our thousands of different experiences and, for the time being, our volunteer efforts. We have started a community fundraising campaign because we believe that the idea of an honest and meaningful cause will reach everyone. We believe it’s in the common interest of all of us: it matters whether our children’s peers receive the connection and care they need to live balanced adult lives.
How does BASE!Camp work and for whom is it intended?
Today, when we talk about young people at risk, we include those living in the foster care system and also those living in deprived areas and segregated communities.
The Convention on the Rights of the Child is built on three very important pillars:
- care provision
- and the right to participation.
On the one hand, care and protection means feeding, educating, physically and psychologically protecting our children. It is also about giving them love and providing them with the conditions that enable them to develop their abilities and develop healthy self-esteem. Parents are not the only ones responsible for this, but also institutions, communities, and professionals. Let us think here of young people who do not see their parents for months, or who have been placed in protection exactly because those who are supposed to protect them are unable to do so due to some kind of disability.
In child protection care, children often lack a sustaining, secure adult support system until they reach adulthood. Even the most dedicated and skilled educator – whom we often meet in our other programmes – has to deal with 5-10-15 young people at a time, so personal attention, care and expression of love can only be available for minutes.
Not only now, but also when they should be living, working, learning and interacting with others. They can expect very little solidarity and compassion. For many, it is hard to understand why this is so difficult for them. And for young people living in extreme poverty, in segregation, in abusive homes, we see even less. How do they live, what do they need, how do they take responsibility for themselves and for each other?
How can we help to achieve lower exclusion, promote understanding and inclusion, and take responsibility for them?
In February this year, by chance, I started working in a children’s home once a week. There was no question of me taking the job, since I knew some of the young people from previous training programmes and several of them had joined the IFI+ group – but most of them had never seen me before. I had been working there for weeks when I tried to lure one of the boys down to the yard again one afternoon. We were sitting in his room. I offered him a variety of tempting games: football, volleyball, ping-pong, playing music together, or just hanging out in the sun, in the fresh air, with the others. He said:
“What for, you’re leaving soon anyway. I don’t want to know you better and I don’t want you to know me better”.
I sat there, speechless and with clammy palms, for a few minutes longer. Really, could this be the basic experience of a 14-year-old boy? He shouldn’t feel comfortable around someone who might leave him?
It is incredibly painful to watch a child cut themselves off from the possibility of connecting. They give up on themselves and they give up on anybody paying attention to them because they’ve always experienced the red light coming on, flashing and flickering: Watch out! This is dangerous! How can it be that a child cannot afford to be vulnerable, to talk about his fears? Therefore, I asked myself, then, how can we expect them to understand others, to accept others, to become useful, caring members of society, able to cooperate, to listen to others?
In a previous program, one of the boys in our program, every time he walked past me, he would look at me and indicate that he was going to cut my throat or headbutt me. It was comical for a boy a few heads shorter than me, but also frightening. He made me feel both that he could relate to me and that he couldn’t. He wanted to seem fierce and invincible. It developed between us that every time he’d hold up a finger to show me what to expect, I’d say, “Hi Benji – (let’s call him that) – how are you?” First he laughed, then he began to respond. As a result, the choreography was developed: meeting, throat cutting gesture, mutual interest in each other’s well-being. We laughed a lot. During our days together, he came to experience that we weren’t just pretending to care. I care about how he feels, and he can tell me if he doesn’t feel well, if he feels okay, or if he wants me to move over, or whatever. He can ask me back because I don’t just walk past him. We have time, we have real interest.
On the last night the young people cooked potato stew with Hungarian red paprika powder (paprikáskrumpli). The young people stood with headlamps, tasting food, lighting and guarding the fire, all around the fireplace. We eat together, we are courteous, we ask, we thank. Suddenly Benji starts talking to me in the dark. “Zsófi!” He calls out. I know what’s coming, I’m already smiling. “Yes, Benji?” I wait. No movement, I should be able to see. I shine my headlamp on him. Laughter shakes his shoulders. But he doesn’t want to show that movement anymore. “Ah, nothing! I just wanted to ask how you were.”
A week of being together and the power of being carefree
Nothing can compensate, nothing can make up for this lack of available emotional support. We still believe that participation in summer camps can contribute to the well-being of young people at risk. It gives them an opportunity to experience generosity and belonging together, and togetherness ensures that young people who need it most can build spiritual resilience. They have the opportunity to express themselves freely and develop their potential with the support of adults and peers. Through this initiative, we aim to give these young people back what they often lack from their childhood. Laughter, self-indulgence, big games together, attention, making friends, meeting predictable adults, and something even greater and simpler: being carefree!
In one of the foster care groups I was working with, we ended the programme with an exercise: while some sat and closed their eyes, others walked around listening to various statements. If the statement was true for one of the closed-eyed participants, the other walking participants had to touch the sitting one’s shoulder.
The music played, the statements came on: “put your hand on the shoulder of someone you’ve learned something new about, someone important to you, someone who makes you laugh”. At the end of the process, they asked for a break, walked to the salon, all sat in silence for half an hour, crying, caressing and hugging each other.
Educators’ later reports confirmed what I had imagined, that they sensed the strong bond that held this small community together, how important they were to each other. This is also the purpose of our camp: to enable the participants to reflect on their feelings, to express them freely, to be able to ask for support and to support their community.
The camp is also intended to provide them with a deeper understanding of their abilities and strengths through games, rituals, and common and individual challenges, allowing them to articulate what they have learned from the situations and to give each other reinforcing, constructive feedback.
Positive thinking, listening, helping, looking for the values of others and supporting them are all skills that can easily be transferred to the everyday life of a young person who has attended BASE!Camp.
I am also sure that listening to others, reflecting on what they do well, can also motivate young people to care about how they connect, where they put their energy, and what they want to achieve in life. The way they talk to one another changes so quickly during a program like this. Many of the words they hear are rarely uttered in their environment. They are rarely praised, and gratitude towards them is rarely expressed. My most precious feedback about this was a request I received from a young person: “Zsófi, say thank you. I love the way you pronounce the letter “sz”.” (In Hungarian we say “Köszi”)
“Why would you come to camp?”
One of our volunteers replied to this question by saying that he is always curious about what young people are thinking and feeling before they go to sleep. His wish is for them to experience the feeling of self-praise – a “pat on the back” that helps them realize their value. In addition, he hopes they will be grateful for who they are.
My sincere hope is that this feeling will be born in the place where more than 30 young people will arrive on 16 July. And we, trainers and volunteers will look at them with genuine curiosity. We know that these young people are often in a terribly difficult situation, where they are putting themselves through the wringer every day. Just like we know that it’s BASE!-ic, that everyone deserves a week of carefree childhood. Let’s get started!
Trainer and volunteer coordinator of the academy of experience
You can support BASE!Camp by clicking here.