SHERIDAN — At camp, kids can be who they want to be. Free from the social constraints that define them at school, they can be a jock, a nerd and enjoy Harry Potter all at the same time.
“Our society has a tendency to force young people to find an identity and stick to it, like, ‘This is who I am,’ or ‘This is what I am,’” said Jason Lanka, resident camp director for Camp Roberts at the Sheridan County YMCA. “But when you’re at camp, and you’re away from social media, away from the pressures of everyday social expectations, a good camp counselor can provide a safe space for young people to explore who they are.”
Filled with a sense of summer freedom, away from their parents and their regular routines, kids at camp are able to grow, forming lifelong memories in safe, encouraging circumstances. Children will often come out of their shell during camp, interacting with students they wouldn’t normally approach during the school year.
Under the guidance of a great counselor — who is often more of an educator than a camp counselor — a child may discover interests that turn into lifelong skills.
“It doesn’t have to be a camp in the mountains, but any place that provides a safe space for young people … to understand that whoever you are is perfect, to understand you don’t have to adhere at this moment, at this time, to some sort of social identity — that is what camp does,” Lanka said. “I see a lot of pressure on kids today, and a good camp counselor can provide space and be a role model so kids can say, ‘Wow, it is OK to be a jock and a geek and into Harry Potter.’ You can be all three of those things at a time.”
Every summer, Sheridan County kids head up to the Bighorns to Camp Roberts for overnight camp. Others enroll in day-long programming with Science Kids, and more still head west toward Teton Science School, traveling across the state without a parent, perhaps for the first time.
While the science content is important to the Teton Science School, Colby Mitchell, a field educator for the school, said he looks for educators who first and foremost can see the best in every kid.
“I want our educators to deeply believe that each kid has great potential to succeed, and that they don’t need to be exceptional to be loved,” Mitchell said. “Everyone has their own unique value, and as educators, we want to draw that value out of kids, and help other kids see that value in each other.”
A good educator, in the form of a camp counselor, can transform kids in just a few days. They can give students a deeper understanding and appreciation of their own environment, Mitchell said. Teton Science School is primarily a day program, but students often travel from all corners of the state to the school, intensifying the experience.
“I think (our educators) see their students take home a social and emotional outcome,” Mitchell said. “They see kids being more bold and interacting with students they wouldn’t interact with at school. They see kids facing social challenges in the lodges or the field, and our instructors help them understand what they are feeling so they can participate in their own experience, rather than having life happen to them.”
Most of the educators for the Teton Science School are paid instructors who work for the school year round, Mitchell said. The school also utilizes AmeriCorps service members and graduate students.
“One thing I really look for in an educator is, what is their orientation toward learning itself? Are they learners as educators?” Mitchell said. “I want lifelong learners, because that models that joy of discovering and looking more closely for students.”
The job is not easy, he said.
“When the days are long and the summer is hot, and you’re out there with 10 or 12 first- or second-grade students, you are going to be tired,” he said. “And I want our educators to believe in those students enough to look through the behaviors that they may be seeing that could be challenging … and see a kid that can succeed.”
Sarah Mentock, who started Science Kids in Sheridan County and has expanded into Cody, said her organization is not a camp but a school, with a focus on education and safety.
“We don’t call our instructors camp counselors, because our mission is to get kids outdoors where great learning happens. We have instructors and teaching assistants, and the bus driver is also an assistant,” Mentock said.
The first thing she looks for in an instructor is a love of kids, she said, and the second is a strong educational background in whatever discipline the instructor is teaching.
“We also look for an intangible instinct, a kind of safety radar,” Mentock said. “Safety is probably our number one goal, even though we are an educational organization. The first thing we start with is safety, and right on the heels of that is the educational component.”
Science Kids keeps its class size small, with ratios of one adult to every six children for older kids, and one adult to four kids for children under eight. That way, every child is able to succeed, Mentock said.
As Science Kids has grown, the focus has remained on education and a love of Wyoming.
“Look at the backyard that we live in,” Mentock said. “No matter where you go in Wyoming, you are going to have this phenomenal classroom. You go across the mountain, and there are fossils everywhere. People have come for over 100 years to Wyoming to dig up dinosaurs and take them back to the Smithsonian, and we can take our kids these places.”