Camp Quest: an educational adventure shaped by fun, friends, and freethoughtby Don Lacey on Aug. 08, 2012, under Arizona Families, Art & Culture, Atheism, Critical Thinking, Education, Environment, Ethics, Evolution, Freethought, Freethought Events, Logic, Reason, Science, Skepticism, That's Life!
It is my pleasure to introduce Donna Viola. She is a recovering catholic (self-identified atheist for ~6 years), presently a graduate student at the University of Arizona, and moved to Tucson from the east coast about a year ago.
She is today’s contributor to the FreeThought Arizona blog and a volunteer camp counselor for Camp Quest.
(Editor’s Note: I was just informed that there is a FaceBook page for Camp Quest Arizona. You can check it out HERE. Also, all photos courtesy Siobhan Riordan, a camp counselor at Camp Quest Chesapeake.)
When I was growing up, summer meant spending lazy days on the beach, playing manhunt with the neighborhood kids until well past dark – and, for at least a couple of years when I was fairly young, going to vacation bible camp for a week. I don’t remember much about it now save for the religiously-themed craft projects and watching episodes of Davey and Goliath, but it was part of the “good Catholic upbringing” that my parents imposed on me. I lost my religion years later, but there were many such instances where my social circle was defined by the faith of my family.
So what about the children of non-religious families? Right now, they represent a minority in our country – and even in public schools religion tends to seep through, be it by the words “Under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance that they recite every morning, or in the fact that many of their friends come from religious backgrounds. What opportunity, then, do these children have to be around people like them?
Enter Camp Quest. First held in Kentucky in 1996 with only 20 campers, the week-long sleepaway camp “provides an educational adventure shaped by fun, friends, and freethought” (directly quoted from its mission statement ). Camp Quest has since spread to more than ten locations in the United States which hosted hundreds of campers between the ages of 8 and 17 throughout the country during the summer of 2012. I have been fortunate enough to have had the opportunity to work as a volunteer cabin counselor at Camp Quest Chesapeake for the past two summers – the first two times the camp was held in this region. Located in a national park south of Washington, DC, this camp brings together children largely from Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania, although campers have come from as far away as New York and Florida.
At the most basic level, Camp Quest is about having fun – the kids got to play games, do arts and crafts, go hiking, make s’mores and sing songs around the campfire. We held a carnival where they could win prizes or the chance to pie a counselor in the face, a talent show that included singing, magic tricks, and ukulele-playing, a karaoke night, and a camp dance.
But there was so much more to camp. There was a strong emphasis on scientific inquiry, with activities like cow eye dissections, hunting for pond bugs, identifying fossils, and considering the possibilities for alien evolution. There was a (college-level!) engineering challenge where the kids had to devise a mechanism for “landing a spacecraft on Mars” (aka protecting an egg from an 8-foot drop) using minimal supplies, including a handful of craft sticks, some cotton balls, and a drinking straw. There were philosophy discussions about topics like personal identity and religion in schools. We had “Humanist Heroes” awards, where the kids could acknowledge times when other campers had gone out of their way to help them out and embodied humanistic characteristics, and “Famous Freethinkers” to expose the campers to people well-known people who also identified as humanists, including Daniel Radcliffe, Carl Sagan, and Jessica Ahlquist.
And one night, the counselors sat down with their campers for “life discussions” – where the topic of conversation focused on instances when the kids had been singled out or prejudiced against because of their personal worldview. Children shared stories about play dates with religious friends: sitting through awkward pre-meal prayers, or being brought to Sunday school after a sleepover. There were stories about being rejected by friends (or friends’ parents) who found out about their lack of a belief in god, and even stories about being scorned by more religious family members. However, one of the most commonly-expressed sentiments was just how nice it was to be at Camp Quest, where they were surrounded by like-minded individuals and where no one judged them.
In all my dealings with the kids of Camp Quest, I have been nothing short of impressed. When faced with challenges, they asked intelligent questions and came up with brilliant ideas. When talking about their worldviews, they were notoriously articulate. When interacting with each other, they were for the most part kind and considerate. When asked what makes Camp Quest special, more than a few kids said, “Everything!” When asked if they wanted to come back next summer, nearly all said yes. In the words of the kids themselves, Camp Quest is a place where “you can be yourself”, where “everyone is accepted” and you have “opportunities to try new things”.
On one of the last nights of the week, during the camp dance, we played the song “We Are Young” – and the kids and staff spontaneously formed a circle and sang along; it was an experience that nearly brought tears to my eyes. It was amazing to see just how close these kids had grown over the course of a week, and to realize how much they all meant to me. I feel privileged to be a part of the Camp Quest Chesapeake family, and to have had the chance to get to know not only the kids at camp, but also the wonderful, dedicated group of volunteers who made it all possible. And now that I’m back home in Arizona, I find myself feeling a little feeling a bit homesick… for summer camp!
The good news is, there’s no need for humanist families in Arizona to ship their kids off to distant states to have this kind of summer camp experience: Camp Quest Arizona will be holding its inaugural camp near Prescott in June 2013; watch out HERE for details about camp registration and volunteering!