Emma, 12, had been at the Girls Leadership Institute summer camp for three days. I couldn’t tell if she was really making friends. She was short and quiet and easily invisible.
One afternoon, I led a lively discussion about girl bullying. A few hours later, there was a knock at my door. It was Emma. Delighted, I started to welcome her, and before I could finish my sentence she was telling me a story.
It was Valentine’s Day in fifth grade, and Emma had driven her best friends crazy with her crush on Zack. It was also the day after her best friend sat their group in a circle at lunchtime and gave them each a grade out of 100. It was a weekly ritual, and each time, she hoped she would make it out of the sixties and into “C” range. Yesterday, she’d gotten a 59, a point below passing.
Today, when she went to her locker in the middle of social studies, the curling, shiny red paper was there, protruding. Slowly, she opened the valentine. “Dear Emma,” it read, “I love the way your fat spills over your jeans when you wear those tight shirts. Will you be my valentine? Love, Zack.”*
She looked out my window, then back at me.
I began consoling her, but she only nodded. She left soon after, and I was confused. By dinner, I knew it didn’t matter. Emma was talking and laughing with the other seventh grade girls. The next day, she began raising her hand in discussions. When it was time for the girls to run their own discussions, Emma convinced her group to return to the topic of girl bullying. She served as the moderator. Then, standing before over 30 people, Emma told the other girls exactly what had happened to her.*
Moments like this are why summer camp changes girls’ lives. During the year, school is a place of permanence and caution; a single mistake can follow you for months. Camp offers a thrilling mix of something new and temporary, creating the perfect recipe for healthy risk taking.
Camp is also a place where girls can meet trustworthy young adults. Emma needed to go to camp to find the adult who could hear her story. At GLI, we’ve had countless girls like Emma knocking tentatively on the doors of counselors after lights out. For girls who don’t have an older sibling or trusted adult, camp is a place to be seen and heard in powerful ways.
Perhaps most importantly, camp helps girls live a lesson many adults are trying desperately to teach. When girls are trapped in toxic friendships, we beg them to see they deserve more. We plead and bargain, coaxing them to sit at a new lunch table, confront the offending friend. Most of the time, girls demur.
Camp gives girls a chance to live a new kind of friendship, one where they get what they truly deserve. Once girls feel what it’s like to be treated well – and know, in their bones, that they deserve it — they carry that knowledge home along with leftover care packages and crafts projects. It’s a lesson no words from an adult will ever match.
I confess that it took me a long time to realize this. I used to think it was my workshops at camp that left the biggest impact. One night, listening to campers talk about how GLI had changed them, it hit me.
“I feel like I can just be my wild crazy self and no one cares,” one girl said.
“People love me for who I am here. No one judges,” said another.
I finally understood why GLI – and indeed, any worthy summer program – truly change girls’ lives. It’s the relationships.
* This story is adapted from Odd Girl Speaks Out.