On Tuesday, the 15th of December, we came back from another Bridges Camp with 23 participants and 20 facilitators that have received an intensive preparation training from the 4th to the 6th of December. For the sixth time, we brought teenagers from different backgrounds in South Africa together with the wish that they can overcome racial prejudices and be more tolerant with each other. But at this camp, we have realized that this seems to be just one of many lessons that the teenagers learn at our camp. In their feedback, they made us aware what the camps mean to them and there seem to be many positive consequences that we haven’t considered or focused on.

“I love the camp because I am far away from all the problems in my family for a whole week.”

Anonymous – one participant at our camp

“My friends know that I came to this camp because it is a great opportunity – at home, I just sit around at get bored”

Jacques, one of the participants at this camp and shown on the picture

One of our facilitators who has already attended three camps filled out the evaluation form and when he reached the question whether the camp helps him to forget his daily challenges and problems he asked “Can I make a double tick at yes?”. It was especially nice to hear that from him because we had to convince him to come to the camp on the first day because he didn’t want to join us as he felt so embarrassed that he doesn’t have enough proper or clean clothes. One of the teenagers, who has been with us from the first camp and is now a supervisor, also explained to us that to him the main value of the camp is that it allows all participants to forget about life’s hardships. I guess when we take the teenagers to our camps, we often forget about the challenges they face at home. When I was sitting for three hours with one participant telling me about her problems and that the teachers picked her to attend the camp because her father is incredibly violent and seems to insult her without any self control, I became aware that our camp does much more for these youngster than simply teaching them to be more tolerant.

“I love how you take care of us”

Blessing, one of the participants at this camp and shown on the picture

“I have realized that we should not believe others when they tell us that we are inferior or can’t do certain things” Fortunate, one of the supervisors in training

I am often saddened to see how ashamed many of our participants and facilitators are of their backgrounds and lifestyles because they come from disadvantages homes and communities that are shaped by a lack of ressources. When we talk about prejudices and discrimination and reflect critically on power structures in our societies at the camp, the teenagers start to realize that it is neither their own nor their parents fault that they might grow up in poverty and have limited possibilities. I will always remember how one of our facilitators lied to one of his friends from other communities when we dropped him at his home: He said that this is not his place and his mum will fetch him later because he was so embarrassed to admit where he actually lives. I can’t describe how touched and how emotional I was during an activity where all facilitators were asked to give compliments to each other and he actually thanked the very same friend that he came to visit him at his flat at a later stage.

“The teenagers look up to me because I am a facilitator at Bridges Camp”

Lesego, one of the supervisors in training

(on the picture on the left with Fortunate, another supervisor in training)

It is also an interesting phenomenon here in South Africa that we often have the impression that families are coping well and can provide sufficiently for their children, most probably because they try so hard to conceal their financial struggles and save up money to afford little extras every now and then. But then you find out that many parents earn less than 2500 Rand (less than 200€) a month, which is very little in South Africa, and often cry because they wish that their kids could grow up in better homes. This is always a reminder for me how special a week at Bridges Camp is for the teenagers. They might be embarrassed at home but other teenagers look up to them at the camp. They observe many sad things in their communities, such as unemployment, domestic violence or drug addictions but can focus on having fun together in the pool at the camp. They might be discouraged at home but they told us that they have more hope for their future since they joined our programs.

“I just wanted to say that I’ve learned a lot at the camp and i made me realize who I really am. And I finally got a chance to be who I am I’ve done things that I never thought I will do in my life.”

Ashton, one of the participants at this camp and shown on the picture

Many participants actually share this experience and tell us that they didn’t know who they were or what they want before the camp and now found out so many things about themselves that make them proud of themselves and more confident. We involve several activities that aim at increasing the teenager’s self-awareness and confidence at the camp, such as the body sized collages where we encircle the whole body of the teenagers standing in front of a huge sheet of paper and they create a piece of art about themselves afterwards. Putting in their dreams, wished, fears, hopes, strengths, weaknesses, likes and dislikes helps them to become aware of themselves. We also encourage them to look closely at this representation of themselves on a piece of paper and encourage everyone to take responsibility for themselves. We also create plaster masks and they draw the outside in a way representing how people see them and the inside how they really are. They have to choose colors that represent their real selves which challenges them to ask the question who they actually are. I guess the teenagers also start to think about their identity when we tell them that nobody can change their value by judging them – if they don’t allow that to happen.

  

“Now I know so much more about myself and I know who I am. That made me more confident and less shy. Before being at Bridges Camp, I was just completing my duties to finish them but now I always want to perform as good as possible and take new responsibilities to find out how much I can challenge myself.”

Reezan, one of the supervisors in training and shown on the picture on the left with Bernice, helping Bernice, one of the new participants

The camp has also affirmed us in our approach to support teenagers that wish to take responsibility for others and become future leaders, especially because we could witness very interesting group dynamics in one of the activities: On the third day at the camp, we group the teenagers based on the length of their fingernails in two groups: the people with long and the people with short fingernails. We then start to judge the people with short fingernails, telling them that they are less intelligent, skilled and won’t have a future in life. We usually made the experience that the participants in the group with short fingernails will make an effort to defend themselves in the first minutes and then give up. But this time, five of the teenagers fought for their rights until the end of the activity when we reveal that this was just a lie. You wonder what was different this time? Omphile, one of the participants, started to speak up against this injustice and was very confident in challenging these statements. He kept on bringing in good examples why people with short fingernails have to be equally talented and why these statements are illogical. He was so affirmative and unwilling to give up that he motivated four other teenagers to speak up and challenge the facilitators who ran this activity. Several psychological studies, including one of the most influential experiments by Milgram, have indicated that the biggest predictor, whether people will challenge an oppressive or discriminatory system is the presence of another individual that refuse to participate in related activities. These findings are the theoretical foundation for our approach to invest so much in our “facilitator programme” where we try to develop teenagers with such a potential.

Omphile (shown on the picture) actually became a leader who challenged an injustice system in this exercise and this showed us how much an individual can achieve. He has taught us how important it is to support young people who are willing to speak up against injustice and take responsibility for others and motivated us to continue to guide our facilitators to make an impact in their environment. And of course, he has also convinced us to select him as a future facilitator.

This time, we had 20 facilitators, teenagers that have previously attended our camp and were chosen to take responsibility for the new participants and teach them everything they have learned. After selecting the new ones, we now have a team of 32 facilitators that participate in our leadership and social skills trainings. We always try to give each of them new challenges so that they can grow at the camp and experience a sense of pride when they master them. We also hope that they will realize that how fulfilling it can be to care for others and be an important part of a bigger project and cause, such as Bridges Camp, instead of wasting all their potential by using drugs or falling pregnant very early.

“I have also changed my behavior at home, I am much more responsible and take care of my siblings. If I had a child, I would send it to Bridges Camp because they actually teach them to take responsibility.”  Leezan (shown on the picture)

This camp was the first time that none of the supervisors facilitated any of the core activities for the new participants, because the facilitators managed to run them all by themselves and with hardly any assistance. We also promoted four of the facilitators to become “supervisors in training” and they even instructed the participants which rules to follow and organized the morning circle, aerobic classes and art lessons in the evening without our assistance. Whereas the facilitators focused on merely instructing the teenagers in the beginning, they can now successfully debrief activities, lead discussion groups and solve conflicts and problems of the teenagers. Whereas we were surprised how the facilitators took over the camp last time, I realized that we seemed to take that for granted this time even though we had a group of new facilitators and gave the older ones new responsibilities. So consequently, I took some time to congratulate them on their progress and praise them for this hard work. As supervisors at this camp, we focused only on guiding the facilitators and in daily meetings, we prepare them for all their duties and reflect on their personal progress in the evening and in workshops, we equip them with various skills that help them to get to know themselves better and eventually become better role models.

“It is time now. Yes it is time you rest. You taught us and taught us and taught us and now we tell you.” Part of a poem performed by Rose (shown on the picture), one of the supervisors in training, that she dedicated to Juliane, the founder of the camp.

The teenagers were asked how Bridges Camp could be improved and Reezan, one of the supervisors in training, wrote that we should give the facilitators more responsibility. It is great to see that they are actually challenging us now to give them more responsibility and step back ourselves because this was our initial goal and wish when we started the facilitator training. We will gladly listen to this advice and give all of them more responsibility at our huge camp in April next year where we expect up to 120 participants. Besides their usual duties, we will also involve some facilitators in the planning process and make sure that they fully take ownership of the camp and realized that we can only achieve huge things in life if we all take responsibility and lead others.

Thank you so much smiley

Bridges Camp – December 2015

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