- This blog post was written by Ellie Lewis -
I applied to work for a YMCA summer camp my junior year of high school after I didn't get accepted into Summer Ventures, a competitive summer science program in North Carolina for wannabe doctors, engineers and mad scientists. When I got the email that I didn’t make the cut, I walked around my high school feeling like my life had just been derailed from its tracks. However, there were only a few weeks left before summer break, and I had to act quickly if I wanted to set up other arrangements. So, when I applied for summer camp I was still bitter and had a bit of grief, but I knew that I was good with kids and I liked the idea of putting some money in the bank.
I was fortunate enough to be hired within the week.
On the first day of camp, before anything had even started, the head counselors called over the radio and announced that we had already lost a kid. With 100 kids in one space, chaos was everywhere; that message certainly didn't help. Thankfully, the missing camper was just in the wrong group, but from that day on, I was constantly panicked that one of my kids would wander off without me knowing.
Because of this worry, I would sit next to the lifeguard station and count the children's heads over and over and over again whenever we went to the pool (which was every day). For the first few weeks, I’d get lucky if one of the kids would come sit and chat with me, but by the end of the summer, I would have a conversation with one kid on my left side and simultaneously have another conversation with another child on my other side. Sometimes, they'd tell me about their favorite movies and we'd sing "Let It Go" from Frozen. Other times, I'd learn about their families, they favorite subjects in school and their favorite sports teams.
I loved that summer. I sweated off 10 pounds, had mosquito bites everywhere and thought wearing a backward ball cap was cool. I loved those kids, even though they couldn't put water into a bottle without soaking their shirts first or sit still long enough for me to tie their shoes correctly.
When I applied to work my junior year, I was a mess. I was hurt, nervous and angry. But being in the sun with those kids took that pain away. The times we shared were filled with surprise awkward hugs, complaints about the day ending and pleas to hold my backpack and name-tag as we walked through the woods. When I made a new rule, they would listen to it as if Jesus had included it in his 10 Commandments. We would have sweaty dance parties in the morning and even sweatier dance parties in the afternoon. They would rush to sit next to me during lunch and talk to me even though I was paying no attention to what they were saying.
When I go back and visit the YMCA on school breaks, I have to start my conversations with the kids by saying, "I'm Ellie, do you remember me?" Some do, some don't. Some even call me by a different name. My campers were 5 and 6 years old when we met; I don't blame them for not remembering me, but I still remember them fondly. The love they shared with me was invaluable, even though it was sometimes rowdy and reckless. This love was kids cheering my name when I entered a room and a "Happy Birthday" card the size of a billboard sign with dozens of names scribbled inside. It was hands grabbing for candy the minute I opened a bag and hiding in the counselor’s closet for just one more second of air conditioning.
I’m sure I would have learned something cool had I been accepted into the science program, but I wouldn’t be the person who I am today had I not worked at the YMCA.
From those hot and sweaty days at camp, I was inspired to be more outgoing and courageous. So, when my friend Jack Davis came to me with his idea of The Superhero Project nearly a year ago, I immediately joined in. As he spoke, I imagined all of my old campers. I envisioned some of them flying above my head while others lifted cars and threw them at each other. They would have loved being turned into superheroes -- that’s how I saw them.
Seeing Jack’s idea turn into “our idea” and “our idea” turn into a real life non-profit has kept me up late at night, making check-lists until the sun came up. And amidst my lack of sleep, I have become a better version of myself. Similar to those hot days next to the lifeguard station, I have been fortunate to bond with a new group of “campers.” The people that work beside me have shown me patience, faithfulness and grace. It’s a more mature version of that same rowdy and reckless love. And, just like years ago, I wouldn’t be the person I am today without it.
Supported by a Robert E. Bryan Fellowship from the APPLES Service-Learning Program, an offering of the Carolina Center for Public Service at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.