One Heartland: Life-changing experiences for the kids who need it most

This past summer, I had the joy of working as a camp counselor at One Heartland in Willow River, Minnesota. One Heartland is a place where youth facing social isolation and/or health challenges can come together with others facing similar situations, and just be kids. One Heartland truly is a special place that I have come to love with all my heart. It is a place where campers and staff alike experience acceptance, love, laughter, pure happiness, sing silly songs, wear goofy costumes, and create life-long friendships. One Heartland’s motto is to “provide life-changing experiences to the kids who need it most,” but it was also a life-changing experience for me. Working at One Heartland was one of the best and most transformational experiences of my life.

During my time at One Heartland, I became more confident as a leader. I am now more comfortable in leadership roles and speaking in front of groups of people. My time at camp also allowed me to become more knowledgeable and have a better understanding of diversity. I am more likely to acknowledge and appreciate diversity and to advocate for diversity when needed. My experience also changed the way I view the world. I am more appreciative of life and the people around me, and I better understand the importance of verbally expressing that appreciation. Being at camp also gave me a better understanding of my career and life goals. I now have a clearer idea of my passions and purpose in life.

Being a camp counselor at One Heartland completely transformed my abilities as a leader. Every day at camp, I was expected to be responsible for a group of up to 8 children. I had to ensure that they were both physically and emotionally safe, and that they were having fun. It was a lot of responsibility and it took some time to get used to. I had to know where my campers were at all times and I had to make decisions about the safety and well-being of my campers very quickly. I was also responsible for leading a variety of different skills and activities each day. I had to plan the activity ahead of time, lead the activity, and manage camper behaviors during the activity. There were also times when I had to lead my coworkers when planning a program, delegating tasks and ensuring that they were done. These experiences leading both campers and my co-workers have made me much more confident in my leadership abilities. I feel more prepared to lead in any situation, now that I have had extensive experience. I have seen this change in my daily life as I am more comfortable when speaking in front of groups of people and sharing my ideas, such as when in class.

At camp, I experienced diversity on a level that I had never before encountered. I worked with populations of youth that I never expected to specifically work with. One Heartland offers camp sessions for youth facing social isolation and health challenges, such as those infected with or affected by HIV/AIDS, wanting to achieve a healthy lifestyle, living in transitional housing, and members of the LGBTQ+ community. Working with these populations of youth was a great experience and gave me a better understanding of diversity. Interacting with the campers on such personal levels gave me an insight into what many members of their specific populations go through. It gave me a chance to understand their needs and their strengths, and it allowed me to challenge any preconceived notions or biases that I had before this summer. It was an experience that was really invaluable as a future social worker, and as a human being.

My time as a camp counselor changed the way I see the world in so many ways. Working with children and young people who had been through so much in their short lives was truly inspiring. I watched as children who had faced challenges that I can’t even begin to imagine let go of their struggles for the week they were at camp. They were able to look passed their challenges, come out of their shells, and have fun, which was an incredible process to witness. In addition, before every meal at camp, we had something called moment of appreciation, where cabins of campers and their counselors would stand up in front of the entire camp to say something that they appreciated. Throughout the summer I was able to hear children who had been through so much say something about their life that they appreciated. I heard so many say how appreciative they were for their families, friends, and life, and I heard camper after camper express how truly appreciative they were for camp, their fellow campers, and their counselors. Listening to the amount of appreciation that these kids and teens had was so inspiring and has made me much more appreciative of the things in my own life. Another way that camp changed my worldview is that it caused me to be more optimistic. My coworkers were sincerely the kindest, most caring people I have ever met in my life. They gave me so much support and fully accepted me for who I am. I have never felt more loved, accepted, and appreciated than when I was at camp. Being surrounded by these incredible people gave me hope, because I know that they are making just as much of an impact on others as they made on me. I believe the world would genuinely be a better place if everyone experienced the amount of kindness, love, and support that I experienced at camp.

Being a camp counselor at One Heartland also caused me to have a better understanding of my career goals and my passions. I have always known that I want to work with youth throughout my career, but my experiences at camp have cemented and narrowed that focus. I realized that I want to work with diverse populations of children who have experienced challenges, in a setting where they get to momentarily look passed their struggles, just like at camp. I want to help kids be kids and have fun and forget about the stress they normally face. Whether this means I end up back at camp or in a similar setting I’m not sure, but I have a clear picture of what I want to do.

These changes that my STEP project brought about will be very significant for my life. They will have a profound impact on my professional career as a social worker. My increased confidence and leadership abilities will allow me to stand out as a leader in my field and increase my ability to help clients create change in their lives. My appreciation for diversity and the challenging of my biases will help me to be a better social worker. I will be able to help more populations of people by acknowledging our differences and then working together to create change. My professional career will also be more directed in what I want to achieve now that my goals and passions have been made clear. My life itself will also benefit from the changes of my STEP project. I am now more optimistic, hopeful, and appreciative of life, all because of my experience as a camp counselor. One Heartland truly changed my life, and I am so happy and grateful that I could experience the magic of camp thanks to STEP.