by Casey Keating
I applied to help with an English immersion camp not really knowing anything about it other than that the flyer contained the word, “camp.” Really, that was all I needed to know. I love camping! It turned out I would be helping with one of YMCA Colombia’s Camp ACCESS English immersion programs outside of Pereira. I had no idea what I would be doing, but knew that I was needed in some capacity and that I would be helping a group of jóvenes from as near as Pereira and as far away as Bogotá to practice their English for a few days.
The morning that camp started, I hopped on a bus with a bunch of other young adults I assumed were also camp counselors. (We were all wearing the same Camp ACCESS T-shirt.) They quickly learned that although I had a fair amount of experience working at camps, I had no idea what was going on. They proceeded to enlighten me, explaining roughly what we would be doing. They handed me a short camp manual, which I read on the way to our campsite outside Pereira.
Our “campsite” was similar to the centros recreacionales where we’ve had previous Peace Corps trainings, complete with cabins, sports courts, a dining hall, a pool, and a meeting hall.
As campers began to arrive, I discovered I would be assigned to the “black” group, but since the “orange” group was missing a counselor, I would be responsible for them until the missing counselor finished other duties. These spontaneous assignments happened a lot. I was the fill-in person on staff, so any time someone needed a volunteer to fill gaps, that “volunteer” was inevitably me. Our Peace Corps, “flexible, adaptable, and tolerant,” mantra got me a long way. It was the reason I was placed in a cabin with five girls, asked to help with an English idiom “hangman” game, chosen to lead a game called, “Werewolves,” assigned as the second camp lifeguard, and was covered with mud during one of our activities. In short, camp was amazing! It was run much like camps in the United States, with busy schedules and even crazier camp counselors.
To my surprise, the camp was true English immersion. When someone says, “immersion,” here, I generally assume that while many of the activities will be in English, some will be translated into Spanish for the sake of clarity. Our campers’ level of English was so high that I rarely needed to translate anything into Spanish, even in casual conversation.
The only activities that were conducted in Spanish were counselor meetings. I managed to keep up with the other counselors’ strange “interior” Spanish up until someone tried to explain a game we were to lead that involved pasta, cats, mud, paint, and Chinese people. I’m still not sure where the cats came from, but figuring out that “chinos” meant “pelados” in Pereira helped significantly. Another activity called, “YMCANA,” involved hitting each other with swimming pool noodles covered in paint and rolling around in the mud…in English, of course.
The campers were wonderful and I was thrilled at their willingness to participate fully in strange activities I’m sure they’d never done before. The fact that they were all from “disadvantaged” backgrounds made their skills in English all the more inspiring. We had scavenger hunts, relay races, swimming, sports, discussions, and competitions. We also had a traditional campfire, which was as beautiful as every camp’s fire, and involved wonderfully awkward singing, S’mores, and reflection time. I was excited and amazed to watch campers grow as individuals and as team members so much over three days, in the same way I’ve watched other campers grow at camps in Colombia and the United States. That growth was not just in their English, but involved their growth as people. Their newfound confidence was the most beautiful sight in the Eje Cafetero.
I ended camp on a high note, which says a lot, since every moment of camp was a high note. I spoke with Gloria Morales, the representative from the American Embassy who had contacted Peace Corps to ask for volunteers, and told her what an amazing experience the camp had been for us. I want to thank the embassy for giving me such a service-changing opportunity, and to thank YMCA Colombia for giving so many of the region’s hardworking, brilliant youth ACCESS to English.