How My Twice Exceptional Teen Became a Happy Camper

How My Twice Exceptional Teen Became a Happy Camper

A mom recently wrote about her son Fen’s experience at camp. He’s been coming to OTC for the past five years. Fen is one of the most original, interesting and hilarious campers who has come to camp. He’s not always the easiest and when he first came to camp he seemed to want to go home on a pretty regular basis, but I’m glad he stayed because he’s made our camp better every summer.

Fen’s mom says our camp is perfect for a 2e kid. While I’m not an expert on twice-exceptional people, the teens who have come to camp whose parents have told me are “twice-exceptional” have done really well. I was struck when Fen’s mom  wrote, “most camps are designed to produce an outcome. He needed freedom.” I think the only outcome we ever shoot for at camp is to help kids be themselves, have fun, maybe even find a little joy and laughter.

 

“OTC was a refuge for our twice exceptional son”

I don’t really know how to explain the refuge that Odyssey Teen Camp is for our twice exceptional son. Don’t get me wrong, he’s a smart kid and makes his way in life, but it’s a rough path with lots of bumps in the road. If you know and love a 2e kid, you know they aren’t typical. They don’t fit easily into the categories of special ed, gifted ed or gen ed. Unless you’re lucky enough to have them in a school made for this population, you know they spend a great majority of their time in school and activities making it work, being a round peg in a square hole.

At OTC, our 2e child fit perfectly by just being who he is, and the gift that is to him and our family is hard to articulate.

“Most camps are designed to produce an outcome”

Let me start by telling you we’d tried a variety of camps for him over the years. He’s attended sleepover, day, sports, comedy and drama camps as well as after school classes.. Results varied, but the theme throughout was typically a forced experience our kid endured. Most camps are designed to produce an outcome; a better athlete, actor or computer skills. These are great for many kids, but ours had a hard time in these more rigid organized environments that focus on a skill. So much of a 2e kid’s life is work, he needed freedom. He also typically struggled in social settings because intricacies of a group dynamic could overwhelm him. He needed a place he could be completely authentic, to proudly be his quirky unconventional self with no judgement. If past experience proved true for us, that seemed unlikely.

“it’s a place full of quirky kids”

The summer before our son went to high school, his college-aged sister mentioned a summer camp her friend had attended and worked at for many years. She thought it would be a good fit for her little brother. “Mom,” she said, “it’s a place full of quirky kids.” She told me it wasn’t therapeutic, not themed or skills based and not intentionally for 2e kids… just a place where differences were celebrated, judgement was non-existent and kids were told to be “exactly who they are.”

If you’re the parent of a twice exceptional kid like me, you might be as skeptical as I was. Be exactly who they are isn’t something you’re used to hearing. Raising a 2e kid means a lot of time spent listening to the ways your child is the squeaky wheel and all the ways your child can adjust their true selves to fit into school, enrichment programs, teams, etc. To think there’s a place where they can just “be” seems suspect. I needed to investigate.

I called my daughter’s friend. She knew our son and wholeheartedly thought he’d love OTC. When I said that I didn’t think he’d like a full day of activities, she mentioned an afternoon class she’d taught called Cloud Watching because she said, “some kids need to lay on the lawn and stare at the sky for an hour.” I mentioned he sometimes had trouble maneuvering social situations, she assured me this was rarely an issue at OTC for any kid.

“I called OTC’s director… I held nothing back”

I called Adam Simon, OTC’s director. I honestly described the ins and outs of our son’s personality. His intensities, overexcitabilities, and anxiety. His disabling fear of insects and propensity for only eating peanut butter related food. I said he could be argumentative, anxious, stubborn and inflexible. I also shared his humor, kindness, wit and ability to speak with boundless passion about subjects he cherished. I held nothing back. As the phone call came to an end I waited to hear what I had been conditioned to hear, pause and hesitation. I waited to hear the ways this “might” work or that this probably would be a challenge, or a flat out no. But, if memory serves me Adam barely skipped a beat and said he couldn’t wait to meet our son. We signed him up.

I don’t know how Adam and his amazing staff manage to unite and empower a diverse group of teens who by the end of camp seem to radiate connection and happiness. OTC is, in my opinion, a rare opportunity for teens in our culture. A place where nothing more is required than to be real, be good and just be. Don’t get me wrong, there seems to be plenty of opportunity to learn some cool skills and there are plenty of activities, it’s just that the main focus is on being a kid, not planning for college or adulthood. OTC campers fully embrace the moment that is being a teenager, the opportunity to be totally goofy, filled with energetic emotion, and completely real.

“He got to be exactly who he is, and that, for a 2e kid is a unique & beautiful thing.”

At OTC our guy swims in all of his clothes, takes classes on things like Yoga, Food & Music and Protesting. He does stand up comedy and had a plastic skeleton for a cabin-mate. He got totally homesick, wanted to leave and was encouraged and reassured to stay by his amazing pod leaders. He was appreciated and encouraged by camp staff to grow as a person, conquer his fears and try new things. He acted weird, dressed like a banana, sang songs, made friends, and most importantly felt completely included in a community where everyone is celebrated. He got to be exactly who he is, and that, for a 2e kid is a unique & beautiful thing.

Find out about Odyssey Teen Camp

A great place for teens to be exactly who they are in a community that celebrates diversity. 

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What Makes a Great Camp Counselor?

What Makes a Great Camp Counselor?

 

My friend Neil and I were talking about camp the other day and he said that when he was looking for a camp for his son years ago he only got to meet the camp Directors. While it may have been somewhat helpful, he knew that ultimately it would be his son’s counselors who were going to really  impact his son’s experience at camp.

What my friend said is true. As Director of Odyssey Teen Camp, I try my best to hire the forty or so most caring, mature, responsible, intelligent, kind, and fun people that I can. Then we come together for a week before the campers arrive to create a community based on kindness, inclusion, safety, cooperation, vulnerability, trust, and fun, which we can model for every teen who comes to camp.

“Ultimately our mission is to bombard every teen who comes with loving kindness.”

A camp counselor’s job is not easy. The days are long. At Odyssey, counselors not only have the job of creating a great culture in their cabin, they also lead all of our camp activities. For most counselors just getting to camp is not that easy and they have to arrange their lives to come and work in the Berkshires for five weeks for very little money.

Why do they do it?

They come work at camp because they want to help teenagers have fun and feel good about themselves. They know how confusing and hard it felt for them when they were teenagers to feel good about themselves and their world.

Many of them have an idea for the kind of support they could have used from someone who was maybe a few years older to help them navigate their way through middle and high school more gracefully, (and maybe even with more of a sense of humor). They very much want to be that person for our campers.

You would think it would be hard for a young person in their twenties to put their own needs on the back burner for five weeks and to make the needs of their campers their number one priority, but you would be surprised how many counselors do exactly that every summer.

Support is key

During staff training we try to give the counselors skills and tools that will help them be great counselors. We bring in some therapists who are great at helping teenagers, but ultimately staff training really starts the day the campers come. While camp is in session, we have an experienced team of therapists and leaders who help the counselors deal with whatever is coming up for their campers and often for themselves.

We all have things we need to figure out and ways we need to grow and that is certainly true of the young people who come to work at camp, but I am always amazed and grateful to see how good they are at a very tough job.

Sage advice from a veteran director

When I started camp an older Director told me that …

“The counselors are there for the kids and the Director is there for the counselor.”

At the time, I thought not me, I’m going to be there for everyone, and while I try my best and I do get to know certain campers better than others, he was right, the counselors play a key role in the campers’ experience.

The paradox

It’s hard to put into words what makes a great counselor. Sometimes I think that I know exactly what someone will be like as a counselor when I hire him, but the truth is that is not always the case. I think there is a paradox to most every quality in being a great camp counselor.

A counselor has to be willing to make the teens their number one priority, but they also have to take care of themselves sometimes so they do not get overly stressed or have “burnout.”

A counselor has to be hyper vigilant about camp rules and the safety of everyone at camp, but they also need to be able to relax and let some things slide.

A counselor needs to take the concerns of their campers very seriously, but they also need to not get too caught up in the drama that comes with the territory of working at a camp with 180 teenagers.

A counselor needs to plan for their activities and also know that things change all the time and they need to be flexible enough to go with the flow.

A counselor needs to want to help every teenager who comes to camp, and understand that they have their own limitations and will not always be able to reach every camper as well as they would like.

A great counselor needs to walk that fine line between being both a friend and support for their campers, while also being an authority presence who is ultimately in charge of each campers’ well being.

You can see why it is a difficult job. I feel grateful that so many young people want to take that challenge and come be counselors at camp. Ultimately I hire those people who I believe have the highest intentions, knowing that we will all have our challenges along the way, but those intentions can carry us a long way and help a lot of teenagers to have life changing experiences at camp.

Find out about Odyssey Teen Camp

A great place for teens to be exactly who they are in a community that celebrates diversity. 

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Veteran Camper Turned Counselor Reflects on 15yrs at OTC

Veteran Camper Turned Counselor Reflects on 15yrs at OTC

Georgios Tsangaris

Georgios Tsangaris

Adam Simon on “the Georgios effect”

One of the highlights of going to camp for me is getting to work with Georgios Tsangaris. Georgios came to camp when he was 15 for our first summer, and now he’s 31. He has only missed two years of camp during those sixteen years.

Georgios knows our camp culture as well as anyone because he created so much of it. At camp he is what we call a pod leader, (other camps might call it a division head), for the 15 and 16 year old boys. He brings so much heart, patience, humor, honesty, fun, and originality to everything he does. I asked him if he would write something to tell people what OTC is all about. Here’s how he describes our camp.

From the eyes of Georgios Tsangaris

Georgios Tsangaris

Georgios at 15

“At Odyssey Teen Camp we are a temporary intentional community, organized around making teens feel safe and supported as they experiment with new ideas, challenge their own assumptions, and make new friendships.

The staff and programming at Odyssey Teen Camp is eclectic and changes a little every year, but the mission of camp remains the same: OTC creates a space that temporarily ends and challenges the uglier parts of life: judgement, bullying, materialism, and division, to name a few.

Almost all teenagers can thrive in an environment that discourages judgement and encourages sincerity. It’s pretty common for a sporty and popular high schooler to come to OTC and open up like never before, make lots of friends, play a lot, and grow as a person. Lots of teens who feel trapped in playing the game of being cool and popular blossom in a situation where those social expectations and rules are suspended.

But often the teens that get the most out of camp are the kind that don’t quite fit in at school, the teens that are too weird to be popular, the teens whose fashion choices seem bizarre (but will probably be trendy in 10 years), the teens that are already searching for something more fulfilling than just an ordinary life.

There are a lot of unhealthy ways that teenage rebellion and experimentation can be directed – here at camp we focus on channeling that energy in positive directions. We foster a sense of community that honors every kind of camper. At OTC friendships develop between different kinds of teens that would almost never interact in a normal high school social scene.”

Find out about Odyssey Teen Camp

A great place for teens to be exactly who they are in a community that celebrates diversity. 

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Come play with us this summer. Join Georgios, and the hundreds of young people who call Odyssey Teen Camp “home” for part of the summer, register now while space is available.

Passionately Becoming True to Ourselves at Summer Camp

Passionately Becoming True to Ourselves at Summer Camp

The following post comes from Phoebe, a current camp counselor, that she wrote about attending Odyssey Teen Camp as a teen. Phoebe’s passion for our loving community shines through here in a way that’s different from the typical posts we share on our blog, and we thought it’d be really valuable to re-share with you. Enjoy!

Phoebe’s Take on Odyssey Teen Camp

“Odyssey Teen Camp is fantasy football, but a little less jockey. I don’t know much about sports, but I am vaguely familiar with the concept of fantasy football. I believe that this is what Odyssey Teen Camp is. It’s a collective of just these superhumans coming together to create this amazing and forceful atmosphere. All these people across America, some from lame suburbia to the complexities of New York City and even across the globe all come together, and together we create a team of humans that’s unlike anything you’ll ever experience.

The kind of people that attract Odyssey Teen Camp, if you come from a small town like me, at best, you could find 2 to 3 in your hometown. However at camp together it’s a population of 200 spectacular humans all bringing something different to the table. We are all so different but all have the same goal in mind, and we just produce this amazing flowing energy of creativity, self-authenticity, and unapologetic self-expression. I think that is what makes the environment so special.

You come into camp, no one knows your backstory, social standing in your high school, or even your last name. I think the anonymity that presents itself towards the campers is what allows us to so passionately become true to ourselves, and for a lot of cases for the first time in our lives. It’s the first time we have this place of just complete radical self-acceptance and once we enter the woods and strip ourselves from the outside world, and judgments, and even cell phones this new mindset just enters so naturally. For 11 months of the year, we are all so inclined to harbor these true emotions or ideas but at Odyssey Teen Camp you are released of any hesitations and have so many crazy opportunities to learn, whether it’s a funky new skill or something about yourself.

One of the most gratifying experiences at Odyssey Teen Camp is just taking a step back and looking at the community itself. You can look into the field and see such a broad spectrum of different of people coexisting so freely. The energy and lovingness this space creates are just so satisfying. A lot of times on the subject of leaving camp the word ‘reality’ often shows up in the conversation, as if this little bubble of utopia is just this synchronized dream a couple of hundred teenagers are experiencing at the same time. What we do and experience at Odyssey Teen Camp is completely real and valid. We made this amazing inclusive environment of just pure joy and simpleness just because we decided to, and that is truly spectacular.”

Superhumans come together at camp

Phoebe’s palpable passion is such a fantastic example of the type of young person that makes our teen camp such a special place to be. By gathering a group of like-minded teens together, we really are able to break down the barriers that define us and open ourselves up to something larger.

So, what do you say? Are you ready to come and be a super-human with us? Are you ready to leave behind the person you might be being for someone else, and dig deeper into who you really are? And, better yet, actually get to BE that person free of judgment?

If so, we’d love to see you this summer. We have some Open Houses coming up this Spring where you can come meet teen camp staff and campers.

Or, if you’re already convinced, you can just go ahead and get registered now.

We can’t wait to see you this summer!

Find out about Odyssey Teen Camp

A great place for teens to be exactly who they are in a community that celebrates diversity. 

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What’s It Like to Run a Summer Camp with Many Transgender and Gender-Expansive Teens?

What’s It Like to Run a Summer Camp with Many Transgender and Gender-Expansive Teens?

Friends at Odyssey Teen Camp

Twenty years ago I was a middle-aged guy with a corporate job that never felt like a good fit for me. Today, I run an unconventional summer camp where up to one in four teens identifies as transgender or gender non-conforming. The journey has been an unexpected one.

An idea of a camp for teens

In 2002, I started Odyssey Teen Camp as kind of a hippie camp for teens. At first, maybe it was more the staff that were hippies and the campers were typical creative, insecure, sensitive, confused, and wonderful teenagers. I knew nothing about gender pronouns and, if you were to ask me then, I’d probably have said that I thought there were boys or girls and that it was biological.

Shortly before I started camp I was floating around searching for something that would give my life purpose. I was in a men’s support group and, one day, I asked the members, when did they first became so stuck in their anger and sadness? Most of them replied that it started when they were teenagers. I was suddenly struck with an idea: I should spend my time starting a camp for teenage boys. I thought perhaps I could create a place where they could feel safe, free, and encouraged to show their best self. I came up with a catchy tagline, “A great place to be exactly who you are,” rented a space, and we were off.

Watching camp grow

I was plenty naive, knew very little about teenagers and even less about running a camp (you know, Board of Health type stuff). But the kids came and kept coming, and now, nearly two decades later, it’s been a wonderful ride. Naturally, since the day we opened, my original vision of a camp for boys has been replaced with a camp that is 65% girls. I’m not sure what made me think all these boys would be flocking to a camp that featured yoga, dance, and art.

Our staff has always been made up of plenty of people who identify as genderqueer and, within the last few years, more and more teenagers who are coming to camp are uncomfortable and unwilling to be put in a gender box. They are determined to come up with the gender that feels best to them: their true gender self.

At camp, these young people have been able to create a safe new world for themselves, where the judgment and bias they often experience in the real world doesn’t exist, at least for a few weeks. While we offer typical camp activities like art, dance, sports, music, nature, swimming, and boating, there are also many unique Odyssey activities like firewalking, trance dances, sacred geometry, political discussion groups, tarot, henna, and hip-hop appreciation classes.

Creating space for gender-questioning kids

Over time, things at camp have changed. One weekend each summer used to feature a boys and girls day, where we would separate by gender. That stopped making sense for us a few years ago, and now we have a third group for teens who are more comfortable with a gender-expansive group.

I’m not exactly sure what made our camp attractive to so many transgender or gender-questioning teens, but I think it has been a great thing and that they add so much fun, kindness, creativity, vulnerability, and leadership to our community. I am continuously learning how we can best support the LGBTQ+ teen at camp. I am learning that gender stuff is complicated and that a person’s gender is a weaving together of nature, nurture, and culture. I am learning that an individual’s true gender identity has nothing to do with biology and everything to do with what is between their ears.

I’m happy we can create a space for everyone at Odyssey, particularly gender-expansive teenagers. Housing can sometimes feel a little tricky but we work hard to put everyone in a cabin that feels right to them, and despite the fact that we are living in close quarters we are conscious of the needs for privacy when changing, showering, etc.

Showing teens that they are not alone

I think a big source of healing for gender creative teens at camp comes from being with slightly older counselors, many of whom themselves are transgender or identify as genderqueer, and who have lived through a lot of the same feelings these teenagers have. They are kind, loving, empathetic role models who show the younger campers they can live full, rich, and exciting lives as whichever gender feels true to them. It is also helpful for these teenagers to be with other kids their own age who may be sharing similar thoughts, feelings, and experiences. Campers recognize they are not alone, and teenagers in particular benefit from connection and friendship with their peers.

Ultimately, supporting all the transgender and gender creative teenagers who come to camp is no different from what we’ve tried to do for every teenager for the past eighteen years: give them a place where they can feel seen, loved, accepted, respected, and honored for exactly who they are.

Find out about Odyssey Teen Camp

A great place for teens to be exactly who they are in a community that celebrates diversity. 

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Let the Little Moments Happen – Staff Culture at Odyssey

Let the Little Moments Happen – Staff Culture at Odyssey

Camper and counselor smiling at the camera at Odyssey Teen Camp

This blog post comes from one of our first-time counselors, Allie. While Allie had many years of camp experience, this was her first time at Odyssey Teen Camp—and as she describes, it totally changed her view of what camp could really be for campers and staff alike.

“At first, I didn’t know what to think. I was 22 years old, working at a summer camp that I had never been to before, with activities that I’ve never even heard of. Sure, I had plenty of camp experience, I grew up at camps, and worked at camps, and dreamed of having my own camp. I was a camp person. I had the same anxiety that I had every year starting camp. Would people like me? What if I forgot something? Would I make a good counselor? However, I quickly started to notice that everything was set up in a way that made me feel comfortable, and I think the best part was that it was unintentional. This camp is filled with good people, who have built a community of trust. They made me feel comfortable because they made it okay to NOT be comfortable. There was no pressure, there was no judgement, and there was no such thing as being “uncool.” This is a place where it became easy to say, “I just need a moment.”

Early in the summer, I was walking with one of my co-leaders back up to the unit after a long day of canoeing, survival skills, archery, slack-lining, and acro-yoga. I wanted to tell her something I noticed about how OTC had changed my outlook on life – about how I never really knew how big the little moments could be. However, I could tell her mind was busy with how exciting her day had been too. I began speaking anyway, “you know what I noticed…” She took a breath and said in the nicest way, “let’s just decompress for a moment.” We walked back in silence as the excitement of the day swirled in our minds. By the time we made it back to the cabin, I noticed that I had taken in another one of those little, big moments. In the silent walk under the stars at OTC I learned for the first time, at 22 years old, that it’s okay to just “take a moment.”

I remember dancing like a fool at one of the evening dances. I came to the realization that just days prior these people were total strangers, and now all of sudden I had my own jokes and memories with them and I am twirling around on the dance floor like I had just been set free for the first time. I recalled my adolescent years and wondered what I would have thought about this camp 7 years earlier. I decided I would have felt exactly the same. I would have thought that this camp was a place of respite, a place to grow, and a place to be me. It’s a place to see others, and to be seen. It’s a place where little moments are big moments. And in that little, big moment I noticed that regardless of age, background, and aspirations, we aren’t all that different, and yet we are in the best ways possible.

Now I’m back to the “real world,” and I still thank OTC for what it has taught me. Sure, blindfolded rock climbing, playing Magic: The Gathering, and learning how to draw were all awesome experiences. However, it was the little moments that changed me. The moment in between a pool party and a night hike, where I saw my camper make their first friend at camp. The moment between Gaga and an ice cream party, where I learned what vulnerability looks like (which by the way is beautiful). The moment between packing your sleeping bag and driving home after a summer that changed your life, where a camper hugs you and says, “you really helped me.” OTC is a place where the little moments, will rock. your. world. Let the little moments happen.”