During the welcome speech at our first day of training for SUP, our association’s President spoke to us about the job experience we were in store for this summer. Reflecting upon her own experience as a senior counselor for SUP, she described the job as one for the record books, one that could be listed as unforgettable and life changing. She warned us, though, that the journey would not be an easy one and that, only at the end, would we understand that “this summer [would] be the hardest summer [we’d] ever love.”
I truly did not understand then and there what she meant with all of her sentimental statements. I had wanted to study abroad this summer but when that had not worked out, this had been my backup plan. So there I was, sitting sheepishly in the group of eager faces listening to her speech, entirely unsure of what I was supposed to get out of this summer. I had kept an open mind up until this point. I knew earlier that year when going through the application processes that I would need to keep up an optimistic spirit and hope for the best because things don’t usually work out perfectly and according to plan: I could get into my first choice program abroad and still not receive enough funding to go. Sure enough, that is exactly what happened!
How lucky I was that it did though! I had hoped for the best, and God granted me my wish. This truly has been the hardest summer I’ve ever loved. I learned more this summer about who I am and what I want for my future than I think I could have had I studied abroad. This is really all any rising sophomore could ask for in a summer experience, right?… So wrong! More importantly than this, I learned about and had the chance to participate in an incredible community that sits just a few miles down the Charles from Harvard, a community filled with wonderful people who I, and many others, often overlook, a community rich with culture and pride, but in serious need of some attention. I got to live in and get to know the community of Chinatown, most specifically the children who live there. The ones that have such high hopes for their futures but still seek extra resources to help them achieve their goals.
Okay, so here is how SUP works. First of all, SUP stands for Summer Urban Program and is run out of PBHA (the Phillips Brooks House Association) which is the public service networking association run at Harvard. SUP is comprised of 12 summer camps that, in total, serve about 800 inner city youth from the Boston/ Cambridge area. My camp, Chinatown Adventure (or CHAD for short), is stationed in none other than Chinatown and states that its primary mission is to “enrich and improve the quality of life for underprivileged youth in Boston’s Chinatown community” through “developing fundamental social skills, healthy self-identities, high self esteem, cross-cultural awareness, and social consciousness” (taken from CHAD’s webpage on PBHA’s website).
Essentially, CHAD, like most SUP camps, accepts low-income children from different neighborhoods of Boston and provides them with a seven week long academically stimulating yet fun enrichment program at a significantly reduced cost to their parents. This summer, I served as a CHAD senior counselor. I had G1, the youngest and newest age group in the camp. G1 consists of rising second graders (6 and 7 year olds) from across the Chinatown community.
Each day consists of morning academics and an afternoon field trip or extra-curricular enrichment activity. In my classroom, we focused on building math and writing techniques as well as studying a special theme of my choosing: developing healthy minds and healthy bodies within a healthy world. Essentially, we did projects to help build up our self-esteem, then my fellow junior counselors and I taught our students about nutrition & exercise and, finally, a few lessons on the environment. In the afternoon, we took them on a number of different field trips: from the Museum of Science to the ICA to the Children’s Museum to the beach. On Fridays, we divided the classes into club groups, each themed differently and led by a different counselor. I was in charge of the Gardening Club. I know nothing about gardening, but Harvard’s community garden graciously opened their gates to us each Friday to let us learn about and practice gardening.
So what made this the hardest summer I’ve ever loved? Let me share with you a few examples. Towards the end of the summer, academics became a thing of dread and frustration in my classroom. Less for the kids and more for my fellow junior counselors and me. Without fail, the kids would cry out each day: “MEREDITH! This is booooriiing!” “MEREDITH! I don’t waaaaant to!” “MEREDITH! We want freeeee time! You never give us anything fuuuuuun! You are sooooo bossy!” When this happens on a daily basis, it can become pretty exhausting. Girls began to bully each other and throw random crying fits at any given moment throughout the day, including, but not limited to, at breakfast, classroom time, T-stops, public restrooms at the beach, museums…you get the picture. My JCs bore with me through these trying moments and together we maintained patience. We knew that the best part of our jobs came right after these fits of terrorizing the teachers. Our little geniuses would finally quiet themselves down and get to work, proving to us that they could be passionate about school. Secretly, they loved us and loved camp, and in moments of serenity, they would reveal this to us. One of my best moments in the classroom came right after a rough trip to hear a guest speaker give a lecture about his research on the air pollution in Chinatown. I thought this lesson would be a total bust because the material he was teaching was pretty advanced, and the kids had made it known to me that they were so bored. When we returned to the classroom and began to re-describe and discuss what he was talking about, though, it all clicked for them! One girl began to list all the ways we could, ourselves, reduce our carbon footprint and the amount of pollutants we release into the atmosphere. I was so excited by her zeal for the subject, a zeal that proved itself again and again over the course of the next couple of weeks as we focused more on the environment.
Another proud moment occurred when one of my boys began inventing an imaginative story for us to perform at our final show. Of course, he relayed this story in a beautiful but fake British accent which made it all the more fun for the rest of the group! Yet again, my fears of failure were put to rest when one of my struggling campers raced through her problems of double-digit addition and even began to help teach it to the others!
These few moments don’t even begin to fully capture why this was the hardest summer I’ve ever loved. I’ve never had so much responsibility in my life! To be completely in charge of the lives of 10 young ones: to have to come up with daily lesson plans (we were responsible for between 4 and 5 hours of lesson planning a day), to be in charge of transport to and from field trips, to mother them in the moments of upset and injury. It was a lot of work that I had never expected! Nonetheless, tears were certainly streaming down my face on the last day of camp when I had to say goodbye to my kids. I had waltzed in and out of their lives so quickly it seemed! At six/ seven years old, they probably wouldn’t remember me, but I will forever remember each of them!
I learned a lot about myself this summer. I learned what it means to be patient and understanding. As in gardening club, but also in the classroom and other arenas of life: good things can happen if you water the seeds and simply wait. I learned that building relationships takes time, but that time is fully worth it! Oftentimes, we make the biggest impressions on those whom we can come to call friends. Maybe my kids picked up on some of the things they learned in my classroom this summer or on the field trips that we went on, but what they will remember more clearly will be the moments of quiet conversations with their peers or with me. It’s so incredible that in this camp, kids return year after year. They really build lasting friendships this way! The G7 campers had been together for 7 summers, and while they all attended different schools during the year, they were still able to brag about how tight their friendships are with one another.
I will now return to the fact that one of our directors had been a camper, a junior counselor, and a senior counselor. And he is not the first CHAD graduate to do this. One of the other counselors had even been a camper with him not too long ago . Some of the junior counselors had also themselves once been campers. Knowing this, I was able to see the true power behind the creation of a community! This is what SUP is all about: building up communities! I’m so grateful I was able to participate in this project. My impact in Chinatown is zilch compared to the program’s overall impact! But, for me, this was the most rewarding part of my summer, knowing that I had taken part (if only briefly) in something important that was worthwhile to another. If I could have this summer to do over again, I would choose this first every time! It has truly been the hardest summer I’ve ever loved.
I wish I could post pictures of camp for you all to see but, alas, it is against SUP policy. Instead, I will share links that provide you with access to a few photos and more information about what we do. As long-winded as my blog may be, it is not at all complete. I hope you did get a brief taste though of an incredible way to spend your summer in service.
SUP’s official site (pics from 2011)
News story on Harvard gazette highlighting SUP (first picture is of CHAD campers!)
Blog by Gene Corbin about different ways Harvard students have spent their summers doing service. Mine is the least impressive by far, but it just goes to show you what all is out there for you to take part in! There are so many leadership opportunities in the realm of service! (I’m featured at the bottom with four of my campers. Their description of my work kind of embellishes the truth but look at how cute my kids are attempting to learn about paragraph writing!)
Written by yours truly,