As I said, the camp was ah-mazing. Our first half-day at camp was pretty chill. Of course everything in Panama is pretty chill. We basically spent the day hanging out with the campers, settling into our cabins, and getting to know camp. That first day was only seven hours long, but to me, it seemed like the longest day of camp. I think what made that day so long is that it was a little overwhelming to be thrown into camp and surrounded by my six Spanish speaking campers and my (mostly) Spanish speaking counselor. I remember sitting there at dinner the first night, positively dumfounded and clueless. I would consider myself to have a above average Spanish speaking skills, but certainly not fluent. All the same, as I sat there trying to listen to their conversation, all I could pick up were bits and pieces that when I put them together made no sense at all. "Yes, I like milk." "Haha, she said that?" "I" "time" "you" "fun" "music". That's certainly not a full conversation....
All the same, it didn't take too terribly long for me to get a rhythm with the girls. My co-counselor's name was Ilian and she was a God-send, in the truest sense of the phrase. Together, we had six 13 year old girls in our cabin: Angela, Samira, Alaneth, Dana, Madi, and Natalia. They were all such sweet girls, each uniquely crafted with the most incredible personalities. Ilian spoke a fair amount of English, so she could translate when it was necessary, which wasn't often. The truth is, I didn't really need to know what we were doing. I would just follow the girls along whenever they got up to go somewhere. The primary purpose of my being there was to train and encourage Ilian herself, not to counsel the girls. Of course, that was just kind of second nature, but there's only so much counseling you can do when there's a language barrier. Honestly, I'm glad Ilian didn't translate every conversation she and the girls had. I really was content to watch them and their natural dynamic and just pick up on whatever I could.
Something you should know about Panamanian camp is that their mode of operation is "let's pack the day jam full of activities, but not keep to the schedule." Crazy. And they really did. Our days started as early as 5 am and went until about 10 or 11. These guys liked to go full on blitz, and yet they were so casual about time. I still don't understand how it happened, but we would start every morning behind schedule and we would end the day on time, having accomplished everything on the schedule, without sacrificing any activities. I literally don't understand how they did it. It was such a strange mix between ambitious over-planning and a relaxed laid back pace. To give you a snapshot of our days, here is what a typical schedule looked like
5-7am: Wake up, and morning activity (depending on the day. One day we had aerobics at 6 am. Another day we went and had worship/breakfast on the beach as the sun was rising at 5:30)
7-8 am : Breakfast
8 am -12 pm : some combination of Bible Study, group activity/game, snack, and cabin time
12 pm: lunch
1-2 pm: cabin time (essentially hang out with your cabin anywhere around camp. For us, this usually meant playing soccer or watching soccer.)
2-3 pm: activity classes (coreography, martial arts, kitchen, art, stage makeup, or archery.)
3:30-6 pm: pool/beach time
6 pm: dinner
7-10/11 pm: club (worship), a talk (on certain nights), evening activity, snack, and cabin time
So, needless to say, our days were full. We were at camp for a total of five days and four nights. As I mentioned before, that first day was a little rough, what with being immersed in Spanish speakers with no English outlet. The second day was definitely more comfortable, but it wasn't until the third and fourth days that I felt I was really meshing with my girls. Those last two days were a blast.
Now, because I can't think of another way to present this, I'm going to give you some of the big highlights from camp:
As you can imagine, one of the highlights of my time at camp was the sunrise on the beach. That was the morning of our third day at camp when we popped out of bed at 5am so we could get to the beach by 5:30. When we got there, it was still pitch dark, dark enough that you could see the velvet black sky and all of the stars. We sat in a big circle and sang worship songs, or for us English speakers we hummed worship songs. We listened to a talk from Fey, the incredible program director, and then broke to eat our breakfast and watch the day break over the ocean. Talk about a once in a lifetime experience. Truly breathtaking.
Our other early morning was when we got up for 6 am aerobics, led by the ever energetic Rossana. It started out as your typical lunges and jumping type of aerobics, and then every so slowly morphed into combat and self defense. Y'all. I didn't know what to do with myself! I was laughing so hard I could barely keep up with the moves Rossana was showing us! It was awesome.
My token funny story that I took away from camp happened on our fourth day at camp. With a chunk of time in the morning, we got to play a station game with our cabin. We had been told to wear tennis shoes for running and clothes we could get a little bit messy (just flour and water). Most of the stations were pretty typical: crawling through a spider web, walking across a log, reflecting of what we learned that week, playing charades, etc. As it turns out, the reason we were supposed to wear "messy" clothes wasn't for the little bit of flour and water we had sprinkled on us at the beginning of the game. Oh no. It was for the army mud crawl we did at our second to last station. I mean guys. A straight up army crawl through the mud, for like 30 feet. As we ran up to the station, I asked the counselor running it "You're kidding, right?" He smiled and showed me his bucket of water and just laughed. He wasn't kidding. I mean in the end it was a lot of fun, I was just in such disbelief. Those Panamanians, they really liked to go all out!
One evening, we had a bonfire night. All of the American's first thoughts were "A bonfire? In the 90 degree weather? They're kidding, right?" ...They weren't... But it actually turned out to be a really precious time with our campers. We gathered around the bonfire, the smoke trailing up to the sky, escaping through a gap in the palm trees. Despite the generally warm weather, I found the fire to be cozy, maybe because it was just so familiar. And you can't really help but be cozy when you're at a camp in front of a fire, no matter what the temperature is. Our leaders, Barrett and Jesse were in charge of presenting the talk for that night. They did some really cool introductory activities and told a couple of great anecdotes, but what I really loved was the story they read. Jesse read the story of Adam and Eve being cast out of the Garden of Eden, and he read it from the Jesus Storybook Bible. I don't know if I have mentioned that book before, but at camp, every night we would read a story from it to our campers. It puts Bible stories into a uniquely simple yet impactful composition. It is innocently poetic. No matter if your 6, 26, or 86, listening to a story from that book makes you feel like you're back in Sunday School or in your parent's lap hearing about it for the first time; learning about God's great love and power for the first time; realizing for the first time just how big he is. It's a really cool feeling. It was beautiful to watch as Jesse read the story in English and one of our team members, Carlos, translated it to Spanish.
What was also really significant about that night was the attention that the campers gave to Jesse and Carlos as they told the story. It was typical for the campers to talk loudly and not pay attention when someone was trying to address the group, or for them to wander off and do their own thing. There isn't really an obligation to listen or show "common courtesy" to a speaker, as us Americans would call it. Which isn't bad, it's just because it's a different culture. But that night, once Jesse and Carlos started reading, the kids didn't make a sound. They didn't talk, they didn't shout, they didn't whisper, they didn't even mime at each other. I had never seen them so attentive and I wouldn't see them that attentive again during my time at camp. I like to think that it was because they all had the same feeling that I did, of sitting at someone's feet, hearing this story for the first time, through the ears of a child. I came to find out later that the eight or so members of our team who were on p-staff were sitting just over the hedge beyond the bonfire, praying during the entirety of the talk: praying for effectiveness, for understanding, for focus, for impact. What a cool and impactful picture of the power of prayer.
On our last night at camp, Pedro (the head pastor of the church) took us all down to the beach for the Gospel talk and for reflection about our time at camp. It was a neat time to hear Pedro present the Gospel, and he did it in a unique way that I don't think I had heard before. (Of course, I didn't understand the entirety of what he was saying, just bits and pieces.) Throughout our time on the beach that night, we sent off three lanterns (like the kind they have in the movie Tangled) to float away over the ocean. It was really cool to see that in person and watch it blend in with the stars and finally disappear into the blackness. After the talk and the lanterns, we were given a time with our cabins to just pray: to pray thanks over the week we had had at camp together and to pray blessings over the time ahead of us as we returned to Panama City. I loved this time, absolutely loved it.
Now, the last highlight I'm going to give you happened on the morning of our last day of camp. Through our five days there, we had been given a "secret friend" who was another staffer or volunteer at the camp. This secret friend could be Panamanian or American. Our job was to send them notes and little gifts once a day, to uplift and encourage them. It was wonderful throughout the week to both receive those encouragements and to send encouragement to another staffer. So on the last day of camp, we had to reveal who our secret friend was. Now, us Americans, being conscious of time, probably would have just gone around the circle and said "My secret friend is..." but the Panamanians saw it as an opportunity to build up their brothers and sisters in Christ. So instead of just listing off names, we spent time telling the group about what we saw in our secret friend. We got to talk about how the person was glorifying the Lord, what stood out about them during the week, and the great work they were doing in the camp. Now that was cool. It was precious to listen to each person encourage their secret friend and build them up amongst our community of staffers. I just love how the Panamanians were able to take this time to turn something potentially simple into such a joy-giving time of community and friendship.
That's basicially a good picture of our time at camp. After we left camp on Friday, we did a homestay on Friday night, which was really fun. I stayed at a girl named Charlene's house with two other girls, and then two more of our team members came and spent the night with their hostess, as well as a few other volunteers from the camp. So it was basically like one big Panamanian/American slumber party. SO much fun. Saturday was spent relaxing, hanging out, and de-briefing with our team. And Saturday night, the Panamanians threw a huge party at the church. All of the counselors/volunteers were there and even some of the campers. It was a really tender night, hearing stories from Panamanian staffers who had worked with the program for all three years that our camp had been partnering with them. We also had dinner, some good worship time, sweet reflection time, and even got to watch some traditional Panamanian dance, which was quickly followed with some of our own traditional dances: Scatman, Wobble, Chainsaw, and more.
I definitely shed some tears that night, saying goodbye to our friends. It had all gone so quickly, in such a whirlwind and it was just so suddenly over. It was Saturday night, the party had ended, and we were leaving as early as the sun the next morning. And before I knew it, I was back on American soil, spending one night with my family, flying back to school, and sitting in a class a short 48 hours later. It was crazy how quickly it ended and out rapidly my surroundings changed. I sat and talked with Beth for a while when I got back to my apartment, really weighed down by how quickly my environment had changed and trying to process it all.
But the sweetest thing about the end was that my first night back at school, only a day after saying goodbye to my Panamanian friends, Beth gave me this precious watercolor of the beloved country I had just left. I cried when she gave it to me, and I'm tearing up as I write this now. It was such perfect timing, such a simple gift, and an insurpassable token of remembrance of all that God did and is still doing in that wonderful country. It's been sitting on my bedside table ever since, so every morning when I wake up and every night when I go to sleep, I'm reminded of my brothers and sisters in Christ in Panama, the work they are doing, and all they taught me. What a blessing.