Between my junior and senior years of high school, I had the chance to go camping as part of a Summer Leadership Program with the Air Force Junior ROTC class. This was basically a mini bootcamp where we woke up at 4 am, ran a couple of miles, tackled the obstacle course and then ventured out into the woods to learn more about teamwork, leadership and friendship. For a group of teenagers, this journey outside of the normal routine was exhilarating in so many ways. Camping is truly an experience where students learn lessons and forge bonds that cannot be obtained in a classroom.
In Summer Leadership School, or SLS for short, we had the chance to go from one Air Force base campground to another, camping out in the woods along the way. Traveling with our classmates from one campsite to another brought about many sing-alongs, marching cadences and push-up competitions in the bus aisle. We visited one campsite in South Carolina that was right by the ocean. There, we spent our mornings watching the sunrise on the beach and then out in the water learning how to surf and sail. Later in the evenings, we learned how to build a fire and scavenge for edible berries and mushrooms with the help of our guidebooks. We traversed deeper into the South Carolina woods, where we could scope out the native wildlife, including snakes, frogs and birds. We filled our iPods with the sounds made by the different animals, so we could learn to recognize their calls. I still remember the first snake I picked up from one of the cotton fields, a real cottonmouth! This species of pit viper is poisonous and very dangerous, but I grabbed the slimy, scaly creature like it was a rope and I was playing tug of war.
Why would a little 100 lb. girl with no intention of joining the Air Force endure the intense physical demands of SLS? Because of the incredible opportunity to experience camping and exploring the wilderness with my peers. I started SLS as a shy and quiet girl with one friend. I left with a new family and the courage to make myself heard. Not only did the campers learn to depend on each other, we actually trusted each other with our lives. We helped one another make it through freezing nights camping by the beach and taught each other about poisonous mushrooms, berries and snakes. I don’t recall the names of all the frogs and I still can’t stand up on a surfboard, but certain sensations are permanently etched in my memory. I remember the feeling when I held a frog, and it jumped off my hands and onto my head. I remember the bright yellow mushrooms that grow on the feet of old trees and taste just like chicken. It has been many years since that summer and, not only do I cherish the memories made with friends, my teachers from that trip have become lifelong mentors. My camping adventure was truly unforgettable, one that every youth should have the chance to experience for his or herself.