By: Kelly Soifer
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” Most Americans will recognize those words from the opening of Dickens’ The Tale of Two Cities, a classic in Western literature and required reading in most high schools. Though this novel profiles the social upheavals of 18th century France and England, this phrase also perfectly summarizes my history with summer camp as a youth worker!
My own best memories of meeting Christ in high school revolve around camp. From a crazy river-rafting weekend in the spring to a weeklong summer camp in the Sierras to working for five weeks at a camp in the Rockies, the foundations of my relationship with Jesus were anchored in Christian camping.
Camp is nearly the best place for a young person to have an encounter with God: getting away from the distractions of home and being surrounded by God’s incredible creation does something amazing.
However, camp is also a time of reckless abandon.
Perfectly responsible students (and adults!) often cast aside their better judgment and do the stupidest things! While much of the damage can be attributed to an adolescent lack of wisdom, part of the reason for these mishaps must rest squarely on the shoulders of the adults in charge.
Poorly conceived and downright moronic games planned by immature recreation directors have been the downfall of my teenagers countless times. The most instructive experience in my career resulted from an incident that occurred due to my greatest camp nemesis: The Night Game.
During Night Games, I tend to hide somewhere and count the minutes until the horn is blown and the game is called. During this infamous event, however, I heard my name being shouted by several voices, and I knew this meant only one thing: Someone from my group had gotten hurt. I scrambled out from my hiding place and ran to the snack bar, where my student, a girl named Andrea, had fallen in a patch of cactus. Her wrist really hurt, but it didn’t look swollen.
The camp medic (someone trained in a short first aid course) was attempting to assess the damage. I knew Andrea well. She was not a drama queen. She looked like she was in a decent amount of pain but was trying to be a good soldier. There seemed to be a spot where a sliver or thorn might have gone in. Andrea told us that she couldn’t squeeze her hand. The “medic” (I use the term loosely) tried to squeeze out the sliver. Andrea teared up. I stepped in.
“Isn’t there a trained medical staff member somewhere at this camp?” I asked.
“The nurse on duty is busy dealing with a broken bone at another part of the camp.”
“I would like a professional to look at her wrist,” I insisted.
“My friend who is visiting for the weekend is in his first year of med school,” the “medic” offered, optimistically.
We took a golf cart down to main camp where the med student was staying. He tried a little more aggressively to get the sliver out. By now Andrea couldn’t close her hand at all. I should mention that she played the piano phenomenally well, and I envisioned that skill going down the drain—and to be honest, me facing the unending wrath of her mother.
The camp staff suggested she take a couple of Advil, go to bed, and see how it felt in the morning. I weighed my own priorities—I was in charge of 75 other campers and counselors. It was midnight. I desperately wanted to go to bed myself. I envisioned staying up all night for what was potentially a sliver and a slight wrist sprain. What to do?
Despite the counsel from the camp staff, I made my decision based on a tried-and-true motto: better safe than sorry. I drove Andrea to the nearest emergency room. I called her parents, even though it was 1:00 a.m., and I feared I would be upsetting them unnecessarily.
I wish I had the space to describe the hilarious and somewhat frightening scenario that unfolded that night. We arrived at an emergency room that was really busy and lined up behind three other cases: a drive-by shooting, a nervous breakdown, and a drunk woman with an acrylic fingernail stuck in her ear canal.
After waiting four hours, Andrea’s wrist was x-rayed and it was discovered that she had a two-inch long thorn in her tendon! The ER doctor attempted minor surgery on Andrea’s wrist to remove it, which nearly sent me to the emergency room as my stomach flip-flopped. It was decided, this time by trained medical professionals, that she needed to go home and have the thorn removed surgically.
It left a long scar on her wrist, but she kept playing the piano after having a cast on her arm for six weeks.
My number one job as a youth leader is to be a young person’s adult advocate, not his friend. Andrea’s parents—and every parent of every student I have known since becoming a youth leader—entrusted their sons and daughters to my care in allowing me to take them to camp. We all need to take that responsibility very seriously. My job was not to be cool and funny and to make sure she had an unforgettable spiritual high during her week at camp. My job was to be a responsible, godly adult and to do my best to guide every student in my care through an adventurous (yet safe) week.
Through far too many accidents, I have established a few simple principles:
1. Always have medical forms for every trip that students must complete and parents or guardians sign ahead of time. Most camps require these, but I have copied their format and used these for every overnight trip. I make sure they are completed thoroughly, and that I have up-to-date medications listed and working phone numbers for emergency contacts. It is well worth the extra effort. Though I may only need them once in my career, it could mean life or death. Seriously.
2. Only listen to the judgment of trained medical professionals. Most camps are not required by law to have doctors or nurses on the property at all times, and even fewer retreats, campouts, and mission trips require them. It is my job to get kids the care they need rather than pooling the collective ignorance (however well meaning it may be) of untrained students or adults on the trip.
3. Give clear feedback to camps about their games and activities. Sure, sometimes I feel like the fuddy-duddy, but I believe I have talked to camp directors after nearly every pool competition. Games that seem hilarious and fun in preparation are sometimes very dangerous in practice. Today I have no problem letting them know, “My kids didn’t feel safe in that game,” or “I nearly drowned as I was shagging balls in that water basketball game.”
4. Make sure other staff and adult volunteers understand basic safety routines and expectations: I was once asked what is the top quality I look for in an intern, and my response was surprising to many: “Someone with a healthy fear of what could go wrong.” I can teach leaders to lead Bible studies or counsel students at camp; but if they do not have an inherent understanding of their responsibilities as an adult role model and decision maker, I’m sunk.
When is the last time I have seriously pondered what could go wrong before a trip? What would change about my preparation if I thought about it a little more?
In what ways have I taken shortcuts with the “better safe than sorry” principle and later realized how fortunate I was that things turned out the way they did?
Are all of the leaders on my team in one accord regarding the way we would deal with emergency situations? If not, how can we get on the same page?
About Kelly Soifer:
Kelly Soifer is an adjunct professor of internships related to non-profits and Christian ministry at Westmont College. She worked for Young Life for 13 years and as a youth pastor for 15 years. She also taught at a Christian high school and writes articles for Youthworker Journal, YMToday.com, Fuller Youth Institute, and Light & Life Magazine.
This week’s articles come from an excerpt from It Happens, a collection of “true tales from the trenches of youth ministry.” CYMT collected these stories from youth workers across the country so readers can learn from their mistakes and be prepared when IT happens to you! It Happens is available in Kindle or paperback format from Amazon.