Many people have fond memories of sleep-away camp. Some of these memories might include campfires, nighttime whispers in bunkbeds, games, and first crushes. Last week, I made life-lasting memories after working as a counselor at a camp called Youth Empowered Action Camp (YEA). Although YEA has a campfire, bunkbeds, and games, the camp also has all-vegan food, activism workshops, and education regarding a variety of social issues. Throughout this camp for children between the ages of 12–17, many campers work on spreading a vegan message, and at the end of the week, they work on an action plan on how they are going to be activists after camp. To continue their activism, these teenagers are assigned mentors to work with when camp is finished. I went into YEA thinking I would be teaching campers what I know about activism, but I came out overwhelmed by all of the lessons they taught me. Here are the five most inspiring lessons I learned as a camp counselor.
1. Teenagers care
Teenagers have almost always had a reputation for being selfish, and these days many adults believe teenagers care only about technology. However, the most compassionate and empathetic people I have ever met were the teens at YEA. I could feel the passion and understanding radiating off of them. Campers genuinely loved everyone and wanted to help each other. These teens aren’t isolated cases, as young people are some of the most caring people out there. As we go about our vegan outreach, relating to teenagers is important, as they might be the most receptive crowd in terms of changing their lifestyles. Teenagers are at the age when they make their most important life decisions, and they are always seeking to learn more about the world in which we live.
2. Teenagers are capable, so we should encourage them to do something
As I was teaching a workshop, I asked the campers if any of them have ever been told they are too young to make a difference. Almost all of them raised their hands, which was so sad to me. Here was a group of teenagers who cared about the state of our world but were dismissed by adults. Let me be clear here: teenagers aren’t the future of the world—they are our present. They are fully capable of making a difference today, so let’s not tell them any different. If you want proof, I have 38 children from this camp that will prove you wrong.
3. You don’t have to be anyone other than yourself to make a difference
I asked the campers what they got out of one of my workshops, and one of the responses has stuck with me ever since. Many vegans think they need to be this super confident, loud-mouthed activist to spread their cause, but let’s say you’re quiet. Or maybe you’re very young. Perhaps you’re not the type of activist you think you should be. I can assure you, there are endless amounts of ways out there for you to make change in this world that are perfect for who you are.
4. On that note … be yourself
Many teenagers are afraid to be themselves at home and school because they are afraid of being judged. At camp, I saw so many of them come out of their shells and become who they truly are. Throughout a person’s vegan activism, not hiding who you are is so important because being yourself is the best way to inspire others to take action. Watching these teenagers break out of their shells taught me how inspiring our true selves really are.
5. Don’t be too hard on yourself
At YEA, we don’t allow put-downs. When we hear someone putting themselves down, we call them out with one simple word: “guardian.” If everyone called ourselves out for put-downs in the same way these teenagers did at camp every day, we would become much better activists and more confident people. Watching these teens’ self-confidence increase every day taught me how valuable it is to give oneself a break. In your vegan activism, confidence helps win hearts and minds.
Andrew Puccetti is a 20-year-old college student who strongly believes in the teens of today.