Sunday, July 17, 2016

Motivate, Educate and Celebrate: Summer Camp Honors the Girls of Benin

Camp GLOW was everything I wanted it to be, and more. Much like attending camp as a child, I was sad to leave yesterday. The pouring rains were fitting for the voyage home; we danced, enjoyed road snacks and sang our favorite camp songs. From start to finish, it was a blast.

The week started with a pre-test to assess participants knowledge of various topics that would be covered over the course of the week. It touched on malaria, menstrual hygiene, resources for vioence against women, sanitation and nutrition. As a group, the average on day one was 40%, clearly not a passing grade. When I graded the post-tests however, I was elated to announce that the group achieved a 84% average, with several girls receiving perfect scores. So, not only was camp a fun experience, but an effective opportunity to educate and motivate these young girls to become leaders in their community and promoters of healthy habits in their homes.

There is no way camp would have succeeded without the tireless work of the other directors, our amazing team of volunteers and their wonderful homologues, adults in their communities who assisted run activities, explain lessons in terms that the girls could understand and monitor the girls at night. Their presence was an absolute blessing. One homologue even brought her baby, and little Ebenezer became a pillar of the Camp GLOW experience.

Despite the addition of educational sessions, we spent hours with the girls outside the classroom, challenging their creativity, teamwork and introducing them to new programs. Each day, girls chose to participate in one of four different activities: yoga, self-defense, computers or art. By the last day, the yoga girls were in perfect vinyasas, our self-defense girls were blocking and throwing jabs, our computer girls impressed us with their ability to use a mouse and open new programs and the art girls dazzled us with their portrait-drawing and cootie-catcher making skills. During the afternoon, we presented the girls with team challenges: relay races, egg drops, straw tower building competitions and a scavenger hunt. We watched as natural leaders emerged from each colored team and girls began to take care of each other. There's no doubt that each girl returned home with the memory and knowledge of forming 50 new friendships.

The power of camp and the importance of my work here came to a shattering halt on Wednesday morning when one of our campers, who had been complaining about a stomach ache since arriving, began vomiting during a session on reproductive health. We made the call to take her to the health center for a consultation, aware that it was unlikely to be malaria. At the health center, I sat with her while they took her temperature and vital signs. When she didn't have a fever, I suggested to the nurses that she do a pregnancy test. The city nurses sized up my 14-year-old camper with wide eyes but acquiesced. Five minutes later, with a positive result in my hands, I had the difficult responsibility to tell this young girl that she was pregnant. My stomach dropped as I watched her future flash before her eyes. While I don't know how she became pregnant, it was an instant reminder of the fate of many young girls here in Benin. Although this young woman was a top performing student in school, she will now be forced to drop out, and it is unlikely that she will ever return. The news crushed me, but I was happy to bring her back to camp, where I knew, despite her little secret, that she would find comfort in her new friends and enjoy a couple last days of just being a kid.

Camp, no matter where you are in the world, is a place of freedom, fun and friendships. Every girl, regardless of their village, background, age, grade level or economic upbringing, was given the opportunity to just enjoy a week away from home, free from daily chores, pumping water and caring for younger siblings. As a camp director, I walked away on cloud nine. The smiles and laughter were contagious and I feel like we did our part to motivate, educate and celebrate the girls of Benin.   


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