Friday, November 24, 2017

Camp CommUNITY Reflection - Tara Haelle

Tara Haelle
Written in 2010

Camp CommUNITY Camper 1995, Counselor 1997
Bachelor’s Degree in Plan II and English, University of Texas, 2000
Most Outstanding First Year Teacher, Arlington ISD
Valedictorian at Martin High School, 1996
World-Traveler, backpacked through 40 countries

          It's been over 15 years since my last day of Camp CommUNITY as a delegate in 1995, and yet I clearly remember how sorry I was to be saying goodbye to people I hadn't even met just five days earlier. In those five emotional, intense, thoughtful days, I thought I had made friends for life, and I did see many of my camp friends frequently over the next two years or so. Then, as usually happens with friends in our younger years, they faded my life gradually and quietly. Not so, however, with the lessons and experiences of Camp Community itself.

          While it might be surprising to acknowledge that the people themselves became part of the background while the actual conversations of that week remain crisply embedded in my memory, this is exactly what happened, and it gets to the heart of Camp CommUNITY's magic. The camp brought together strangers from diverse backgrounds to explore fears, insecurities, prejudices, ways of leading and ways of overcoming in a unique experience that still informs the way I live my life today. At random and unexpected moments, I will suddenly remember when my share group adviser Jeff told me how beautiful I was, or I will remember in some of my darker moments the relationship diagram of concentric circles we had to draw and fill with the people in our lives who love and support us. My diagram was more crowded than those of my share group members, and I have never taken that fortunate fact for granted since.

          I still have the letter I wrote to myself on the last day, mailed to me a year later. And, of course, I remember the wrenching segregation exercise that had such a deep impact on me that I continue to recall how it felt when I find myself in less intense but nonetheless similar de facto situations today. In fact, that exercise, like several other activities during this camp, so profoundly affected me that it inspired a related exercise I did with my own high school students as a teacher years later. I also remember specific discussions we Camp CommUNITY delegates had during the camp which influenced the way I spoke to my students and how I designed certain lessons, especially when teaching novels like To Kill a Mockingbird or instructing my journalism students how to interview and write fairly, responsibly, and sensitively.

          I returned to Camp CommUNITY two years later as a college counselor in 1997, thrilled to go through the camp again in a leadership role. I was not disappointed. The ability to facilitate a similar experience for new delegates to the one I had participated in was just as rich and fulfilling - if not more so - as I had hoped. I am still in touch with several of the students who attended camp when I was a counselor - I had known them before they attended - and that remarkable week continues to come up in occasional conversations to this day. Also to this day, when I hear a certain couple of songs, such as Garth Brooks' The River, that were played each night in our final activity, I still recall the first time I heard them at the camp.

          Perhaps the only frustrating aspect of Camp CommUNITY is the difficulty I have in trying to describe it to others. When I taught at Sam Houston High School for five years, I tried to recruit students to attend the camp each year. I could explain algebra and geometry to my SAT prep students, grammar to my freshmen and AP style to seniors in journalism... and yet I struggled to describe one of the most influential experiences of my youth to those same students. The words I chose were always inadequate or almost misleading, and I relied primarily on my enthusiasm to convince students to attend. When they returned, that fiery enthusiasm exuded from them as well.

          Although I am only 32, I have lived a rich life already, having backpacked through over forty countries, climbed Kilimanjaro, completed an Olympic-length triathlon and gone scuba diving with ten different species of sharks. I have been published in dozens of local and national publications, worked in London and Australia, and been recognized for my work with awards like Most Outstanding First Year Teacher when I taught in Arlington ISD. It’s not a stretch to say that some of the confidence that enabled me to take on these challenges and accomplish so much stemmed in part from things I learned about myself at Camp CommUNITY. Learning about positive interaction with people of radically different cultures certainly influenced the way I traveled as well. I still teach as a teaching assistant, and I still remember things I learned, whether internally or explicitly through Camp CommUNITY   activities, as I teach.

          I know there are parts of this camping experience that will find their way into the way I raise my son, just as they infiltrated and benefitted my teaching. And I know that those nuggets of wisdom, the fruit of just five days at Camp CommUNITY well over a decade ago, will be among the most important aspects of the legacy I leave, through my words and actions, to my son, my students, and all those whose lives I touch.



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