The stairs to the vast, rustic house creaked as I lugged my teal trunk up the steps. The bright sunlight emanated onto the thick wooden bunks, creating lines of radiance. Duffle bags and suitcases lined the perimeter of the room. Feelings of doubt crossed my mind, and I looked at my parents with big, worried eyes. I felt comforted by my mother’s reassuring touch. “You’ll do great, sweetie,” she said softly. “We love you,” my father said delicately. The mesh screen door shut with a loud slam as they left me in a cloud of tentativeness and fret. Questions circulated through my brain, filled with inquisitiveness and uneasiness. The answers to these questions were embedded in the campfire pit, the plywood porch, and the cool, crisp Maine air.
“Welcome to Hidden Valley Camp’s Teen Program Community. We have so many goals for the summer, and we’re so excited that you’ve decided to participate,” one of the counselors, a middle-aged woman with hiking boots and a tan bucket hat, informed us.
I picked at a hole in a cushion of the blue-and-red striped couch. As I glanced at the unfamiliar faces of the nine fellow campers around me, I felt as though the summer had a sense of potential that was within my grasp. The possibilities rested in this very living room, in the kitchen, and in the flourishing garden.
“Throughout the month, we will be building community within our small group, at the main camp, and communities around Maine. We will cook all our meals in the house, and every day we will do community service work around Maine. We want you to develop leadership skills and learn how to be a better community member. There is also an aspect of self-sufficiency in the program,” she explained.
Another counselor, a blonde haired women with multi-colored friendship bracelets and strappy sandals, added more: “The aspect of self-sufficiency is that this house has no electricity. We have a small generator that we are planning to activate for ten to fifteen minutes in the morning and in the evening. Every day we will go to a different community to complete service work. For example, we will do trail work at Acadia National Park, harvest vegetables at farms, assist at animal shelters, and visit nursing homes.”
My legs jittered with excitement, and my thoughts transformed from tentative, worried ideas to hopeful feelings. Little did I know the people around me and activities planned would be the essential figures and experiences in the development of a community that I would cherish, value, and admire.
That first night, after a hearty meal of baked ziti with fresh vegetables from the garden outside of the house, we played “get to know you” games and completed ice breaker challenges.
The unfamiliarity and awkwardness still pervaded through the old farmhouse. During the month, through communal activities and shared spaces, memories were made, and the layers of ice melted. The ice melted in the kitchen, where we recognized the power of connection through communal activities, and in the rooms, where whispering and giggling led to the creation of reminiscences. The living room transformed into a friendship bracelet factory, and the porch converted into a dish washing station. The house was the foundation of connection: the place where we fostered our sense of friendship, the place where bonding occurred and laughs were shared.
The nursing home was the first community service site. There, games of bingo and art activities with elderly people took place. Stories of the past were shared, songs were sung, and pictures of children and grandchildren circulated. The first person we interacted with was a woman named Bernadette. “What beautiful young ladies you are,” she whispered quietly when she saw us. “I was once like you,” she stated, launching into a story filled with nostalgia and sentimental feelings about her childhood in France. Vincent, an elderly man with a passion and love for boats and ships, educated us on his experiences visiting many different countries. Cherie, a bedridden elderly women, was talkative and inquisitive. Her curiosity inspired us to develop an enduring friendship. “The best thing you can do in Maine in the summer is swim in Lake George. I used to swim there everyday and ride my horses, too. I hope you girls get a chance to swim … to swim in Lake George,” she commented. That night, we insisted that the counselors take us to the nearby lake. We swam for Cherie.
At various farms, we harvested vegetables and pulled weeds from the ground, knowing that each piece of produce would be transformed into a filling meal for homeless people. As I squatted on the ground and bits of dirt seeped through the straps of my sandals, I realized the importance of having an interconnected and dependent community. Every piece of produce that our group harvested from offsite farms was sent to a local soup kitchen, which then made hearty meals for people who are struggling. It was at the farms, with the sun casting on my back as I harvested produce and chatted with my friends, that I realized there is an inherent ability and opportunity in the world to impact the lives of others. Glimpsing at the clear blue sky, I envisioned a young girl, a girl like me, with curly blonde hair and blue eyes, eating her first meal all week, a slight smile crossing her face. As I harvested the last of the tomatoes and carried the buckets of produce to the transportation truck, I could see that girl, her eyes filled with naivety. I enlightened her with the notion that there is hope.
At a soup kitchen in Portland, Maine, I scrubbed and washed a plethora of potatoes while heavy knives gracefully cut through vegetables, pans of mac and cheese entered the oven, and smells of freshly baked bread wafted through the air. “Oh, the lines will start soon,” the director of the kitchen advised us. Long lines of hungry people formed. A homeless man with a yellow tinted apron volunteered in the kitchen with us. “Our lives are precariously balanced on the streets out there. Coming here … coming here is all the security we’ve got. It must look different for you girls though,” he said. His message resonated with me as plates were distributed to people of different ages, ethnicities, and backgrounds. Children, adolescents, middle-aged and elderly people took their food promptly, knowing this meal and time would be their solace for the day, their light in a place of darkness.
As I peeked out the window, I noticed that chunks of glass and dirt lined the streets. People moved slowly down the streets as grief and sadness emerged on their faces. My attention was redirected back to the kitchen as I cleaned with the homeless man. He explained how the kitchen operates, and I listened attentively. He asked me about the community program, and I explained what I’ve learned. “This program has taught me that a person can make an impact in a community and learn the process of community building.”
He smiled at me in response and nodded his head in affirmation. His actions suggested his true feelings more than any verbal expression could. As I examined the room, I recognized the connections created among the people in the soup kitchen. I noticed the atmosphere of the room transform from possessing a solemn nature to a space where people gained a sense of comfort. The aura changed because a sense of hope was instilled in a group of people that struggle to find optimism. The room, volunteers, homeless population, and hopeful feelings cultivated a sense of community. People bonded through cordial conversations and appreciation for the provisions of food and service. I admired and ruminated on the power of human connection and the meaning of relationships. I perceived that understanding other people, regardless of their background or culture, leads to the development of a resilient community that holds the ability to change the way in which the world views the power of people to love, to learn, and to grow through connections.
From the conversations with the man at the kitchen, to learning about the elderly folks in the nursing home, to building connections with my fellow campers and counselors, I now understand that there is a sense of strength that is present within the action of truly comprehending people in the world around us. Community is power. Community is connection. Community is change.