by Ife Nutara, Volunteer and Counselor, Power of Hope
Power of Hope is an overnight camp held every summer at the Commonweal Retreat Center in Bolinas, California. Usually seven nights and eight days, Power of Hope’s weeklong experience is filled with art, theater, activism, music, song and dance. It’s a place where teenagers can have the space to exist as their authentic self. A place where they can embrace their uniqueness and find ways to harness it in their everyday lives. It’s life changing to the campers and staff alike, and I was fortunate enough to experience both worlds.
I discovered Power of Hope camp back in 2015 during a pivotal time in my life. I was fourteen years old, and as most teenagers do, I was trying to figure out where I belong in the world. After hours upon hours of online searching for summer camps, I finally came across Power of Hope. It was the first year Power of Hope was held in California and I was lucky to be one of the first campers to attend. Weeks passed, and finally the day of camp had arrived. I already felt homesick as I hugged my mother goodbye, sad that I wouldn’t be able to hug her again for a while.
I boarded the shuttle bus and watched from the windows as the scenery changed from city roads and tall buildings, to trees and the watery cliffs of State Route 1. My shaky legs and clammy hands filled with anxiety and anticipation until we reached our destination an hour and a half later. I stepped off the bus and gathered my things, questioning what the next week would bring. I was missing home and low-spirited until dinner time came around. The fresh, homemade food was exceptional and lifted my low spirits a bit. After dinner, we all participated in introductory ice breaker games, which eased my nerves a bit more. Each activity, mealtime, and conversation I had led me to feel increasingly more comfortable as time went on. I met so many diverse personalities and was exposed to many things I had never known existed. By the last day, I was still my soft-spoken self but I felt like a part of me had blossomed into something new and difficult to describe. I realized there was so much more life to discover.
Particularly, during a quiet moment I had to myself at camp. I remember sitting on a bench, one that overlooks the sea, and all the way out to the horizon was pure ocean. I thought about my life back home, and how tiny it was compared to all the lives of the other campers. It was a comforting thought. Everything that I had learned at camp so far, came from someone that I didn’t even know existed a week ago. I thought about how big the world is, and how there’s definitely a place where I belong. Multiple places even, as I knew Power of Hope was surely one of them. I knew that I had only experienced the surface of life, just as I could only see the surface of the ocean. My life was so much deeper than I realized and Power of Hope was the first place to plant that seed in my mind. I went back for 3 consecutive years after that, but eventually life got in the way and even though I hadn’t aged out yet, my time at camp had come to an end.
At the beginning of this year I reached out to Power of Hope’s program manager, Amber Faur, to see if there were any opportunities for me. I wanted to give back in any way I could to the community who gave so much to me during my teenage years. Fortunately, I was able to secure a spot as a counselor. It’s usually a role made for people like me, who attended camp as a teenager and can now come back in an influential way. Samara Atkins and CJ Suitt, the two brilliant co-leads who run the camp knowledgeably said, “The counselors are the glue that hold the space between the campers and staff, together.”
As camp neared, I prepared my things and set off on the same trip I made 7 years ago. This time, I was able to bring my mom on the journey with me. As she drove, I told her stories of camp and the experiences I had, glad that she was finally able to see the world that only I had known. We arrived, and as we drove down the main road I began to see the familiar faces of the staff who meant, and still mean so much to me. I stepped out of the car and was greeted with embrace. It felt like I had finally come home after being apart for so long.
A day before the campers arrive, the staff and counselors have one full day of training. Since I had only ever been a camper before, I felt like training was a personal initiation for me. I had finally crossed that bridge into adulthood and was able to support the campers in the same way I had been supported. During training, I saw how much time and energy is actually put into the preparation of camp. There are months of planning and multiple precautions put into place so that camp can still be possible during a pandemic. I was also delighted to find out that the games and activities we play with the campers are actually practiced by staff many times beforehand. It felt like an amusing little secret I was finally being let in on.
When the campers arrived the next day, I was sitting at the sign in table. I watched and smiled as they exited the bus. It brought back memories from when I had first stepped off that bus myself. I assisted them in signing in and making sure they had everything they needed while they were at camp. What followed were days of activities, games, workshops, and more. It was heartwarming to see the bonds and friendships that were being formed. The creativity that emerged from the campers was awe-inspiring.
A lot of heartfelt, powerful moments happened and I wish I could share them all, but one moment spoke out to me in particular. Power of Hope always has an open mic night where the teens are welcome to sing or perform in front of the entire camp. Unfortunately, camp had to come to a close early this year due to covid safety reasons. Since we never had the opportunity to have an open mic night, we had what we called a “mini mic” night. We sat outside in a semi-circle and listened to a couple of sweet-sounding singers. The group of campers had greatly diminished due to their parents picking them up early. It was somber but intimate as we all held space for each other and for the campers who had already gone home. With everyone engrossed in the music, I noticed something. The staff were just as involved in this experience as the campers were. Power of Hope is a camp, but it is also a community. It has an effect on us all. Whether you’re a returning camper or a newcomer. A staff member or counselor. It’s a place you’ll never be able to forget.
That night, after everything was over, I packed my things prepared to leave the next morning. I was sad that the experience was over early but filled with gratitude to have experienced it at all. On the ride back home, I did shed a few tears. I could feel the love coming from camp even as I left, and it was very moving to me.
Power of Hope has a powerful impact on everyone and it has brought so much vitality into my life. I am honored to have been a part of Power of Hope 2022 and I aspire to contribute to this community for as long as I can. I am so grateful to Samara, CJ, Amber, and so many more who have given so much to make this camp possible.