Help youth create communities of respect

 
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Excerpt from Val, a Camp Everytown alum:

I want to thank Silicon Valley Faces for inviting me here today to share a collection of significant memories that have shaped me into the woman I am today. My memories of Camp Everytown are still near and dear to my heart because I have experienced, first hand, its power to positively impact lives.

Ten years ago, I said farewell to my predominantly Latino neighborhood in East San Jose, California and moved north to the big city by the bay, San Francisco, where I currently live and work as a multi-media storyteller. Behind every smile there’s a secret - and when a child walks around holding one as big as mine - they can feel ALONE, VOICELESS, TRAPPED IN A BOX with no open doors and very little light. As a child who moved frequently, because of my father’s inability to consistently support his family, it was hard to keep and make new friends. Freshmen year at Independence High School, I felt lost amongst a sea of thousands of wandering students.

One morning, a boy turned around and asked me, “Why are you so quiet?” Shocked and offended by his question, I wanted to shout at the top of my lungs, “I have a lot on my mind,” but embarrassed I instead gave an awkward smile, shrugged and didn’t say a word. I grew up defined by a family secret, so much so, I thought if people knew who I was and where I came from, they wouldn’t accept me. But as I grew older I realized my family wasn’t the only one with problems.

In the spring of my Junior year, I was one out of 100 Independence High School students invited to Camp Everytown. In this new environment, nerves first overwhelmed me, but I soon learned to exit my comfort zone and allow others to get to know the real me by sharing my voice.

In one memorable small group discussion, we were asked to make a human sculpture of our family and to describe it. No one had asked about my family life before, so at first I wasn’t sure how much to say. When it was my turn, tears began to fill my eyes as I placed my father in a far corner on the other side of the room. Everyone sat respectfully as they listened to my trembling, novice voice reveal my family’s secret for the first time. I took a deep breath and proceeded to tell a story. Late one night when my father was sleeping, my mother finally built up her courage and told my brothers, sister and I to quickly gather our belongings. Breathless and not looking back, with only the full moon shining on us, we ran away from my father’s paranoid and monstrous behavior. Living with him had been like a nightmare I could never wake up from. After my story, with every hug I received, I felt so thankful that Camp Everytown gave me a place to speak honestly and openly about my personal family experiences. Surrounded by people I no longer saw as strangers, but as new friends I trusted, I began to feel safe and accepted. I no longer felt alone or isolated from my classmates; Camp Everytown taught me that everyone has hardships and has equally powerful stories to share.

In a short amount of time, Camp Everytown became a place where empathy melted judgment and unfamiliar faces became family. On our last day, we stood shoulder to shoulder in a circle of diversity, but in the end, all we saw was commonality. We were all human, united by our shared experiences and by our new desire to make the world a better place one step at a time.

Camp Everytown was a life changing, transformative experience that ignited a spark inside me. Since it taught me how to be aware of myself and of the bigger world around me, I returned home inspired to make change. The following school year, I became a Camp Everytown Club officer and returned to camp to help spread awareness of respect, acceptance and appreciation of diversity across my high school campus. Later, I grew committed to understanding and helping different cultures internationally. After I studied media production at the University of San Francisco, a school with a strong social justice mission, I volunteered with the Peace Corps in Macedonia to exchange cultures and to teach 4th-8th grade students how to communicate in the English language with confidence. And soon, I’m off to earn a master’s degree in International Education at NYU, with plans to design children’s arts programs that bridge cultures through storytelling. From the lessons learned at Camp Everytown, I strive to capture beauty in diverse cultures, be a voice for social justice and work with non-profits that help empower women and children all over the world.

I believe that Camp Everytown’s message will ripple effect and gradually reach the rest of our global society to create harmony. The more we take the time to understand the diverse cultures around us, the more we work together towards a peaceful, sustainable community. I was an emotionally wounded child terrified to share my voice, but Camp Everytown showed me light for a brighter future outside of my box. Thank you Camp Everytown.

Amy on a service trip in Nicaragua
Amy on a service trip in Nicaragua

"I'm bringing back to my community what I learned from Camp... including people, helping people, not judging, and standing up for myself and others."

These are the words that Amy, a senior at Mountain View High School, wrote in her college application essay to describe how Camp Everytown changed the way she perceives others.

Born in China, adopted by Caucasian American parents, and raised in an interfaith family, Amy had multicultural experiences of her own to share. Like many high school students attending Camp, she was nervous but excited for the upcoming activities. 

Over the next four days she participated in a variety of exercises, ranging from topics such as racism to sexual orientation. One exercise gave students a simulated disability. Eating meals without the ability to see or with the use of only one arm was an enlightening experience. Another memorable activity involved responding to statements about violence, personal issues, and other stressful situations. Amy shares that it was "really emotionally intensive... [it] made me realize that we're not the only ones who have been going through hard times."

However, Amy revealed that the activity that held the greatest impact for her personally was focused on gender stereotypes. She described a tense atmosphere as the girls recounted the derogatory slurs they'd experienced. After the boys began to show their vulnerabilities, both "sides" felt more connected to and compassionate towards each other. This, among other eye-opening activities, was why Amy was inspired to write about her time at Camp Everytown. 

Amy is looking forward to college next year and contemplating a major in international business. Wishing you all the best, Amy! 

Amy at Camp Everytown
Amy at Camp Everytown

Before senior high school student, Pablo, attended FACES' Common Ground and Camp Everytown, he was an eighth grader who witnessed the change that these programs had on his older brother. 

Common Ground, a 4-day summer program asks incoming high school freshmen to come together before they embark on their journey through the next four years of their high school career. During the program, students commit to respecting one another and dissecting the way they form opinions of themselves and their peers. They are challenged to break down barriers that often divide them into cliques. They embrace their commonalities as well as understand the struggles that they all may face.

As a freshman, Pablo's older brother was a Counselor-in-Training at Common Ground. Pablo says that he was amazed when he and his brother both answered a personal family question the same way. He was shocked that he and his brother felt identically about their family dynamics and that they had never discussed it.

Stories from his classmates about what they had endured outside of school astounded him. Because of the stories that he heard, he is much more conscious of the words that he chooses to use and recognizes their impact. He admits that he formerly used derogatory words of which he is now ashamed. He expressed that if he has a daughter he wants to be a great father and will teach her self-worth.

Pablo was so changed by his first year at Common Ground that he decided to go to Camp Everytown and return to both programs as a Counselor-in-Training. He has stepped in as co-president of the Camp-inspired "Be the Change" club at Fremont High. "My goal is to come back in 10 years and see this club thriving."

Next year, Pablo is off to college to study mechanical engineering. We are so excited for him and know that he will do incredible things!

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We first met Monica in 2010 at Camp Everytown. We were immediately taken by her enthusiasm and positive attitude. If she never mentioned it, you would never know that she suffers from an unknown viral infection in her brain, which led to legal blindness, full body numbness, and intermittent paralysis of her limbs that can last years.

However, Monica has never let her disability inhibit her. When she went to Camp the first time in 2010, she said that she was forced to face things that she had never dealt with. During the disability exercise, where students are given a simulated disability (eat lunch with one hand, no hands, or blindfolded), Monica was struck by the way her classmates reacted to the exercise. "Having 2 of the 3 disabilities that are simulated, I realized that people didn't understand that just because you have a disability, your life isn't over."

In need of volunteers, FACES reached out to Monica in 2011 to see if she would be able to help facilitate Camp. Her positive energy matched by her compassion, commitment, and strong work ethic made made her our Camp Everytown hero. Coming back as a leader, she was in a better place in her life. She felt more empowered to share her experiences with others. 

Monica says that her favorite part about Camp is "getting to hear the students' stories and seeing the changes in each and every one of them; they come in one way and walk out as a completely changed person". In May she joined our staff as the Camp Everytown Logistics Coordinator. "I am passionate about Camp and love what it stands for. FACES has provided a great support system - they are like family." 

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Leslie, Donor Relations Dir. with Natalee
Leslie, Donor Relations Dir. with Natalee

Meet Natalee -- a Camp Everytown alum living with Cerebral Palsy. This is her story in her own words of the impact that Camp had had on her life. 

 

Camp Everytown literally changed my life. When I think back to Camp Everytown I remember moments; moments that defined who I would become, as well as my purpose in life from that point forward. So how do I play into Camp Everytown? I have mild Cerebral Palsy on the left side of my body, which affects my arm, hand and leg. Cerebral Palsy is a form of paralysis that is caused by brain damage during birth. Because of this, I do a lot of daily activities one handed and have taught myself how to adapt to different situations. Although I had adapted to my disability at an early age and learned to speak up when I needed help or needed to make my challenge known, I still had trouble facing my misunderstood peers all the way through my high school years up until Camp Everytown.

Before Camp Everytown, I was confident in who I was and the ability that I had with the help of having a spot on the mountain view high school volleyball team as a designated server, but there was a part of me that still felt like an outcast and that feeling grew stronger anytime a classmate or peer would rudely remind me of my physical difference. Living with a disability made me become accustomed to feeling like I didn’t belong and that’s how I felt much of the time in high school. But I always had this gut feeling that I was meant to do something greater than myself. I always knew I was meant to do something to help others, and that became apparent during and after my experience at Camp Everytown.

Every single minute of my time at Camp Everytown was a moment of impact that affects me still to this day. If I had to describe the kind of affect camp had on me with one word, I’d say powerful. From the very first activity we did at camp, to the very last activity, the experience affected me emotionally, mentally and physically. I remember thinking to myself as I lay in bed shaken up, but amazed after the first night of activities, “How am I going to get through 2 more days of this?” I was physically and emotionally drained…stunned at the heartbreaking but moving revelations that resulted from the evening. During my time at camp, I came to the realization that every single person, disabled or not is different and struggles in different ways and that can’t be understood by judging what someone looks like on the outside. The hardest day of camp for me was the day we did the disability simulation lunch. During the activity, students are given disabilities by either having their hands tied behind their back or are blind-folded and have to eat lunch that way. Watching other people go through lunch with a “disability” hit home for me and brought up feelings of inferiority and defeat -- the kinds of feelings that I feel often when facing daily activities that are a challenge. What really affected me the most was watching everyone walk away from lunch without a disability, while I still was stuck with mine. After that lunch was the first time I would ever cry about my struggles with living with a disability. It struck me that no matter what anyone thinks or says, I have a disability and no one can say anything to undermine how living with Cerebral Palsy makes me feel. Luckily, my brother Wesley was there to hug me while I bawled my eyes out. My former English teacher, was also right there to console me in that moment. However, what I realized in that moment is that maybe people, high school students especially, wouldn’t feel the need to judge others such as, people with disabilities, if they had more knowledge of what it’s like for people who are different. I became determined to show them that a disability is just what happens to someone, and doesn’t a person’s ability to love, think and feel.

With being able to let those tears go, I was able to grow stronger. I feel after that moment, I became determined to make an impact on my peers by telling my story. It was that moment that gave me the courage to get up in front of everyone at camp the next night during Cultural Pride Night and talk about my disability and how I’ve overcome challenges in order to secure my place in society. I told everyone about a time in 6th grade when I was discouraged by my P.E teacher. We were taking a push up test that day in class and she told me no when I was about to do the test along with my classmates. She didn’t give a reason for why she said no, but it baffles me still to this day that a teacher made me feel like I wasn’t good enough. Telling that story gave me such an adrenaline rush, probably fueled by frustration and anger, to drop to the floor and pump out twenty pushups to show everyone at camp what my teachers words drove me to achieve. It was that moment that gave me the drive to take my new found purpose even further and create a disability awareness day at my high school in order to bring a little bit of Camp Everytown back to the rest of my fellow high school peers. And even further than that, write a book about my own life as someone with a disability. As I stated earlier, Camp Everytown literally changed my life.  When I think back on my experience I remember life changing moments, moments that lead to even greater life changing moments that gave me what I needed…a purpose in life. I will always remember Camp Everytown and I will always be grateful for what it stands for.

Privilege line @ Camp Everytown
Privilege line @ Camp Everytown
Campfire
Campfire
Camp Everytown students
Camp Everytown students
Camp Song Time
Camp Song Time

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Brittany Tobar

San Jose, California United States

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