07/11/2014 10:31 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Self-Help From Camp

Justina Sharp

I spent the last week working at Sacramento County 4-H Resident Camp on staff as a Tribe Leader. My job was to lead a group of 13 kids aged 7-14 in camp-ish activities like archery, crafts, skits and more games of Ninja than were strictly necessary. At 4-H camp, the staff is entirely made up of teenagers, and we have adult chaperones whom, following 4-H philosophy, we work in partnership with to plan and put on camp. In 4-H, there is a big emphasis on youth learning from each other, and that is never more obvious to me than at camp. Here are some lessons I learned from my campers:

1. Learning someone's story can tell you a lot about who they are.

In addition to being a tribe leader, I was responsible for a cabin of seven little girls, who ranged in age from 7-10 years old. I actually volunteered (I know) to have this age group, because they're such a cool bunch. I mean, they named our cabin group "The Zombie Mermaids," because the theme was "Land, Air and Sea" and that was the obvious choice. They taught me a lot about how to tell a good story ending ("If it isn't happy, it isn't the end, Justina!"), the importance of being first in line for snack time, ("We should go there and wait so we can be first instead of waiting here and being last") and how just asking someone about their life can tell you a lot about why they are who they are. These 9 year-olds had a much better grip on life than a lot of adults I know, even while facing some challenges you would never have guessed.

justina sharp

"I am the lanyard queen. Do not deny this truth."

2. Sometimes you need to take a break, but you always come back for the team.

I had a camper who was just the coolest kid. He was always down to participate in anything. It was also his first year at camp, and every once in a while, he just needed a break. It's a huge adjustment for some kids to go from their home life to camp. On the last day, he was gone most of the afternoon, and I was a bit worried that he wasn't going to come back for the tribe skit which he had written, directed and starred a leading role in. Just when I was about to ask one of the other girls to play his part, guess who shows up? My camper. "LET'S DO THIS SKIT TIGERS." Afterwards, I told him I'd been worried he wouldn't show. "They're my team." That was it.

justina sharp

"We are all very excited about camp crafts."

3. Be vocal about things you appreciate.

No one, and I mean NO ONE appreciates things like a kid. Whether it's a cool rock, an art project or your hair, they will tell you exactly how much they love it. I feel like this is an important habit we forget about as we get older. We stop telling people how excited we are, and how much fun we're having. Then when someone does, we tell them they're "too excited." That shouldn't even be a thing. I love listening to people talk about the things they love, even if it's metal music or the lizard they caught underneath the cabin.

justina sharp

"With my Zombie Mermaids, terrors of the land, air, and sea."

4. Say "you're welcome."

We teach everyone to say "thank you" a lot, but we don't teach how to graciously say "you're welcome." When camp had come to a close, one of my little girls came up to me and said, "This was the best week of my whole entire life and it is because of you." I had no idea what to say. "Ohhhhh... you're welcome?" That was all she wanted me to say. Two hugs and one almost-forgotten sleeping bag later, she was gone.

justina sharp

"My fellow staff and I, we're all pretty awesome."

5. You will learn a lot about yourself from other people.

This is something I learned from my campers, my fellow staff and the experiences we had together in the last week. I learned quite a bit about how I handle situations, and different kinds of people. I found out that I like cold tomato soup, can literally cheer myself to silence and can tell five day long bed time stories about Thor. I learned that you can find friends in places you never thought you'd look, and that sometimes I have to go outside of my comfort zone to find a new one. I also learned that bug spray melts tennis shoes, but that's another thing entirely.

4-H camp is a very special place. While the lanyards might eventually snap off, and the smell of sunscreen and sunburn medication fades away, the things we learned from each other will stick around forever. And then next year, I'll drag my much too heavy duffel bag back to the front of the cabin, complain about the heat, the mosquitos and the splinters, swear that I'm NEVER doing this again, and settle in for my favorite week of the year.