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Before the ACE program, I didn’t have much experience working with younger children, except for middle and high school girls lacrosse camps. Initially, I was pretty nervous for the part of the China program in which we were to run a sports and English learning camp for about 30 local children of varying ages. I worried that the children wouldn’t like me, that they wouldn’t understand what I was telling them, and that they wouldn’t know how to communicate with me. I never could have guessed that those 10 days of camp would have such a strong and positive impact on me. A couple of my camp experiences highlight some of the lessons that I learned.

 ”Their [the campers’] dedication and enthusiasm inspired me to learn, and learn fully, no matter what the activity. ”

I was reminded to learn eagerly and fully, and not to be satisfied until I understood a topic. The campers would walk to the center from their houses rain or shine and usually get there an hour early while we were still eating our breakfast noodles. Even before camp started, I was impressed with the dedication of these children. For one of the craft sessions with a group of the girls, I brought out some paper, tape, and scissors. I had barely set the supplies down when these girls were already whipping out origami flowers and other intricate folding patterns, which they then taped together to make larger structures. I couldn’t add any value to that sphere so I instead cut out a paper snowflake and showed one of the girls how the pattern replicated as I unfolded the paper. This activity caught the attention of a few other girls, who then handed me every different color paper and asked me to make more and more complicated snowflakes so they could watch me do it and then take turns unfolding them.

group of children and young adults sitting outside in circle
A competitive duck-duck-goose game with the whole group

They meticulously watched and I was confident they would be able to replicate the activity on their own. They were never satisfied with just seeing or doing the activity once, but rather sought the opportunity for repetition until they had mastered it. This learning style was also evident in other parts of camp such as English learning and sports. The childrens’ incredible focus and desire to learn in every activity of camp made a huge impression on me. Their dedication and enthusiasm inspired me to learn, and learn fully, no matter what the activity.

I learned that I didn’t need to worry about how to play with children because they brought the play to me. During free time at camp, we would let the campers pick the activity they wanted without much regulation. The basketball hoop was the one area that always required some supervision so that errant balls didn’t hit any bystanders on the head or bounce off the edge of the court down the hill. During one free time period, I was just standing and getting rebounds when one of the boys, with whom I hadn’t interacted much, handed me a ball and motioned between us. I gathered from the cues that he wanted to play one-on-one but I wasn’t exactly sure why he picked me. I felt honored by my selection since I hadn’t played one-on-one with anyone else and hadn’t even been at the hoop very often. Regardless, we played intense one-on-one for about 15 minutes—maybe longer. I was definitely breathing harder than I had thus far in China (I blamed it on altitude), I was giving my legs the most workout they had seen since arriving, and to top it off, I was losing to this 12-year-old sharp-shooter. The clock eventually cut us off; I was left looking for water, wondering what just happened, but feeling very satisfied.

This boy had sought out someone with whom he hadn’t spent much time and challenged me to play a game that we both knew. I admired his ability to step out of his comfort zone with a stranger in his life. I also appreciated the game of basketball and how much joy I felt from this shared experience where no explanation was necessary. His confidence inspired me to be brave and seek out new relationships.

group of children shooting basketball outside
A group of campers in a game of knockout at the hoop

Finally, I learned that lack of a common language doesn’t mean lack of connection. I’ve never taken a formal Chinese class and I’m not very good at charades, so I didn’t think that I was going to fare very well with communication at camp. It turns out that one activity that serves as a universal language is picking up trash. The unspoken communication is the collective beautification of their environment, where they live. One of the days we split into small groups for a neighborhood trash cleanup—my group was the “dragon group.” We had three children, a little boy, a little girl, and an older girl. The competition was to see which group could fill the most trash bags in the set amount of time. We were picking up pieces here and there and feeling pretty accomplished at our progress. We then found a large pile of litter. We stopped and began diligently picking up and putting the litter into our bags.

“His trust and curiosity inspired me to treasure the environment and the connections it can foster without the need for words.”

All of a sudden there were some screams and commotion coming from some campers picking up trash nearby where there was a stream. I rushed over to investigate and found that it was merely a large toad. I adeptly picked it up to show them that it was perfectly harmless, but they were not all convinced; one of them even took pictures of me holding it while keeping a safe distance. Then, the little boy in my group who had followed me over hesitantly reached out his hands and let me put the toad in his hands. His rapid acceptance of this little creature as harmless and to even hold it was clearly not learned from his friends who were still avoiding it from a distance. He must have thought it was ok because I was touching it. He trusted me. I was absolutely amazed that he was willing to take what he perceived as a risk even when his older peers would not, likely because of this trust and the relationship we had formed by working together. I found that respect and appreciation for the environment is a connection that can be made through action and experience even when language is a barrier. His trust and curiosity inspired me to treasure the environment and the connections it can foster without the need for words.

young adult and children holding trash outside
Giving a thumbs up for all the trash we picked up in the neighborhood

I am beyond grateful for these experiences and many more with the CERS and ACE team in China, and I look forward to using and sharing my new lessons in my future endeavors. The ACE journey has allowed me to grow and has inspired me to seek out opportunities to work with children rather than shy away from them. I can’t thank ACE, VIA, and CERS enough for this incredible opportunity to step outside my comfort zone and make impactful relationships. I am looking forward to staying in touch with CERS and seeking out ways to work with kids and the environment!

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