As girls’ camp approached, my inbox filled with little notes: “Remember, no shorts or capris allowed– even when exercising!” “All visitors must sign in at the entrance.” “Anyone not on the list will be turned away.” “No tape, no tacks, no stickers, no glue, no cookies or candy in the cabins.” “All hikes must be preapproved.” etc. etc. and- I’m not kidding you– etc.
With each email, my trepidation grew. Would a draconian set of rules blight our happy days at camp?
Still, I’m an obedient soul and packed my bags with long pants, filled out every form and brainstormed ways to decorate the cabin without using any forbidden tacks or tape. Even with the cheerful greeter at the gates and the wink and nod orientation– “Just sweep out all the cookie crumbs at the end of the week.”– my skepticism continued. Like a child approaching the principal’s office, I knocked on the camp directors’ motor home door to gain approval for our first hike. With a rush of warmth, they pulled me inside, showing off their temporary home, photos of their grandchildren and binders filled with hiking plans. They made photocopies of trail maps, scribbled directions and wrapped me in a hug before sending me out the door. As I left, I noted the sign taped to their tiny refrigerator, “Be flexible. Be kind.”
Seasoned with kindness, the lists of rules suddenly seemed perfectly reasonable. Of course they wanted us in long pants– bugs and thorns are thirsty for our blood; of course we should tell people where we’re hiking or when we’re leaving camp– a hundred girls could get lost in those woods. And of course we should clean our own bathrooms and cooking areas, put out our fires at night, keep garbage away from the bears. Yes, we had bathrooms and sinks and cabins with electricity. It’s a posh camp (with a long wait list).
I’m not lucky enough to be a Young Women’s leader, but when I gained the happy task of Ward Camp Director at our Stake Young Women’s Camp, my primary goal was to make each girl feel loved and to learn how to help others feel more cherished and valued. Sadly, many of our youth feel isolated and lonely even when surrounded by other teens and interested adults. A focus on rule keeping can inhibit the ability to make connections– but sometimes rules can help. For example, the no-shorts rule made the length of shorts a non-issue. Sure, by the end of the first day everyone rolled up their jeans up a few inches, but we didn’t waste a single moment scolding anyone about modesty. Some girls brought phones, nearly everyone brought candy, and some girls– gasp– wore open toed shoes around the cabins, but we chose to let those things go. I believe we have a limited number of interactions with everyone we meet; I want most of those moments to be positive.
In contrast, my friend’s stake conducted a bag check the morning they left for camp, searching for cell phones, immodest clothing and any other inappropriate items. Even the mothers felt violated by this invasion of privacy. One girl, despite her clothing passing initial inspection, was sent back from a hike because her shorts didn’t reach the requisite length. Numerous opportunities to show love, teach the gospel and feel the Spirit were marred by slaving devotion to rules, rules, rules.
When I was called into Young Women’s years ago (Oh! that happy season) one saintly woman in our ward wrapped her arms around me and whispered, “I’m so glad you’ll be in Young Women’s. You love people as they are. You’re not the kind who will make them feel terrible about a short skirt or a second ear piercing.” In truth, my friend saw me as a far more Christlike person than my thoughts might reveal. Little did she know I was pondering a hard-core approach to modesty for the girls in our ward. Her words changed me. I abandoned all plans to discuss modesty and focused on welcoming the girls to church and to activities in whatever they were wearing. Further, I resolved to never pester girls about arriving late or missing events; I simply wanted them to feel loved while they were with us and to show appreciation for the efforts they made to come.
Some of our girls could only come to camp for one or two nights or even just an afternoon, but I was grateful they made the effort to come at all. Teenagers are busy. People are busy. We need to remember we’re part of an all-volunteer organization and appreciate the countless contributions of each member, not focus on their absence or failings.
As far as the bag check– sure, girls might bring things to camp better left at home, but if I’m doing my job to conduct interesting activities where the girls feel loved and included, those things will never come out of their duffle. I love rules, I savor commandments. But kindness and flexibility are often more powerful when teaching others.
Before we embarked on our hike, I told the girls, “We’re not trying to go fast; we’re not here to get a workout; we might not even make it to the top. We are here to enjoy each other and God’s creations. No one will be left behind.” The girls chose darling Courtney– who has had more surgeries than her family can count, whose feet turn in and often betray her– to lead us. She rested often. We all finished every drop in our water bottles. More than once, Courtney fell on rocks and tree roots, but she jumped right back up, assured us, “I’m fine.” and sang over and over, “I feel so grateful in my heart. It’s good to be alive.”
Have you seen rules obstructing compassion in relationships? Especially in the church?
How can we help others feel loved while still maintaining protocol?
Have you ever been to Heber Valley Camp? It’s amazing! And have you heard this sweet song in the video by Regan Rindlisbacher found on lds.org?