By Emily Vesper, Yunasa West Camper
Whenever I try to tell my friends back in California about the week I’ve spent in Colorado every summer for the past three years, words fall just short. I describe to them the intense friendship, the emotional growth, the tight-knit community and the sheer happiness that make up my experience at Yunasa. Then I say: however good this sounds, imagine it 10,000 times time better.
Yunasa is a truly special place. I have never felt more free to be myself than on the grounds of Camp Shady Brook. Almost everywhere else in my life, there are parts of me I feel the need to hide, fearing that I’ll come across as weird or condescending or attention-seeking or annoying. I worry that if I let out these suppressed parts of me, it’s all people will be able to see. My personality, my complex emotions and my varied interests will be reduced, made less than the sum of their parts. At Yunasa, I feel no such fear. I am so easily and fully myself, speaking up when I might have remained silent at home. The result of this is a wonderful kind of understanding between my fellow campers and I. It is culture of complete acceptance, and love, and I’ve never experienced anything else like it.
I wasn’t expecting any of this the first time I came to Yunasa. In fact, as my mother and I wove between the wide, graceful river and the tall pines that line the road to camp, I remember anticipating the exact opposite. There were a lot of qualities and ideas associated with the word “gifted” that I didn’t connect with at all, and so I worried that, even here, I wouldn’t fit in. I’d be stuck a thousand miles from everything I knew, unable to make friends, bored out of my mind without cell phone service and only a single book to read. After an excruciating, anxious hour, we arrived at Camp Shady Brook. I stared at the ground as we checked in and hauled my luggage up to the cabin. Before I could process any of it, my mom was hugging me goodbye as I begged through tears to go with her.
But once I wiped away those tears and entered the dance hall, where campers talked and played games while the last few arrivals trickled in, it took all of ten minutes for me to find a friend. My fears of a miserable week were gradually replaced with a thrilling excitement – I still had no idea what was coming, but based off the enthusiasm of the returning campers, it was something amazing. That first friend, Hannah, introduced me to her friends from the previous year, and we started talking, laughing, sharing stories and silly jokes. I realized I was opening myself up in a way I didn’t know was possible. As the blazing Colorado sun fell below the horizon to reveal the most beautiful view of the stars I’ve ever seen, I knew that I had stumbled upon something extraordinary.
After talking to many of the friends I’ve made at Yunasa, I realize that this is not a unique way to begin one’s first day. We’ve all struggled with feeling alienated and disconnected from our peers at one point or another, but on top of that most of us have also felt different from the stereotypical gifted kid, so we expect that same lonely disconnect to follow us to camp. Instead, we find a community that is incredibly diverse and welcoming, where everyone can feel valued and included. There is no singular gifted experience. At Yunasa, we connect over what we have in common – you’ll hear a lot of finger snaps and whispered agreements during group dialogues, when one person’s experience resonates with many – but it is understood that there is great variety in our experiences as well. People here are a lot like me, but not exactly like me. That would be boring. I think the relationships formed at Yunasa are so strong and deep in part because the experiences we do share allow us to receive the unique, unfamiliar qualities in each other with total acceptance and understanding.
And the relationships I’ve formed are so meaningful! It’s strange to reflect upon the bonds I’ve formed with other campers and think that I’ve only spent three weeks total in their presence. I mean it when I say that my friends from camp are some of my best friends in the world. They make me laugh so uncontrollably hard that my jaw and stomach end up sore. They encourage me to step out of my comfort zone, to push myself just a little further, and once I take that terrifying first step off the edge of the cliff I’m rappelling down or stand up to perform my original song in front of everyone, they cheer me on so enthusiastically. They listen to me and care about me, simply checking in on how I’m feeling that day but also supporting me with whatever bigger problems are on my mind. And I do the same for them. These friendships are so intense, so equal, so beautifully intimate. I think back to a moment from last summer when I sat on the cabin steps with my friend Vince, again under those glorious stars. We talked for hours. At Yunasa, everything I’ve bottled up in the past year seems to find a way out, and so I told him things I thought I’d never feel comfortable telling anyone. It was exactly what I needed. I felt relieved and released and loved and full of love for others all at once. I am lucky to have amazing friends back home, but none of them understand me or really hear me the way my Yunasa friends do.
Emotional growth and healing occurs at Yunasa, in Heart of the Matter sessions and workshops led by our incredible fellows and long, late-night conversations. But there’s also no shortage of lighthearted fun. That aforementioned side-splitting laughter follows me everywhere, shaking me out of my early-morning daze in the dining hall, bouncing off the surface of the lake as our canoe spirals the exact opposite direction I want it to, escaping from behind my hand as Carissa and I try to stifle our giggling and not wake the entire cabin. I get the chance to rappel down a rock face, zipline, do yoga; I write slam poems and learn basic martial arts. We play Egyptian Rat-Slap and we take it very, very seriously (probably the proudest moment of my entire life was the one time I beat my friend and defending champion Mya). During our unstructured afternoons, Gwen plays her ukulele and we harmonize along to a song we both love. These are my simplest, most favorite joys.
I always end up crying on the last night of camp. It’s so bittersweet. For one wonderful week I can exist exactly as I am and be understood. Though I miss my family and my California friends, going back to them is hard: I’m leaving one home for another.
Still, I am not returning to the exact same situation I left. Each Yunasa changes me. I leave with new ideas and techniques for dealing with the difficult parts of my life. I leave having made new friends and having deepened the friendships I made in the summers before. I leave more certain of who I am. I could reminisce for hours about every amazing thing that makes Yunasa what it is, from the mundane to the truly profound (and I have, over FaceTime, to my Yunasa friends). I feel like the the luckiest person in the universe to have spent even a single day there, tucked away in the mountains in a perfect world.
IEA is currently taking applications for it’s 2019 summer camps. Apply today!