Monday, June 20, 2011

Great kids make for memorable Peace Camp experience

Why would anyone voluntarily agree to spend 11 days with a bunch of teenagers?

If you believe the stereotypes about these alleged slackers—lazy, self centered, video heads, drugged out, dispassionate—then this prospect must seem like 11 days in purgatory.

Fortunately, the popular “wisdom” was wrong. The energy, compassion, intelligence, and camaraderie of these teens have given me renewed hope for the future.

I was a volunteer group leader for People to People International’s Peace Camp in Turkey. 28 teenagers from 23 countries discovered Turkey, studied about peace, practiced peace journalism by producing a newspaper (click here to view), and mostly learned about themselves.

The Turkey trip came at a good time for me. I was pretty burned out and cynical after 10 difficult months teaching and learning in Uganda. This was a rewarding experience, yes, but also tough because of the poverty and suffering I witnessed there. This experience with the teens in Turkey helped to re-charge my batteries emotionally and renew my optimism.

At the Peace Camp, we visited Istanbul, Cappadocia, Izmir, and Antalya. Some of our most powerful memories were formed at the camp’s last session in Antalya, a Russian resort on the Mediterranean. (We weren’t technically in Russian territory, of course, but the place was packed with 95% Russian tourists). At this last session, the kids made the camp’s leaders and organizers proud as we discussed what the youngsters would do to make a positive difference in their communities. Their worthwhile plans included launching projects to serve children and the elderly, establishing People to People student chapters at their schools, starting a club to facilitate micro-loans to the developing world, and launching Model United Nations teams. Perhaps the most audacious proposal came from an Israeli student who wants to connect Israeli student organizations with their counterparts in Palestine, Egypt, and/or Jordan.

As the peace journalism instructor at Peace Camp, I was especially gratified to hear several youngsters promise to write newspaper articles and host radio programs promoting peace.

The students were no doubt inspired not only by one another but by two of the adults on the trip, Mary Eisenhower, CEO of People to People International, and Barb Capozzi, one of the group leaders. Both are shining examples of how one person can indeed make the world a better place.

If these Peace Campers seem like great kids, it’s because they are. For example, a few days ago, four students and I were sitting on a short wall after lunch admiring a breathtaking view. One of the kids saw some trash scattered below, and asked if she could jump down a few feet to pick it up. Before I knew it, she was joined by three other students who had grabbed a trash bag. After a few minutes, trash bag full, the students clambered back over the wall. As they filed through the dining area, one of our guides told the youngsters, “You are my heroes.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

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