Sunday, 3 January 2016

New Year: A time for reflection

Where is this self improvement everyone talks about?

Happy New Year beloved readers!  Where did the last one go?! As we enter 2016, it is once again that time of year that we all love, where we reflect and ponder, to decide how we are going to be better people. Clearly quitting alcohol, throwing away those cigarettes and starting up the gym all contribute greatly to the path of being a better person. Prepare yourself for gym madness in January, grumpy non-smokers and smug ‘I’ve not drunk any alcohol in 2 days and I feel great’ Facebook posts. This month, people can truly don their active wear and feel smug at its correct usage. Personally, I believe 2016 is the year we should truly focus on what being a ‘better person’ means.

While planning my blog around this theme, I was reminded of a time long long ago… pretty much before dinosaurs walked the planet… A time we call the nineties, way back in the 20th century. I was working at a children’s holiday camp in Ohio in the good ol’ United States of America. There was a whopping eight of us on the staff who were international, and we were due to go away for a weekend. Unfortunately our planned accommodation called on the Thursday to explain that they had double booked and we had nowhere to stay. We tried to negotiate why we should have the accommodation over the other reservation but we failed.

There ensued a lot of panic as we’d only been in America for a month and it’s not a nice feeling being so far from home and having nowhere to stay. We spoke to our camp director about staying on at the camp instead, but she politely informed us that this would be a health and safety risk as the camp was closing for the weekend. I was a little confused about why it was a health and safety risk… Maybe grown adults on an American camp could cause some spontaneous combustion of all racoons within a 500 metre radius? I think potentially she meant it was a security risk, but I guess we will never know.

We bargained, begged and (uh, something else beginning with b….) bugged her to let us stay, but she wouldn’t back down. Come late on Friday she stood at the camp’s entrance, making sure we left the site, eight international members of her team, with nowhere to go, desolately trudging down the long driveway while she stood with arms crossed and watched.
One of the American staff members very kindly managed to arrange for us to stay with some of her family at the last minute. We literally slept all over this poor person’s house – on the floor, on the sofa, in the garden (ok now I am exaggerating), but you get the picture. This relative was a legend taking in eight people they didn’t know at such short notice. It was a stressful time and there were a lot of tears thinking we might have to sleep in the street or hire a car to sleep in!

After the weekend we returned to camp feeling pretty let down and our camp director quite rightly called a team meeting. I think she was trying to make us all feel better and loved, despite the ‘health and safety risk’ we nearly put the camp under. Things kind of escalated, even though the kids were arriving for camp in a mere couple of hours.  As much as I hate contributing to female stereotypes, this was an all-female camp and the meeting turned into a complete mess of crying, with some of the staffers storming off site and resigning on the spot. The camp director had essentially lost control by kicking out her international team members that had nowhere to stay for the weekend and now we were staff down.

We came up with some emergency plans and assigned new teams ensuring we met minimum childcare laws in terms of adult to child ratios -perhaps a more accurate and important interpretation of health and safety legislation. By the end of the day, the kids were asleep in their tents. We were doing our usual planning session for the next day and it was around 11pm. One of the senior team came to our site to join the end of our planning; she wanted to ‘debrief’ the morning’s events. You know, because keeping your staff up for another couple of hours is being completely considerate of their wellbeing, especially when they’re bound to be woken up by homesick kids halfway through the night.
We sat for two hours debriefing the situation and arguing about the danger we were nearly put in by our original accommodation and by our employers, who were meant to be giving us full board and care over the course of our employment. We essentially agreed to disagree: The weekend was gone and the more important task of looking after the children in our care was now at hand.

As the assistant camp director got up to leave, she asked us to turn off the flood lights from the picnic area and she made her way out. We were in the middle of nowhere in Ohio: Those lights went out and the camp fell into pitch black darkness. My friend Alison and I adjusted our eyes before making the move back to our tent. All of a sudden we heard an almighty crash and clutter- we got up and reached for the light switch to see the air filled with soot, the seating area all upturned and, in the middle of the fire pit (luckily a very cool fire pit due to how long ago we had put out the fire), was the assistant camp director, flat on her back. I couldn’t contain myself and just doubled over laughing. Alison immediately fell over laughing and we could not stop the tears from streaming down our faces while we completely lost our composure. The assistant camp director was fine, not hurt at all, and she eventually started laughing with us.
Over the next week, we got the camp up and running efficiently and we just muddled through together, because we were good people who, despite wanting to up and leave, knew there were children arriving and their wellbeing and safety came first. The background issues in the camp were never fully resolved but we found a way to work through it.

My point is that behaviour and relationships are so important. Yes, there may have been reasons why we couldn’t stay on the camp that weekend without senior staff being around. However, how hard is it to communicate that effectively and with compassion? The lack of consistency in behaviour was also amusing… there are health and safety reasons for not allowing your team to stay on site but it’s okay to break them by keeping them up talking about the issue until 1am and then asking for the floodlights to be turned out only to end up in the fire pit… Priceless.  A couple of calls to the powers that be in the camp could have established that it was ok for us to stay, but the camp director didn’t do that. She could have explained the situation to senior staff, but she didn’t do that either. Care and compassion went out the window.
I learnt a lot doing Camp America, mainly a lot about myself and my values. Those children came first no matter how tired you were, no matter what the issues were – you performed your role as a carer. Essentially you did your job and fulfilled your tasks. I believe you end up being the better person when you stay true to yourself, your values and you don’t lower yourself to someone else’s level. How far do you really get without other peoples skills? Experience? Love? Care? Yes, you should prioritise your needs in terms of your safety and survival, but how much more do you gain by putting yourself out ever so slightly for someone in a worse position than you?

So, when making resolutions for 2016 I’d suggest thinking about what you say and how you say it.  Think about the promises you’re making and whether you can actually see them through: If you can’t then honestly explain why; we’re not perfect. Your behaviour says so much to those you love: Broken promises, crap communication and false hope are the biggest relationship killers. If you really love the people around you, be a better person for them because one of the scariest things in life is losing the good ones through your own behaviour.

Written by Corina Hawkins, soon to be author of ‘Tattoos of memories’ and creatively bossed by Lindsey Barnett.

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