This past summer my husband Daniel and I had the incredible opportunity of helping with two short summer camps in French-speaking Africa. We had longed dreamed of participating in international service projects, and a job transfer to France finally made this opportunity possible.
Our original plan was to volunteer for the United Youth Corps project in Ghana, where English is spoken, but it turned out that we were needed more in Togo and Cameroon, helping to organize and host the first-ever youth camps in these French-speaking regions of Africa.
Our experience with the youth summer camps in francophone Africa was understandably very different from our camps in the United States. For the African camps, we brought some sports equipment with us, but much of what we did was on a creative budget. We strung together our own volleyball net from rope and boards, and we had to search to find a large open field or dirt area to play ultimate Frisbee. We even shared a soccer field with local children.
Amazingly, the kitchen staff cooked outstanding meals in a courtyard on open fires (no ovens, stoves or running water). What we immediately noticed was that even though the facilities were different, the positive spirit of camp was the same.
Illustrating this point, our Q&A Bible study in Togo was cut short one night when the power went out. In spite of such forced schedule changes, the youth all bonded together and learned to do things they had never done before. Ultimate Frisbee was a brand-new concept for everyone and a huge hit. We attracted spectators from all around! Some of the campers had never touched a volleyball before and yet listened so well to the instructions that they picked it up very quickly.
It was amazing to introduce team-building exercises and watch the same things happen, as campers learned from their mistakes and figured out how to communicate better and work together. It brought home the fact that as human beings, no matter the background, culture or language we speak, we are similar in our actions and strategies. In spite of the differences, the heart is the same.
The first volleyball class
One of our most memorable days was when we taught volleyball for the first time in Cameroon. We had to walk a long way on a dirt road through a bit of jungle to find a flat, open spot of ground, large enough to set up a makeshift net and draw some lines. Some local children watched from a distance, as we taught the basics of how to bump and set a volleyball.
At first the local spectators laughed and made fun of our efforts. (In the national sport of soccer you don't touch the ball with your hands.) But after a while they began to see how much fun it was. And near the end of our volleyball time, we looked over and those who'd been watching were now in a circle, bumping and setting a soccer ball around just as we had done in our practice! Our campers really let their light shine as they worked together, encouraged one another and had fun learning new things.
One of the topics in journalism class was, "What would you most like to change about the present world?" I was interested to read some of the things they would change, including putting an end to civil wars, corruption, killings, drought and famine, ignorance of the Word of God, and sickness.
These are real problems and threats to the youth in Africa. Reflecting on this helps me to remember to pray for people there and to pray more fervently for the Kingdom of God.
At the end of camp, attendees expressed the same sentiments we hear in the United States: Why can't camp be longer? Can we do this again next year?
The results were also the same. Old friendships were strengthened and new friendships forged. The youth in the United Church of God had learned more about God, His Word and His way of life. They were strengthened by one another's examples.
The blessing of serving
It was a wonderful blessing for Daniel and me to play a small part in bringing something as wonderful as camp to the youth in Togo and Cameroon and to watch the familiar positive effects unfold before our eyes, but in a very different environment and language.
I found this camp experience to be an opportunity to "give back" and to use what I have learned as a camper and worker at UCG camps in the United States. Countless directors, staff, volunteers and organizers work hard every year to put on wonderful camps all over the United States. How do you repay these people for all the time, energy and care they have invested in you? There's no price tag you can put on something so valuable. But one thing you can do is give it back—to other people!
God's Word tells us in Ecclesiastes 9:10 that "whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might." As a camper and later as a worker at summer camps, I had a lot of fun participating in and directing sports activities. I saw the immediate value in what I was doing and in the camp experience as a whole, but I didn't think that I would really use what I learned in volleyball, Frisbee or team building.
In hindsight I now understand that these experiences I enjoyed and learned from at that time also gave me skills and knowledge that I can use to help others. Serving at camps in Africa simply allowed me to pass on the gifts that had earlier been given to me.
Sometimes you don't know if or when you will use certain skills or knowledge you gain at home, camp or school. But if you learn well and work hard, God can find a way to work through you. He can give you opportunities to use what you've learned through your experiences to help others. So whenever you have a chance to learn and grow, put your heart into it, do it with all your might and see what God will do through you! VT