By Cory Cole
Dodge-ball. S’mores by the bonfire. Shaving cream fights. Friendship bracelets. Cabin pillow fights.
These activities aren’t unfamiliar to those of us who grew up going to summer camp. Those weeks of camp are where we develop lifelong friendships with lingering memories of fun, laughter, spiritual and personal growth and great food. At least that’s what I experienced at The Swamp.
Let’s get something straight, The Swamp is not an actual swamp. The Swamp is a youth camp in Georgia that has been serving kids and families in the southeast for more than 20 years. That’s where my siblings and I have experienced camp culture. What has made it so special to me and the friends I’ve made there is that it is one of the safest places to be yourself. It is the mission of The Swamp to provide a mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually safe place for kids and teens to have fun and learn about God.
“The heart of it is that every kid that touches The Swamp is valued,” says camp director Jeff Rorabaugh. “As much as we’d like everyone to develop a belief, some don’t, and yet they still walk away feeling loved and valued, and that can change the world.”
Six years ago, Jeff and his wife, Jen, started a program called Swamp Corps where the camp culture of The Swamp is shared worldwide. Teams of experienced Swamp campers and counselors are invited to other countries around the world for three consecutive years. They then train counselors and directors in those countries to run a camp for the kids. The organization has completed training camps in South Africa, Jamaica and Barbados and will finish training this year in India, Brazil and the Bahamas. In December, the South Africa camp actually began training in Zimbabwe, and in January I had the privilege of being on the team for a very successful first year of training in Nicaragua.
I’ve traveled to other Spanish-speaking countries before, and I’ve consistently taken Spanish classes since the age of nine. There was never a point in my life where I didn’t enjoy it. I love the language, and I love the cultures of Latin America. So you can imagine my excitement when Swamp Corps announced their trip to Nicaragua last April. It was their first trip to a Spanish-speaking place, and I felt called to be a part of the team with my passion for Spanish-speaking cultures.
Little did I know that when I signed up to be a counselor, God had other plans in store for me. I became the personal translator for Jeff. Going into the week, I felt excited but extremely nervous. I was afraid that I wouldn’t know all the right words or that I wasn’t capable of translating in front of big groups.
Something that helped me overcome this was Jeff’s advice: “This is a learning experience for you; don’t feel insecure. I trust you.” Hearing that guidance and understanding other’s expectations of me is what got me through the week. I learned so much through speaking Spanish and about the administrative side to running a youth camp.
A total of 83 campers from Nicaragua, Honduras and Costa Rica attended the 6-day camp in Managua, Nicaragua’s capital. For nearly all the campers (and counselors), it was their first experiences going to camp. I can confidently say they did not go home disappointed.
“There could have been so many obstacles,” Jeff says. “Those obstacles melted away on day one. Because of that, we saw the core of Swamp culture - building relationships.”
The new international relationships Alanis Espinosa, freshman, formed in Nicaragua are what impacted her the most. “I loved how deep they were in every aspect of their love and their gratitude,” Espinosa says. Coming from Mexican descent, 18-year-old Espinosa is used to the embracing culture. I guess you could say she was fluent in the physical love language and in Spanish, so she felt right at home. She has kept up with her Central American friends weekly ever since the trip because of her experience with “a love so genuine it keeps going.”
Junior Jesse McKay traveled with the Swamp Corps South Africa to Zimbabwe just weeks before joining us in Nicaragua. He’s also been a part of the full-time staff at The Swamp in Georgia for the past four summers, and he sees a very bright future for the camp in Nicaragua.
“I can easily see Nicaragua being a strong focal point for the rest of Central America,” McKay says. The Nicaraguans’ “sheer passion” for camp gives McKay hope that one day Nicaragua camp can train other camps in Central America, much like South Africa camp did for Zimbabwe.
The people there truly emanated gratitude. You could tell that they were having the time of their lives. It was incredible to witness the campers dive right into the special Swamp culture that so many of us on the trip experienced when we were growing up. The Central Americans loved our goofy and fun traditions of dancing in the dining hall during meals, playing dodge-ball and competing in cabin challenges. The smiles and laughter of the kids showed me what true and pure joy looks like. It isn’t a feeling. It is a state of being grateful for whatever life throws at you.
This trip was just a taste of what my future may hold. As I begin to approach the end of my college experience, I feel the heavy pressure that thinking about my future career brings. But this trip was the first time I felt excited about it because I was combining the skills I’m learning in college about Spanish, management and communication with the passion I have for traveling, meeting new people, camp culture and youth.
I consider it a blessing to have been able to be a part of the Swamp Corps Nicaragua team. I definitely left a piece of my heart there. I can’t wait to find it next January at Camp Nicaragua 2017.