The simple answer is, that this is a program teenagers need.
I needed it when I was 14. The 95% of our volunteer staff team who are program alumni needed it when they were teens, and of the hundreds of youth who attend each summer, we hear over and over again that this program gave them essential skills, qualities, friendships, levels of support and experiences that they needed.
The bigger question is, why do so many young people need this program, and what kinds of deficits are present in our schools and communities that create this kind of need?
When I went to camp at age 14, The YES was like a giant sigh of relief. The fear, anxiety and disconnection I had been feeling in my middle school, and in my peer group were suddenly replaced with feelings of connection, support, belonging and acceptance. I finally felt seen, celebrated, loved and appreciated. I was able to release so much of my tension and despair, and instead get curious about who I was, what I valued in the people around me, and what I needed to feel full, alive and successful.
At The YES we build connection, and in turn connection builds self-worth, confidence, resilience and leadership.
One of my absolute favourite things about The YES, and about the 20 years worth of memories I have from spending summers at beautiful Lake Cowichan, are the incredible friendships I have seen form. Something we see over and over again in our experience surveys and testimonials, and witness in the ways youth talk about their experiences is that they make strong, deep, enduring and healthy friendships.
"All of the friendships I’ve made at camp have been amazing, camp really is an awesome place to meet new people and be your most vulnerable self. Having that trust and no judgment feeling at camp it really makes a big impact on all of us and there you can really find who your true friends are. It is a place where we all make these magical connections that carry on into our daily lives" - YES Participant, 2021
A recent international poll by the McCann World Group found that 46% of adults across 26 countries indicated that they didn’t have any true friends. Another recent study from Harvard found that found young people are the loneliest group, with 61% of 18-25 year olds feeling lonely frequently or “all of the time”. These, and other studies, combined with the assertion from Vivek Murthy, the US surgeon general, that we’re in the midst of a loneliness epidemic should concern all of us. Murthy demonstrates that loneliness has direct physiological effects representing a greater threat than smoking 15 cigarettes a day or being obese.
The point is that friendship is not only one of the great joys of life. Friendships are essential to our well being, our happiness, and our health.
We need friends! And not just any friends. Loneliness is not about how many people you see or talk to each day. According to Johann Hari, author of Lost Connections, “loneliness isn’t the physical absence of other people - it’s the sense that you are not sharing anything that matters with anyone else.”
At The YES we build friendships based on trust, vulnerability, values and empathy. Friendships like these stand the test of time. Often youth remark that in just one week of camp they made better friends than they’ve made at home, at school, and throughout their lives. It's a powerful community effort based on a shared vision. It is something really special to see people find true friendships, and watch them revel in the joys of feeling so connected to another person or people.
It isn’t just that The YES introduces youth to new friends, we also teach teens the skills they need to improve their current friendships, connect more deeply with themselves and others, and work through conflicts with improved communication skills, self-awareness and self-regulation tools. The YES helps set teens up to have more meaningful relationships throughout their lives. When I went home from The YES as a teenager, I started connecting with my friends at home in new ways. I started using compliments more and showing appreciation for the unique characteristics and personalities of my friends. I started asking people better questions, and found myself turning into a better and better friend to those around me.
"Camp has been a key part in creating more friends for me. Since everyone was so authentic and real, it allowed me to be the same. I don’t think I would be as comfortable around people I don’t know yet without going to camp" - YES Participant, 2021
I like to say at The YES that we raise the bar for the quality of relationships teenagers can expect in their lives. I truly believe that this is one of the most profound catalysts for change we offer. Teens go back into their lives and their communities armed with experiences and knowledge to help them be better friends, but also to be better future partners, parents, coworkers, community members and leaders.
From my point of view, friendships are the number one reason to come to The YES.
About the Author:
Chelsea Lake (she/her) is the Executive Director of The Youth Excellence Society and holds a Masters of Education in Leadership Studies from the University of Victoria.