Making friends at Camp Anytown

A week of diversity training can change a kid’s life

Cory Manning, a deaf-mute for an afternoon, helps feed Shavonne Van Dyke, whose arms are duct-taped to her sides.

Cory Manning, a deaf-mute for an afternoon, helps feed Shavonne Van Dyke, whose arms are duct-taped to her sides.

Photo By Deidre Pike

For more information on camps run by the National Conference for Community and Justice, call 333-9000.

The youth leader’s hand was wrapped in gauze and duct tape.

“I see you’ve lost your hand,” I remarked.

“Yes, and that really sucks,” he replied. “Because I’m the song leader, and I play guitar. But not anymore.”

Terry Debarger, director-in-training at last week’s Camp Anytown, examined his stump, a temporary disability inflicted on him just minutes earlier by the luck of the draw. More than 30 Camp Anytown staffers and 56 teens drew slips of paper to discover how each would spend the lunch hour—blindfolded, ears plugged or minus a limb or two.

Camp Anytown, which wrapped up Saturday at a retreat south of Carson City, is an annual project of the National Conference for Community and Justice. But this isn’t your average scout camp. For one thing, the kids who come to Camp Anytown are a diverse bunch. Student council types mix with gang members; African Americans with Latinos and Asians; Christians with Wiccans, atheists and Buddhists.

“For me, this work is about bringing together leaders—and I mean leaders in the broadest sense of the word,” said NCCJ regional executive director Christiana Bratiotis.

Besides doing crafts and singing around the campfire, the youths at Camp Anytown delve into topics like gender, class, ethnicity and religion. As an example, the disability experiment is designed to help kids identify with individuals who struggle with things like blindness, a loss of limbs or even psychiatric disorders.

“I’m learning to be grateful that I have all my body parts,” said Jeff Janssen. Janssen’s legs were taped together. As he hopped along in the lunch line, Janssen said he was able to come to the camp as a reward for having good grades. The 17-year-old, wearing a Rage Against the Machine T-shirt, said he enjoyed discussions of gender and learned a lot from talking about “words that hurt.”

And the food’s good, too.

“I just hope we’re not having soup,” said Diana Sawyer, 14, a Wooster High School student. Diana’s arms were taped to her sides, as were the arms of Shavonne Van Dyke, 14, a Sparks High student.

“Here, use my shoulder to itch your ear,” Van Dyke offered Sawyer. Then she turned to me: “Would you do me a favor? Please move the hair out of my face.”

When she was 16, Bratiotis attended the first Camp Anytown in Northern Nevada. That was 12 summers ago.In the late 1980s, NCCJ director Marsha Patinkin wanted to get the summer camp started here. But the local office lacked the funds. Then entertainer Sammy Davis Jr. came to town. Patinkin had heard that Davis was a big supporter of NCCJ, so she approached him for support. Davis came through.

“He fronted them $15,000 for the first Camp Anytown,” Bratiotis said.

She credited the camp with changing her life. At the end of camp that year, she wrote a letter home to herself, predicting that pursuing equality and justice would be her life’s work. At age 16, she even gave herself a decade to be the head of the NCCJ in Reno. After receiving a bachelor’s degree in social psychology and a master’s degree in social work from the University of Nevada, Reno, she became NCCJ director about two years ago. It was 9 years and 10 months after writing that letter.

Look, Mom, no hands! Feisty Dezaray Pleff, 16, refuses help and tries to master drinking with her temporary disability.

Photo By Deidre Pike

"[The vision] captivated me,” Bratiotis said. “But I couldn’t put words to it until many years later.”

Bratiotis said she grew up in a middle-class, white, Christian family.

“I led such a sheltered life in a Pollyanna-Cosby household,” she said. But coming to camp, she saw just how many individuals didn’t have the same advantages.

“My life of privilege disallowed me to see what else was going on in the world,” she said. “When you sit in the place of privilege, you choose whether or not to see something. You choose whether you want to drive in the ‘hood—or not drive in the ‘hood. When you live there, though, you don’t have that choice.”

During that week at camp, Bratiotis caught a glimpse of a world filled with racial inequality, gender bias and distrust of differing religious or cultural groups. And that brief look at reality wasn’t congruent with the world she wanted to be living in. “The experience was an awakening,” she said.

After lunch, the kids gathered for a kind of disability debriefing. In the front of the room was a flag decorated with a globe and the slogan: “Color outside the lines. Be the difference you want to see in the world."Discussion leader Susan Shapiro, whose nametag identifies her as “Da Nurse,” asked the teens how they felt about being disabled.

One boy said he felt dependent on others to help him—and he didn’t like it.

Others were embarrassed by not being able to use their arms to eat messy chili-cheese hot dogs. Those who had worn earplugs talked about the isolation of not being able to hear and be heard.

“I got sick of trying to make people understand me, so I just sat back in my own little world,” one said.

“It was a very lonely feeling,” added another.

The teens talked about how a disabled person might end up feeling excluded or picked on. One commented how simple phrases that teens use regularly—"That’s lame” or “It’s retarded” or even “Are you deaf?"—could end up being “words that hurt.”

The room was getting warm, but most of the kids seemed engaged by the dialogue. All were polite. Bratiotis said this group of teens is one of the most respectful she’s seen.

“I tell them that the work we do this week is the hardest work in life,” Bratiotis said. “You have to be introspective, looking inside yourself. And you have to have your eyes wide open to what’s going on outside. That’s a tall order, especially for teens.”

Though the NCCJ does only one Camp Anytown, the center also offers two weekend Camp Globaltowns for middle school students in the fall. And the group will do a one-day program, Camp Unitown, on request for a school, church or other group.

The “town” theme, Bratiotis said, reminds participants (called “delegates") that the community they are building during their time at camp can translate into a real-world experience.

“What we’re doing here this week in Reno—the way we’re living in this place—we want to be true for any community in any place."