July 06, 2008

Boys of Summer

The sun was beginning its long, slow dip behind the mountains and the field was increasingly painted a blinding orange. An old farmhouse sat somewhere out beyond centerfield, seemingly guarded by three patrolling horses. Just off the third base line a cabbage patch stretched a good one hundred meters and the entire scene played out under the watchful eye of a ski lift, disused in these summer months. The boys in the field awaited the first pitch, their gloves hanging uncertainly on their hands. The batter stepped up to the plate. He held the bat awkwardly but enthusiastically as I delivered the ball towards him. There was the ping of a metal bat on a hardball and the hitter took off running...to third base.

Ooops, we forgot to explain that rule. We also neglected to tell him to drop the bat after he hit the ball, so there he stood, grinning widely on third base with the bat in his hand. It was the first time he had ever taken a cut at a baseball. It was the first time any of them had. This was the National Leadership Camp for boys, a week-long gathering in the idyllic setting of the mountain town Krusevo. At this moment, fellow PCV Frank and I were holding a session on baseball and thanks to a generous donation of gloves, bats, and balls, we were able to teach throwing and hitting, as well as stage an actual game.

Frank and the boys take the field

Ninety boys, ages 12-17, gathered for the week. In my charge were 16 seventh and eighth graders and we called ourselves the Crazy Campers. Like the other five teams of boys, we had our own flag, cheer, and idiosyncrasies. I was teamed up with a Macedonian co-counselor named Igor. We hit it off immediately and had a very fun, very funny, and very tiring week guiding these young men.

The camp served two very important purposes. First, it gave the boys the uncommon experience of exploring their leadership potential and discussing that potential in the context of Macedonia's future. There were teamwork activities all week and leadership opportunities for all the boys. Second, the camp brought together boys from all over Macedonia. Despite its geographic petiteness, Macedonia has a surprising amount of cultural diversity, the result of a history of poor roads that made regional travel very difficult--for example, the citizens of Bitola have different customs and dialect than those of, say, Stip, a mere 50 miles away. This created a lively atmosphere of playful rivalry and humorous cultural exchange.

Even more to the point, the camp brought together ethnic Macedonian and Albanian boys. Membership into NATO and the EU aside, the relationship between these communities will be the defining question in the country's short- and long-term future and if tensions and suspicions are to be settled peacefully, it will be young people like these boys who will make that decision. All week we saw new friendships blossoming and heard genuine talk of understanding in their Civil Society classes.

These heavier things were balanced perfectly with the fun and games that go with any good summer camp. Daily sessions included music, outdoor skills such as using a compass and tying knots, and art, where we made origami and tie dyed t-shirts. And, of course, there were camp pranks and team rivalries. Igor and I led our team on a successful water balloon ambush on the last day of camp after being awoken at 6am that morning by a rival team banging on our doors and windows.

Teamwork games

On the final night there was a closing ceremony that featured a candle-lighting, during which boys were free to volunteer thoughts about the week. Their comments about friendship, leadership, and the future of their country were very touching and left all the counselors feeling quite satisfied with the week. I know our boys, the Crazy Campers, got a lot out of the camp and repeatedly told Igor and I (usually prefaced with, "Dan, Dan, Dan, Dan" or "Igor, Igor, Igor, Igor"...what can I say? Thirteen-year old boys are not known for their patience) that the camp was much more fun and interesting than they ever thought it would be.

Everyone exchanged contact information and headed back home on Saturday with new friends, skills, and ideas to carry them through summer and into the next school year. And if even a few of them can share what they learned with their friends, if even a few can be an example to their peers, than Macedonia's future just got a little bit brighter.

Just don't count on a national baseball team anytime soon.

Jillian is now off at the national girls camp, GLOW. Tune in next week to hear all about it...

With two of my boys, Muhamed and Denis

The Crazy Campers


dragan said...

can we see more pictures of the camp dan, thanks . from a boy of the 5-th phalanx (ryan and busu team )

Anonymous said...

Dan and Jillian, I think you both are having as much fun as your young charges. Letting us know what their comments are help us to get a feel of the progress your making in their lives. I'm sure that they look forward to each event that you conjure up for their benefit. Grandpa K.

Anonymous said...

Slave: Hey there, I am going to participate in a camp called "National Leadership Camp 2009" in Macedonia, some place called Shula Mina (28th June-4th July I think it's in Krushevo, but I am not sure. I know it's a Peace Corporation's project but I am not sure if this is the same thing, so write me back to see if I am Into the same thing. Thanks

Valtrim said...

@Slave: That sounds cool. I'm going to participate too this year in Krushevo. I think it's the same place where we're going because it the same week. 28th june - 4th july. Hope I'll see you there. If u like add me on msn timi-style@hotmail.com