By Megan Anderluh, Chicago Wilderness Intern
It’s just before lunchtime on a Thursday at Mighty Acorns Summer Camp, which means that a group of sixty fourth- through sixth-graders only have one more evening left of their four-night sleepover camp experience at Dunes Learning Center, in Chesterton, Indiana. It’s a rare moment of repose in their busy schedule, full to the brim with nature exploration, wildlife observation, and s’mores roasting. The kids lounge on picnic tables and in the grass, putting the finishing touches on lanyards or passing around a soccer ball.
There’s a strict no-cell-phone policy at the summer camp, and taking a minute to catch their breath from all the outdoor activity, some campers meditate on this deprivation.
“Wow, I haven’t checked my Facebook, in like, days,” says one bespectacled 11-year-old. His observation is echoed by many of his friendship-bracelet-wearing peers, wearing tie-dye Mighty Acorns t-shirts they got to make on their first day.
“I know,” says a 12-year-old seated nearby. “At home, I’m always on my mom’s iPad.”
But before any more thought can be given to this change from the everyday, lunch is announced, and the kids are too preoccupied to miss the electronic devices that have become such a large part of the lives of American youth in the last decade. Their midday meal is filled with healthy food served on platters and tables full of newfound friends, watching skits put on by their fellow campers describing the day’s weather forecast, and keeping track of their food waste (there’s a competition between all the cabins to see who can produce the least).
Every student who participates in the Mighty Acorns program – currently delivered by seventeen organizations across the greater Chicago region, including Northwest Indiana– during the prior school year is invited to attend the program’s summer camp. Campers attend at a greatly reduced rate thanks to donations that keep the camp affordable and accessible to families who might not be able to send their kids otherwise. Those funders include ArcelorMittal, Dr. Scholl Foundation, U.S. Steel Foundation and individual donations from parents. The Mighty Acorns partnership is supported in part through a Chicago Wilderness grant from the Fish & Wildlife Service.
The summer camp not only brings together students from different communities around the greater region, but it gets the conservation message across to them in creative ways. In the mess hall, Emerson, an 11-year-old who hails from Clissold Elementary in Chicago, talks spiritedly about the food waste competition, saying it’s helped her learn that “it’s not right to waste food because it kills plants and animals.” Her friend Isabel, also 11 and from Clissold, then launches into a story of how when a member of their table couldn’t finish her oatmeal one morning, “the whole rest of the table” worked together to finish it for her, setting both girls into a fit of giggles.
Lessons such as these, learned through fun, unforgettable memories at summer camp, make an indelible impact on kids’ lives.
Emerson says that she’s also learned that “you can’t just be in nature; you have to take care of it, like the National Parks.” Ten-year-old Trinity, from Clissold, says that she found out that “You can taste sassafras right out of the ground, and it’s really good.” Dorian, another Clissold ten-year-old, says, “If I was not here right now, I’d just be spending my day sleeping, eating, and texting.” “I’m going to go outside more with friends now,” adds Isabel. “It’s actually really fun to be outside.”
One thing is certain as the group of campers disembarks from a bus that had been filled with laughter and singing, carrying towels and goggles for a perfect afternoon on the beach: there are a lot of happy kids around, and not a cell phone in sight. Mighty Acorns must be doing something right.
Those wishing to contribute to the Mighty Acorns program and summer camp can do so at duneslearningcenter.org.