Image Courtesy of Operation Purple Camp.
As Greg Haegle of the Sierra Club highlighted on Monday, the Sierra Club, in conjunction with the National Military Family Association, hosts Operation Purple Camp each summer, allowing 10,000 kids the change to get in touch with nature at over 60 different week-long camps across the country. This might seem like an odd partnership, but the Sierra Club's motto is to explore, enjoy and protect the wild places on the planet, and, according to Brittany McKee, the Sierra Club's National Military Representative, the Sierra Club wanted to get people out in nature and realized there is an entire group (the kids) that is having to serve and could use a chance to be kids. Being on hand for the welcome home of the Catalina Island camp, Treehugger got to see first hand the impact that a week in the outdoors can have on 120 kids.Many of the children attending have never been to summer camp, much less an island, or tried snorkeling or kayaking. Most told counselors that if they were not at camp they would be watching tv, playing video games or sleeping in. This was an even bigger awakening for the kids, given that the kids took a boat out to the island and slept outdoors in tents all week.
The Kids First Experience With Nature
Several of the kids said that hands-down their favorite time was when a local bison, who they lovingly named "George", walked right through their opening day ceremonies. This impromptu meeting was a great start to the rest of the week.
For the next five days the kids spent almost their entire time outdoors — snorkeling, kayaking and hiking. One day the kids saw a school of leopard sharks swim by, the next they snorkeled around reefs. According to Patty Barron, Director of Youth Initiatives for National Military Family Association, "every time they saw a living thing in the environment, they couldn't believe it; they soaked it up." The kids then had time every afternoon to debrief about what they saw, quiet time for individual reflection and then time for journaling.
The kids were divided into two camps, the Alphas and the Omegas, and one group of the younger girls climbed to the top of an area hill at 5am to shout down cheers to their teammates (and taunt the opposing team); more demonstration of the Sierra Club's belief that being outdoors promotes self-confidence. These are valuable skills that the children will need when they leave the island and enter the real world again. Other confidence building activities included low-ropes courses and survival activity games learning to find water/shelter and a GPS scavenger hunt.
The Welcome Home
Family members were each given an Operation purple bracelet and a red, white and blue lei for the welcome home party, along with all of the pets, siblings and posters, with things like "Wii sold the Xbox", that they brought to welcome their loved ones home. Over half of the people in the audience have a loved one or partner currently serving. While waiting for the buses to arrive, Major General Michael Lehnert gave the crowd a few words of inspiration and making the connection by simply saying that "A country worth defending is a country worth conserving."
As Haegele put it, the camps are designed to provide a bit of brief respite and support-building for kids who have had to grow up faster than they may want. Watching the kids come pull up in buses, chanting their camp cheers, hanging out windows, still attached to their new best friends, and with t-shirts signed with supportive messages, it was clear that Operation Purple Camp is more than accomplishing its goals.
Once the kids arrived back to Camp Pendleton, there was a huge parade of family members, and not many dry eyes in the crowd. Siblings were eager to hear from their brother/sister what they missed out on. Many of the kids were eager to introduce their parents to their favorite counselor, saying, "I want you to meet my mom."
It was hard to be in the audience and not be moved. Kids who not only have the stress of not talking to a parent for months on end, but also have to take on extra chores and miss out on summer events because their care-giving parent no longer has time, were given a chance to let go and be kids in the great outdoors. Speaking with one family, whose father had been to Iraq twice, the camps are so important for the kids to allow them to release and find kids they can relate to. According to Barron, the first day of registration over 1,000 people applied, many waiting 6 hours for the site to catch up and allow new registrants. With over 12,000 applicants, and 10,000 attendees, Operation Purple was able to get almost every kid to camp this summer.
More Sierra Club Partnerships
The Sierra Club is also partnering with Outward Bound to take returned servicemen on week-long excursions to help them decompress and acclimate, all as part of the long-standing belief in the healing powers of nature. In addition, the Sierra Club sponsors free weekend camps in a retreat setting to help families reconnect after the long separations of deployment.