Of all the times I’ve tried, I’ve never quite been able to capture my experiences at Westwind, and it’s an experience without which I would not be the person I am today. Westwind Outdoor School outside Lincoln City, Oregon is a camp for middle school kids, where they learn about the environment first hand, but it means so much more to counselors, students, teachers and staff. This is my best attempt at capturing my experience as a counselor:

I sing to the firelight, an arm around a friend on each side. We sway as our voices jumble together, none of us knowing every word. As I miss a line, Shark and Chirp sing on for me, and I do the same for them. Dozens of tiny faces around the fire gaze into its light or straight at us. The three of us singing get the last song of the campfire and of the week. This campfire marks the end of one of the best weeks of my life. Each counselor had worked all week to make each kid’s outdoor experience a great one, and enjoy the camp in the process. We had all laughed, sung, and given every shred of energy for the kids whose faces are now illuminated by the fire, uncommonly silent.

Rewind to the beginning, tumbling headlong into an unknown adventure with a group of friends. It all started with a 3 am wake up call, laughs on the bus and a flight to a place a few states away. New faces met us before we arrived, two of which I will later sing alongside at the closing campfire. Everyone gains a new identity with our camp names. Meet Hocus, Wolf, Gazelle, Eggy, Toadie, Crawdad, Pascal, Shark, Chirp and many more. Meet the kids, all hundred and fourteen of them, and each counselor who is responsible for eight of them. Each of us meet our new cabin families, and the adventure begins. For four and a half days our schedules are packed to the minute with trees, sand, sea creatures, and more for the kids to discover, and we sang them through it all.

Guiding, supervising, teaching, and tending to the needs of eight kids, whose names I will never forget, was the greatest adventure and challenge I’ve ever faced; watching them discover another world outside the classroom walls was worth every second, every ache and every grain of sand in my shoe. And I found I had changed too, discovered a side of myself I had never known, and I saw the same in the other counselors.

At Westwind, I learned what it meant to serve, and experienced the strength that that lent me. I learned that when I am working for the sake of another person, or in this case my cabin of sixth graders, I have a reservoir of energy and happiness deeper than I ever thought possible. I learned how to keep moving forward through challenges, and to act even when I am unsure of myself. I learned to “fake it ‘til you make it,” and that a weary, fake smile to make another happy truly can turn my fake smile into a real one. Finally, I learned that relying on the staff and my fellow counselors when I inevitably screwed up is a strength, not a weakness.

In the midst of everything, I never thought it would end. I made amazing new friends in both old and new faces, spent a week in the outdoors helping kids explore, and discovered so much about the world. Yet every “river carves its way down to the ocean,” and I found myself at the final campfire, singing from my heart with friends on all sides. So I will “sing for the friends [I’ve] made, wherever they are” because “a million tomorrows shall all pass away/ Ere I forget all the joys that are mine today.”