The Power of Co-operation
When I was 14 years old I lived on Hornby Island, which is situated off the coast of Vancouver Island, on the west coast of Canada. My early childhood had been very exciting. My parents and I had spent the first six years of my life travelling the world, primarily between Québec, Canada, and India. It was not until I was nine that my family settled down on Hornby.
My parents were pleased to live on a small, peaceful Gulf Island known for its artists, activists and hippies. To them it was a chance to connect with people who shared their values. I could appreciate this but, unlike myself, the kids on Hornby did not seem to share their parents' values. At 14 years old, I needed to find individuals with the same energy, idealism and love for life that consumed me. I needed to be part of something productive, meaningful and fun.
Hornby relies on co-operative business to meet much of its economic and community needs. With only 900 residents, it is important for the community to be involved in the decisions of the island's major businesses. It was through the Hornby Island Co-op store that I was able to take part in an experience that would change my life.
In July of 1999, with two other Hornby teenagers and 40 other youth from across British Columbia, I attended Camp Rainbow's Basic Camp. Camp Rainbow is jointly administered by the Rainbow Youth Excellence Society and the BC Co-operative Association. It runs with support from the co-op and credit union movement in BC and has done so for over 25 years.
Imagine, 55 fourteen and fifteen year olds from all different socio-economic, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds meeting each other for the first time. Kids who got kicked around in high school deliberately paired with kids who kicked others around, city slickers, farm dwellers, suburban mall rats and small town country folk all trying to find common ground. We sat in small groups, mostly with people we already knew, or had somehow forged a connection with, and chatted quietly. As we eyed each other with discomfort and excitement, a camp counsellor armed with a flip chart and smelly markers approached the front of the room. In a clear and serious voice he asked, "What do you want to leave behind this week?"
This question, "What do you want to leave behind this week?" inevitably yields the same answers from every group of teenagers at every camp. By the time a list is fully compiled it includes a range of behaviours and concepts from swearing and put-downs, to disrespect and "isms". "What do you want more of this week?" results in a list that includes sleep and fun, but also inclusion and honesty. Year after year, the same answers emerge, and year after year a large group of teenagers commit to creating an environment of mutual respect and acceptance.
On my first night of camp, I experienced my first "Reflections". In an activity group of eight or nine people, including two staff members, we met in a small wooden cabin lit only with a candle. After everyone agreed to maintain the confidence of the group by not sharing others' stories outside of the circle, staff members asked the group questions about their lives. One by one participants were asked to share. I had never been asked what my biggest fear was, or who was the most important person in my life. I remember how powerful it was to hear stories I could relate to closely from a group of people I barely knew. It was amazing to me that others shared my insecurities, as well as my need to connect with others. "Reflections" became my favourite time of the day.
Each day, after breakfast there would be a staff-run, interactive session, based on themes of Self-Awareness, Communication, Co-operation and Leadership. These two hour sessions were designed to develop participants' life skills and to bring together the camp community. The co-operation session gave participants a brief background of the co-op movement, and led them through co-operative activities and games. These demonstrated instances when co-operation was more beneficial than competition.
For me, at fourteen, this was an inspirational idea. I had always assumed success was the product of competition. Through competition I would land a good job, lots of money and happiness, or so I was told. By considering co-operation and co-operatives as social and economic models, my eyes opened to the concept of mutual success as a catalyst to individual success. Camp Rainbow introduced me to this idea, and, through the co-operative structure of the camp, I saw first-hand what co-operation could achieve in a community.
Camp Rainbow is unique in that, not only does it have a vibrant and skilled group of facilitators, many of its activities are organized and run by participants. On the first day, campers form committees and choose whether they want to help plan the afternoon activities, the end of the week dance, or work on the general camp environment, among other things. These committees are run co-operatively. Each committee elects two representatives to sit on the town council, which is responsible for relaying information to the community. This resembles a co-operative board of directors. It is democratic and egalitarian. The committees and town council are accountable to the entire community.
As my week at Camp Rainbow progressed, I felt the group of participants grow closer and closer to one another. By the fifth day, people were dreading leaving. Camp Rainbow provided participants with friends for life. The relationships that were forged throughout the week rivalled life-long friendships. For one week we lived in a community where everyone could be herself or himself without fear of rejection or harassment. People opened up to each other and consequently realized that they were not alone. With this experience, knowledge and self-confidence, participants realized that there was tremendous potential to work together to achieve common goals. As people began to realize the power of the experience they had created together, the energy in the camp rose. Participants began to talk about what they wanted in their regular lives, aspects of camp life they didn't want to give up, and components of home life that they didn't want to go back to.
Returning home from camp was difficult. No one could understand what the experience had meant to me. However, after I had gotten over my initial re-entry shock, I was inspired to use the skills I had gained at camp. My friendships got stronger as I began to encourage honest and open communication. I began to organize activities at school and on the Island. I was suddenly more self-aware and came to understand my true values. My behaviour changed as I tried to live according to my values. I began to really value myself.
I attended the Camp Rainbow Reunion, Advanced Camp and Grad Camp and, when I was sixteen, I joined the staff team. I have been staffing at Camp Rainbow for four years and am committed to helping others have a similar experience to the one that I benefited so greatly from. My life now revolves around ideas of self-development, communication, co-operation and community. I am a political science student in university. The experience I had that summer at Camp Rainbow has helped me realize that I have a vested interest in community development and the co-operative movement.
In a world filled with competition and isolation, I believe it is important to be both accountable to a community and to benefit from its support. I think that co-operatives are an excellent way to achieve this in both rural and urban environments worldwide.
Chelsea Lake has worked with the British Columbia Co-operative Association, attends co-op conferences, and has run workshops at Camp Rainbow, a co-operative youth camp.