Children Ponder Good & Evil at Camp Klicek

 

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We are all capable of good and evil.  People do bad things – sometimes they make mistakes that cause harm unwittingly. Sometimes they hurt others purposefully. Sometimes, doing nothing causes more pain for others than we can possibly imagine. At Camp Klicek in Malejovice, Czech Republic, founders Jiri and Marketa Královcovi make room for children to discuss and think about tough issues. They want kids in their care to be more than followers and simplistic thinkers, to see the humanity in everyone and the possibility that although conflict might be inevitable when a large group of people gather, people can make mistakes and still not be bad people.

And so, on one bright summer morning, following a hearty breakfast of porridge, bread, tomatoes, peppers, tea and hot carob with milk, the adults at camp led the children in an activity that reverberated throughout the week. The children gathered in small groups by age bracket. Some sat in the meadow, some under the mess tent, others in the courtyard. With adult guidance, they contemplated these questions:

  • What are bad or evils things?
  • Why do people do them?
  • What can be done about it?

The children took the assignment seriously, taking notes and including the voices of all. I moved amongst the groups, catching a snippet here and there from a kind translator. The children mentioned everything from the past and present atrocities of the world to the more mundane, including genocide, torture, terrorism and bullying on their lists. The youngest camper, when asked why people do bad things, answered, “Because they don’t love each other.”

At the end of the small group conversations, each group reported out to the whole camp, as we sat in the shade of the mess tent and processed together. The discussions were the scaffolding for the real fun. The next step of this activity involved each group choosing one of their examples, writing a play script to demonstrate the concept, and videotaping the enactment. The kids were deeply involved in this process throughout the day, and that night, they set up an outdoor theater in the courtyard, complete with a movie screen, the moon shining down upon us, and homemade apple strudel made from the summer apples, the Klicek version of popcorn. We smacked our lips and licked our fingers as we watched the completed movies, along with some movies created in past years.

My favorite play depicted two different families heading off to summer camp.  One family had no luggage or sleeping bags, just the clothes on their backs. The mother handed her children 10 crowns apiece and kissed them goodbye. The other family stood in front of a Mercedes Benz with their fancy clothes, belongings, cell phones, and the mother dolling out hundreds of crowns to each child. The scenario played out with the rich kids arriving at camp, immediately making fun of the poor kids, an act of kindness when one of them falls down and the other helps them up, and all of the kids ending up playing a game of football (soccer in the US) together.

A simple message, but one not lost on any of us. The campers did indeed come from a variety of backgrounds, and would probably not be interacting at school or in social circles outside of this camp environment. When I think of acts of evil, I think about how we create separation by dehumanizing people who we label as “other.” It is harder to keep these stereotypes and misconceptions in place when we wake, sing, break bread, play, and rest our heads together in the same teepee. I saw many acts of kindness each day between campers, whether it was an older child helping another child navigate steep steps, the hard work of the volunteers in our kitchen, or folks pitching in to help a teen search for her lost eyeglasses.

The thoughtful planning applied to activities that built community astounded me. Along with a mess kit and clothes, the camp packing list asked each child and adult to bring a glass jar with a lid to camp. The campers decorated these jars with their names and artwork, and hung them by ribbons on the branch of a low tree in the meadow behind the house. They left messages of appreciation in each jar, to adults and kids alike throughout the weeks. At the end of camp, they each took their jar with them, with strict instructions to hold off on opening it until they had arrived home. Marketa said that this is a concrete way to further the bonds created at camp. “Some of these children are isolated because of their illnesses. These jars and their notes are a lifeline for them throughout the year.”

My jar sits on my desk at home and reminds me of the generosity of spirit that children share so willingly. I can see why these campers return year after year to the meadow, the tree and the love.

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Camp Klicek: A Dose of Nature and the Universal Language of Play

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I remember the endless swath of time that summer brought when I was a young child. Unstructured free time in nature, with neighborhood kids, and my family. I also played alone, exploring the back roads on my bike and the woods on foot. At the age of seven, I would be gone for hours, playing in brooks, creating forts under the shelter of giant boulders, climbing trees, making up stories in my head, and writing poetry.

These days, we are hard put to find children at play in this kind of open-ended, unsupervised milieu. Their play is planned, highly structured by adults, and often close-ended. When left to their own devices, kids often choose tablets, smart phones and video games as their go to. Child life specialists and hospital play specialists know the value of deep, open-ended play that encourages self-expression, exploration, self-regulation, social development, and problem solving. My friends at the Klicek Foundation in the Czech Republic provide these play opportunities at their summer camp for children and families affected by illness and loss. This year, they invited me to partake in a unique camp experience, and I immersed myself in the healing environment of Camp Klicek, which has been in operation since 1992.

 

Children after a long-term therapy (and sometimes even patients under treatment, if their health allows it) take part in the camp, as well as their friends, siblings, parents and pets. Several bereaved families come too.

Our camp activities began as an attempt to offer a two-week stay in beautiful natural surrounding also to those children who couldn’t participate in a “normal” summer camp. We have always tried to create a friendly, open-hearted and open-minded atmosphere in our camps, and we hope that the camp program gives its participants enough opportunities to have fun, to do some useful work, to talk about things that are important to them, to simply be with friends.

The camp games and plays (mostly non-competitive) follow the make-believe story of a man who decided to spend some time with nature and is thus confronted with new situations and thoughts and starts to meditate on his own life and on the civilization he lives in.

Children live in big Indian “tee-pee” tents which are able to accommodate up to six inhabitants and have a fireplace inside.

Since 2000, we organize our camps on a meadow just behind the respite hospice building at Malejovice – thanks to this, children whose condition requires special attention can also participate in the camp program, backed by the safe environment of our house.

 

    klicek.org

 

Indeed, I found myself amidst a remarkable mix of campers and staff, a combination of people and circumstances that is hard to imagine anywhere else. The youngest camper was seven years of age, the oldest, twenty. The children’s diagnoses differed significantly, as did their abilities, disabilities, ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds. There were children undergoing treatment, survivors of serious illness, siblings, friends, parents, and bereaved parents who had lost a child. The camp leaders, Jiri and Marketa, are purposeful in their choice to bring children and adults together where they might not otherwise interact in larger society. Watching connections form between the campers and staff of varied backgrounds was a blessing on so many levels.

The focus of our days involved living in nature, eating good, healthy food, exploring tough topics such as “What is evil?” and “How can we make the hospital experience more pleasant?”, and above all, building community. The virtual lack of technology at camp was so refreshing. I felt myself detoxing from my smartphone addiction as I wrapped myself in nature, old fashioned, simple play, and grand company.

Many friends have asked me what it was like for me to be surrounded by children who spoke Czech. Did I learn any Czech? How did I communicate with them? Well, I was immersed in a foreign language – of that there is no doubt. Most children spoke no more than a few words or phrases in English, and my Czech is abysmal. But the children understand more English than they speak, and play is a universal language.  The children’s welcoming of me was profound, inviting me into play, making me feel immediately part of the group. “Frisbee?” “Will you play?” “Come play football.” “Ping pong?” “Draw.” Once engaged in a game or project, there was much good will and laughter as we all tried our best to communicate.

I too, grew my Czech vocabulary one word and gesture at a time. I made it my goal over the week to learn everyone’s name – a challenging feat with names that were not familiar to me.  But with each name and greeting, I could see the rapport growing, the shy kids responding, the teens warming. Some of my favorite moments were when I would board the 1970’s retro bus for a field trip, and a kid would smile at me and pat the seat beside them to show they’d been saving it for me. Or that wonderful moment, when the quietest camper, one who spent much time alone and looked down or sideways rather than meeting your gaze, took my hand as I stepped off the bus and walked quietly with me to our destination.

It’s the small stuff, really.

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Children berry picking on a picnic in Czech countryside

 

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Klicek Foundation cofounder Marketa leading us in a trivia game in the camp’s mess tent, where we ate all of our meals.

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In my next several posts, I will dive deeper into some of the activities we did, the games we played, the lessons I learned.

 

Over the River And through the Woods to the Czech Republic I Go

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I greatly anticipated my fourth visit to collaborate with the Klicek Foundation in the Czech Republic. The cold weather brings to mind the song from my childhood of traveling via horse and sleigh through the woods to grandmother’s house. For me, it meant taking a new route flying to Prague via a stop over in Zurich, which provided me with my first glimpse ever of the majestic Swiss Alps. I had no idea they covered such an expanse.

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Our adventures began immediately, as Jiri and Marketa Kralovec included me in some important errands along the way from Prague to their home in the small village of Malejovice.  The Klicek Foundation has secured a plot of land close to the Motol Hospital, on which they will build a new hostel for parents of sick children visiting Prague for specialized medical care. Our assignment for the day was to measure the distance between several trees and a wall, so that an engineer could design the parking lot to meet the requirements of the environmental council.

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And so, armed with measuring tape and a clipboard, we gathered the necessary measurements. We then wound through the city, making stops at two publishing companies and an electronics store, where we gained sustenance in a lovely cafe to tide us over before the hour long trip home to the village.

Molly the dog and the many cats greeted us, and there was hot homemade soup waiting on the stove and a crackling fire in the green ceramic fireplace. Having missed a night’s sleep on the plane, I was happy to fall into bed in the dark country night, and I slept deeply without remembering my dreams until rising early for a full day’s work the next morning.

The first scheduled event was a gathering of three schools that are housed in one building in Prague. There are two secondary schools, one for nursing and one for social work, and a college of nursing. The students came together in a chapel at the school of nursing Jana Paula 11, and we presented a workshop on the value of play and the psychosocial needs of children in hospitals. The room was jam packed with young people, and the more interactive we got, the more engaged they became.

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Following this seminar, I accompanied Jiri and Marketa to a city council meeting where they advocated for permission to build upon the plot. There are many steps to take before they can announce the council’s approval and begin fundraising for their project. A well known actor, David Vavra,  who also happens to be an architect, is designing the building.

Following a challenging meeting, we headed over to the famous Old Town Square, to the medieval building that houses the Skautsky Institute. There we hosted a gathering of hospital play specialists that also included the medical director of a hospital on the northern border, a book publisher, and a British law student studying abroad at the Charles University. We discussed the challenges facing the profession, many of which involved issues of racism regarding the care of Roma families. The thorough marginalization of the Roma leads to trust issues between the families and the staff. The play specialists often feel overwhelmed by the intersectionality of the many societal factors that impact the lives of Roma families.  They feel helpless in the face of such poverty and hopelessness.

The law student, of Roma heritage, adopted by a British family, is researching the educational inequities and racism that Roma children face in Europe. He hopes to champion their cause as he progresses in his profession. He had connected with me after reading my blog about the children of Chanov — such a small world after all

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