How Camp Helped Me Believe In Myself

This past spring an opportunity fell into my lap: The St Paul JCC’s Camp Butwin was in need of an instructor to run a four-day cooking camp for 3rd-6th graders, cooking things from the camp garden. More than one friend recommended me for the job, yet I came up with a million reasons I couldn’t do it.

The biggest most immediate fear was the driving. I more or less stick to a five-mile radius around my house of places I drive. I have zero sense of direction and if a road is closed or I miss my exit I am hopeless. Even with GPS, I worry it will tell me to drive into a lake and I’ll consider it. The second fear was the word “teach.” I imagined children finding me boring or worse asking me questions I couldn’t answer. I imagined the staff looking at me, waiting for the grand lesson that I hadn’t planned. Teachers go to school to learn how to teach; I didn’t think this was something I could fake. I was assured it was just like cooking at home with my own kids, but I wasn’t so sure.

There were two things that forced me to realize I couldn’t let fear win this time. The first was that I mentioned it to my kids. My oldest said that she really didn’t want to arrive back from camp and then almost immediately be gone again, yet she didn’t want me to miss out on an opportunity I wanted. She seemed to be more aware than I was that this was something I shouldn’t turn down. The second thing to humble me was the support from friends. The response was immediate and positive: Take the job, we will help shuttle your kids.

All my ducks were lined up. The only thing keeping me from says yes was fear. I live a fairly charmed life and I’ve had many opportunities like this fall into my lap. I also doubt myself more often than not and let fear win more often than it should. I said yes and then promptly put it out of my mind until early June.

June came and the panic settled back in. I contemplated if there was any way I could quit, but I knew I’d be leaving them in a horrible lurch and I’m just not that kind of person. I knew I had to put something together. I repeated to myself over and over that the worst that would happen is that it would be boring for the kids, that perhaps the camp would get complaints that the parents didn’t feel they’d gotten their money’s worth and I’d know definitively that in fact, I was not perfect for this. Three weeks before camp I buckled down and came up with a list of 25 things we could make that heavily featured the list of items I was told were growing in the camp garden. I bravely drove to Butwin to see the garden and the kitchen and tried to not look overwhelmed.

I stared at that list of dishes willing them to speak to me. How was I going to figure out what to make on which day? Then, about 10 days before camp when I was at my wit’s end, it did indeed just come to me. A simple plan. The theme for each day would be a specific meal: Breakfast, lunch, dinner, and dessert. Knowing the kids couldn’t be in the kitchen itself and we had access to a blender, picking 12-15 dishes was suddenly easy. The ball started rolling and things just fell into place. Making lists of ingredients and jobs and a timeline of the order we’d need to make things felt like something I’ve always done. It was just like planning a big meal at home. I got this.

The night before camp I sneezed three times. My husband and I exchanged a look of fear. I dismissed it; I hardly ever get sick anymore. By 1 a.m. I was in tears. My throat hurt and my sinuses were stuffed and I couldn’t sleep. That morning, on a few hours of sleep, loaded up on medicine, caffeine, and adrenaline I dropped my kids off at 8:15 and was at Butwin by 9 a.m. to prep.


I started with lunch rather than breakfast because I knew I wanted to make a salad and that was one of our more flexible dishes. It would give me a chance to see what was in the garden that particular week and let the kids feel like there had some choice in what they were eating. I was overwhelmed when they actually arrived. There were so many of them! We had kids who wanted to take charge and kids who didn’t seem to want to be there. I can only describe the day as controlled chaos. Like live theatre, you push through and just keep moving. We made a kale gazpacho in the blender, salad bar, and honey & basil salad dressing. Only one child refused to taste the soup. Two of them came back for seconds! The majority of the salad vegetables were gone. I drove home exhausted, enthralled and terrified to go back. One day down. I just have to do this three more times and then I never have to do it again.


Breakfast: I had spent Monday afternoon resting and contemplating how to make the rest of the week smoother. I made a list of all the things from the garden we’d need for the week and tasked the kids in teams to find those items. A vegetable scavenger hunt. Tuesday was already off to a better start. We made egg frittata muffins, Israeli salad, and smoothies. I began to feel more comfortable, reminding them I have no expectations that they like everything we make, simply that I hope they’ll try it. They ate everything. This was also the first day we used the oven and the smell of the cooking eggs brought curious staff over to ask what we were doing. Suddenly I feel like I’m in the cool group.


Dinner: I explain the plan is to make a spaghetti dish with pesto and roasted beets, tomatoes and cheese. They ask if we have to mix it all together. Can it be more like a pasta bar? A perfect opportunity to talk about not getting too hung up on a specific recipe. We talk about how cooking can be fairly free-form. This was also my chance to talk about the garden-to-table connection. I got out large bowls of water and had a group of kids wash all the beets and carrots by hand, knowing that many of them had no idea how much dirt carrots have on them. This was also the day the kids found out how hard beets are to cut with the tiny paring knives we’d be using thus far. I brought out one real chef’s knife but only one girl really took to it. The rest continued to hack away with the small knives. We roasted some of the veggies and left some raw. Once again almost everything was devoured and the smell of the roasting vegetables filled the lodge.


Dessert: Dessert from the garden was more challenging. I had originally planned to make zucchini muffins, but the zucchini in the garden didn’t look great and there was a lot of rhubarb so we switched to a rhubarb crisp. We also decided to make blender ice cream. While we made ours with purchased fruit (bananas and a bag of frozen berries), but we talked about how we could have made it all with fruits that grow in Minnesota, like berries. I’ve decided today is knife day. Knives are pretty essential. I had 17 kids, 19 stalks of rhubarb and three adults. We set up three stations and an adult stood over each station and kids took turns three at a time using real chef knives to cut their stalk of rhubarb. Some were nervous, some were confident, some were over-confident. Another great opportunity to talk about how it doesn’t have to be perfect. This isn’t a competition and no one is judging you on your pieces all being exactly the same size and shape. At the end, there were two stalks left and one of the kids asked me to cut them to see how I cut. They gathered around and I felt like a rockstar while chopping, all the while talking about knife safety and having them notice that while I was talking, my eyes never moved from my knife and fingers.

After we finished eating our dessert, I asked them what their favorite foods had been other than dessert. Roasted beets were the overwhelming answer. I asked if they had tried a new food that week and almost every hand went up. I asked what part of cooking they liked best and got a mix of washing vegetables and using the ‘real’ knives or blender. I was sad to be done.

What I’ve finally realized in the last several years is things rarely fall apart, or at the very least they don’t end up in whatever worst case scenario kept me awake at night. Yet time and time again I have to push myself to say yes, to trust I’ll figure it out in the end or that others would come help if I asked. It was a hard and wonderful experience, and I’m so glad I said yes.