A Hero’s Journey: Ali Kelly

Ali makes it ten journeys in the gallery of camp counselors. I had a relationship with a horse like Ali describes. I was not a girl though. That will make sense when you read her journey.

The Mundane World: Growing up in Fenton, I led a life of clichés- I was “that” girl. I was an athlete, took honors and AP classes, on the prom committee, die-hard homecoming float builder, teacher’s pet, in National Honor Society- all the things you do to beef up your college applications. I was the typical “looks so happy on the outside, has everything she needs and then some, spunky, popular girl” person; but I was never happy. I put up this facade, but my parents knew better; they confronted me many times about depression and medication, but their attempts to help infuriated me. I knew I had depression and needed medication but I viewed both of these things as signs of weakness – something I don’t allow in my life. Also, I had this feeling that I would be happy eventually, and that I just hadn’t found the source yet. At the beginning of my senior year I stopped caring about the facade as well. I mentally checked out, and had already graduated in my mind. I didn’t care at all and just wanted to get out of town- escaping Fenton (and Michigan) had been my plan for years, and the time to leave was drawing near. However, I did have a boyfriend for my last two remaining months in Fenton, but I ended it before we left for college because I didn’t want to do a long-distance relationship. College in Chicago was a dream for me. I knew nobody, and that was exactly what I wanted- I love starting over, re-making myself with things I had learned from past experiences. Eventually, around February, I realized that I loved Chicago, but not school- I am not a school person. I love learning, but found all of the hoops I had to jump through insulting. I was no longer passionate about school (after just six months into a four-year process) and this made me crazy, as I am a passionate person, but didn’t have a passion; I was found wanting and desperate for something to fill myself with.

The Call To Adventure: In mid-February I passed a friend in the dining hall, and she had on a t-shirt from a YMCA camp in Wisconsin. She told me that she had been a camp counselor for a few summers, propelling me to walk straight to my room and apply to Copneconic – I’d heard about it, but didn’t know anything about the place. By mid-May I was back in Michigan and looking for a job, assuming camp wasn’t for me for that summer. I interviewed to be a nanny, but didn’t get the job. Upon hearing the news, my boyfriend (who I was now back together with) offered to take me to his family’s cabin up north, knowing I love the lake. On the car ride up there, he told me he had applied to Camp Copneconic, and got a job as a day camp counselor. The funny thing is that we weren’t a couple at the time we both applied, and it was a total coincidence. I was upset, to say the least, that he had a job at the place that had become my dream for the summer. That weekend, when we were packing on Sunday to come home, I received a phone call (which was odd, as my cell phone NEVER gets service at his place) from somebody at camp asking if I would come in for an interview on Tuesday. I agreed, and then ran laps around the house because I was so excited. I went to the interview, not fully aware of the job I was vying for – I had checked off most of the available jobs as positions I would take. Though I told my family and boyfriend I wanted to work at day camp so I could still have a life, I secretly wanted to be a resident ranch counselor, so my excitement grew tremendously at the interview when I learned that this was the position they were trying to fill. Actually, the position had already been filled – SOMEBODY ALREADY HAD THIS JOB – but the girl had to back out. I constantly think about how much I owe this unknowing person, who had to turn the job down. The next morning, I received a voicemail – I had the job, and had to be at staff training in four days. I was excited for another chance to start over with complete strangers. Somehow, knowing that I was called out of sheer desperation just a week before training didn’t bother me, or even cross my mind at the time; I was in!

Crossing The Threshold: I was lucky enough to cross the majority of my threshold in the first week of camp. I had a cabin of ten 10-12 year-old horse girls to myself for most of the day, as my co-counselor worked day camp at the ranch. I was amazed at how easily the kids bonded with me; they wanted to know all about me, tell me all about themselves, make friendship bracelets for me, get my advice about riding, etc. Somewhere between a list of names on Sunday morning and a rodeo on Friday afternoon, I had ten new friends, and they had a new hero. I saw it in different ways; I noticed that everything I said and did was deemed appropriate to mimic by them. By Wednesday – every single week – I couldn’t help but laugh inside when half of my campers had braids in their hair, like mine. I saw my ability to work with kids flourish in a way I never thought possible. I will never, ever forget lunch on Wednesday during the first week of camp, when Karen kneeled behind my chair and told me how happy she was to have me on staff, how impressed she was, while fanning her eyes. I was surprised, as I had just been dancing/jumping/screaming like a maniac.

There are two memories that really stick out in my mind concerning success with campers. One is with a camper from Flint; she didn’t want to go to summer camp at all, so picked ranch camp to spite her parents because it was more expensive. This was a girl who didn’t “swim in disgusting lakes, wear bug spray, live without air conditioning, walk in horse poop, touch worms, or brush dirty horses.” She was silent for the first two days, aside from refusing to ride. I always convinced her though, and by the end of the week she wanted to come back for more the same summer, but couldn’t afford it. Her mother mentioned how surprised she was that her daughter’s attitude toward camp did a total 180 over five days; she was expecting to pick up a completely vindictive child, enraged at being forced to stay, but instead picked up a much happier little girl, who sang praises for her counselor. The other memory includes a camper running up to me, throwing her arms around my waist and saying, “I couldn’t have done it without you.” That alone made my summer; everything else was just a bonus.

The Path of Trials: In the beginning, my path of trials consisted of my mom crying about me not being around for what was my last summer at home, and my boyfriend being upset with never seeing me. He ended our relationship after I spent a few weekends with camp people instead of him. I completely deserved it, but I considered camp people and experiences much more rewarding. I don’t regret the loss of the relationship, but do regret hurting him. Hands down, the most difficult challenge I faced my first summer was the Horse Masters week; these campers were older than my beloved 10-12 year-olds. They were TeenX, and they hated me. From the very beginning. As a counselor, I always made sure my campers were fair and included everybody, so when I was the one being ignored and gossiped about I didn’t know how to react. I tried to ignore them, hoping they would come to me; but they didn’t. I tried to talk with them, but I could tell they considered me a nuisance. Wednesday afternoon of that week we had some time to kill, so we split all of the horse masters into two groups, gave them props, and told them they to come up with a skit. As an afterthought, one of the counselors shouted out that each counselor had to be impersonated by a camper in the skits. Seemed like a funny idea, but the outcome really broke my heart. In the first group, the girl impersonating me didn’t really do anything but skip around and sing. Cute. However, the second girl to portray me carried around a “purse,” pretended to put on makeup and look into a “mirror” the whole time, while shouting at the top of her lungs at people. Even though I had never put makeup on during camp, or stared into a mirror, and didn’t really consider myself much of a yeller, I felt as though I had been punched in the gut. What part of my behavior would cajole the campers to think of me like this? To top it all off, at the end of the second skit a camper threw down a prop, saying, “And this is the hundred dollars we wasted on today!” Confused, the counselors asked what that meant, and the group replied, “Camp was $500, is five days long, and today we did nothing. $100 wasted.” I was heartbroken, and ready to just sleep until Sunday when my Trailblazers would be back. The other counselors were represented with accents and height differences, but I felt a personal attack and didn’t understand why it was toward me. What I found more upsetting was that I couldn’t tell if I really deserved it, and the inability to immediately determine “no” just made me even more miserable. I needed confirmation that I was a good counselor – I thrive off of feedback – and this was the first time all summer I felt inadequate. Though I did get better with teens after having one TeenX Midicha week, I am still relatively leery of them.

Another challenge I had was trusting the work of my peers; working with children and horses is scary and I didn’t trust everybody’s abilities on the ranch. I fear that the way I conveyed these concerns was perceived as gossiping and complaining. The truth is that I would have rather worked twice as hard and done the work of two people, instead of worrying about the performance, and potential danger, of others.

The last tremendously difficult event I had to deal with was the death of a camp horse. She was a staff horse, always quite nervous, and very anxious on trail rides. I decided to work with her, and ended up falling in love with the mare; she was amazing, and I know it sounds absurd, but we just clicked. In the beginning of the summer she was paranoid on trails, always snorting, ears pricked, looking around constantly; it was obvious she was scared. I rode her constantly, and eventually we fell into sync. By mid-summer, if she became anxious the sound of my voice calmed her, and when we went out on fast rides my smallest, tiniest signal received an immediate response. Also, I trusted her completely and knew that she would take care of me; my most vividly beautiful memories from the summer of 2006 are all related to flying around Voyager Field bareback, my fingers knotted in her mane, every nerve ending waiting for my next signal and her next burst of speed. It’s an odd relationship to try to describe, between a girl and a horse, but I could read her mind, she could read mine, and we calmed, encouraged, and trusted one another completely for those weeks before she left me. When I heard the news I cried on the deck during breakfast for a few minutes, then went back to my campers – who by some turn of fate were the sweetest, most sensitive girls I had all summer. Fate knew I would need soft hearts around me, and I had 11 that week.

Master of Two Worlds: I would like to say that I am a completely new person since my camp experience, but that’s not the case; I am a renewed person, finally aware of the things I have to offer and am capable of. I had the opportunity to take the skeletons out of my closet and dance with them; the tools of my life are no longer my image and expensive clothes, rather my torn jeans, broken-in cowboy boots, camp songs, and silly games, walkie-talkies, and bug spray, bales of hay and dirty saddle pads. I walked away from the summer of ’06 with friends closer than I’ve ever known, memories more beautiful than words are capable of expressing, and experiences that empower me to make a difference. My first summer at camp changed my entire perception of life and I was overwhelmed with my sudden awareness of the beautiful life I had at my fingertips all along, but never quite knew how to grab a hold of. That summer, those days in the dirt and sun, above all else gave me a sense of appreciation and gratitude – I’ve found that having these in my arsenal of tools for life makes every situation more fulfilling. In camp I have found a passion that runs deep in my being, and I feel full for the first time in a long time. All of these things strung together- the dirt, the sun, the kids, the heat, the trees, the cabins, the lessons learned, the strides made – had the power to bring a new season into my life. And that’s what camp is; a season that passes too quickly, but gives moment after fleeting moment of clarity – at the waterfront, the climbing tower, the athletic field, or the ranch – I was finally able to see the seductive allure of a life with passion.

8 Responses to A Hero’s Journey: Ali Kelly

  1. Lisa January 11, 2007 at 9:50 pm #

    *tear* I think you and I had very similar worlds. I’ve been having a very hard time seeing my world at camp through words, but I think you described it perfectly. Even down to the relationship with the horse. (although my HorseMasters was one of my best groups!)

    Matt…You weren’t speaking of Sultan were you????

  2. Lisa January 11, 2007 at 9:51 pm #

    I should mention I’m pregnant…so I literally cry at almost everything. However, you have a knack for writing.

  3. Matt Langdon January 11, 2007 at 9:56 pm #

    It was Sultan indeed. My first Horsemasters was one of the biggest challenges I had in twelve years. It had a lot to do with most of them being better riders than me. I think I could describe a Hero’s Journey for that two weeks of Horsemasters. Man, it was a journey and a half.

  4. Lisa January 11, 2007 at 10:10 pm #

    Come on you know Sultan was totally *MY* horse…at least while I was there!

    HorseMasters was one of my favorites…but then again, we had a GREAT bunch of girls those two weeks.

  5. Matt Langdon January 11, 2007 at 10:12 pm #

    I was lending you my horse. This is just another example of how giving I am. I risked life and limb and took Whiskey Sour, the psycho polo pony, for the summer.

  6. MLA January 11, 2007 at 10:16 pm #

    Wow – just, wow. Camp and its effects on people are the most ineffable entities I’ve ever encountered. That was fantastic, Ali.

  7. Erik January 12, 2007 at 10:28 am #

    Loved reading that Ali, I’ve known you for a long time and it’s great to see how camp changed you. And she was a good horse!

  8. Susanne February 1, 2007 at 11:44 pm #

    Lovely story.