"If every kid got to go to Orkila, it would be an incredible thing." | Elliot's Camp Story
Last updated: May 26, 2023, at 9:33 a.m. PT
Originally published: May 26, 2023, at 9:33 a.m. PT
Now a college student in California, Elliot Smith still clearly remembers his first experiences with the YMCA Camp Orkila on Orcas Island nearly a decade ago.
The island camp was “absolutely amazing,” Elliot recalls. “It was one of the most beautiful places I’d ever seen.” The surrounding old-growth forest, sloping meadows, apple orchards, and the view of the Salish Sea made an immediate impression, even when Elliot was in elementary school.
During his first week at camp, Elliot had a great time bonding with new friends, eating as a community in the lodge, and laughing and singing camp songs around the bonfire, but he had no idea of the personal journey he was about to begin.
Every year, thousands of young people from throughout the Greater Seattle area attend YMCA sleepaway island camps and day camps, living experiences that make a lasting impact. Last year, more than 5,000 YMCA kids got to experience the outdoor wonderland of the Pacific Northwest. They learned new skills, made new friends, and grew as leaders.
Elliot didn’t set out to be a camp leader, but in his first year, he worked with two counselors who inspired him with their friendliness and team-building skills. “These counselors were passionate about their jobs, and they shared their excitement with us,” Elliot recalls.
Even mundane activities like making paper mâché sculptures became memorable experiences with the support of camp staff, says Elliot.
The following summer, he returned to camp and learned of a unique Orkila leadership program that included a 28-day kayaking trip through the San Juan Islands. Hearing of the “Islander” adventure planted a seed for Elliot. “I couldn’t get the idea out of my head.”
“The challenge of it really appealed to me. I wondered if I could do it, and it really made me want to be on the leadership path for camp.”
A few years later, Elliot fulfilled his dream, undertaking the month-long journey when he and other campers worked together to chart their kayak voyage. Elliot loved the experience and went on to take other exploration trips with increasing degrees of difficulty.
Elliot recalls one of his earliest kayaking trips with the YMCA, where new challenges emerged at every turn. Being met with unexpected weather patterns, Elliot and the other campers were forced to haul their kayaks over land for miles and figure out alternate routes to get to their destinations. “To this day, I’ve never had another experience like that, where everyone bonded together to make things work. We were in such good spirits the whole time, cracking jokes, singing songs, there was this pervasive optimism that we could accomplish what we wanted to do.”
Elliot went on to take a staff position with the camp, helping to launch his own expeditions. As a leader, Elliot worked to emulate the enthusiasm and focus of the counselors he remembered well from his early years at camp.
“I loved the expedition and camping trips that I took. You get partnered with another trip leader; the whole point of the program is to promote leadership opportunities for the teens. Quickly you move from trip leader to facilitator; to help other campers to take control of the decision-making process.
“Not only do we teach and promote these leadership skills, but we give campers a real environment to test those skills. One of the best things is seeing youth in their shell step up and assume responsibility. Sometimes you see that they don’t believe in themselves, but they take on new challenges.”
Elliot continued to take leadership roles at Orkila and even helped to fundraise for the summer program during the off-season. “I’m very proud of this program. It’s why I was so motivated to fundraise,” Elliot says.
Now a student at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, Elliot will take his boating skills and marine expertise to Hawaii this summer, where he will work full-time as a Naturalist with the Pacific Whale Foundation in Hawaii. He still plans to stay engaged with Camp Orkila and hopes to make the program, particularly sailing trips, more accessible for young people with disabilities.
“Being at Orkila fosters independence and critical thinking skills. It’s incredible. It’s a whole new perspective on life. I became a better person. I learned how to hone life skills. Having resources like this for all youth is probably the most valuable thing we can offer as a society.
“If every kid got to go to Orkila, it would be an incredible thing.”