We Came, We Camped, We Connected
On Saturday September 29th, 2018, Mastermind Connect successfully ran it’s most challenging and ambitious event to date; Camping to Connect at Governors Island.
We worked for over a year to build this experience. The goals were to introduce New York City’s underserved teens to the benefits of camping, to disconnect them from distracting technology, and to help them bond with one another. Our intention was to use the island as a literal and metaphorical refuge away from these teens' normal lives in some of the city's roughest neighborhoods, where they'd be able to explore the outdoors, connect and express their feelings and desires with peers and supportive adults, learn new things, set goals for the future, and return transformed. Our program, which was designed specifically to make the most of what the island had to offer, provided them with so much more.
As the young men arrived, they had many questions about what was about to happen. You could sense they were super curious. A lot of the young men have never been camping, let alone slept outdoors. They had to adjust. The teens are a part of a program from the New York City Department of Education called NYC Urban Ambassadors, and is spearheaded by Leslie Ann Dunn, Ayanna Dewer and Hector Calderon. Since Summer 2017, Mastermind Connect has curated monthly Breakfast of Champions career panels and related workshops for them. This year we wanted to add something different. We thank the NYC Urban ambassador team and the parents for trusting us with their teens.
The weather was perfect. They enjoyed lunch courtesy of Beatstro, a new Hip Hop themed restaurant that recently opened in the South Bronx. Beatstro’s chef Leonardo Marino, a partner at Donkey Proof International, and Chef Luis Mendez, worked very hard to make sure the quality and presentation of every meal thereafter matched the importance of what we were looking to offer.
After letting them get comfortable by taking in the expansiveness and amazing views of Lady Liberty, Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn, we kicked off the experience with an opening circle of gratitude and grounding, and everyone shared what comes to mind when they hear the word “potential,” which set the tone for the rest of the weekend.
Following the opening circle, the teens were assigned to breakout groups with adult mentors, which allowed them to share truly intimate aspects of their lives, including fears that were scribbled down on Field Notes donated pads, which they symbolically burned later in a campfire. We learned so much about them, as they expressed their goals, struggles and stories about their parents.
The teams began to put their tents together with help from Andrew Negron from Cat Rock Ventures, a Bronx-based organization dedicated to providing outdoor experiences, leadership training, community service opportunities, and educational support. They helped us greatly by lending us the additional camping gear we needed for our official kickoff event. Together, participants learned how to put pitch their tents, lay out their sleeping bags, and proper tent etiquette.
With the city bathed in golden afternoon light, we stood atop the highest point on Governors Island, with its 360 views, for an “Inspiration/Aspiration” activity. We had played the scenario in our minds a thousand times; we brought the teens to the summit of The Hills, which provided a powerful backdrop for the students to speak about the inspiring figures in their lives. The answers ranged from their parents to their siblings, and some even pointed to their friends as a source of inspiration. A few adult mentors, including UA Staff, shared personal stories of hardship and triumph, and campers were asked to shout aloud their own personal aspirations too. Our bond was solidified as the sun fell into a slow descent. We snapped some dope photos there. It was a postcard moment captured by Mastermind Connect member and international photographer Theodore Samuels.
As we walked back to our campsite, the sun finally sat over Gotham. The boys’ stomachs were starting to rumble again. We lined up the picnic tables to enjoy a BBQ chicken and ribs dinner that Leo and Luis had prepared and paired with delicious grilled vegetables. Imagine for a moment; an entire island to yourselves and all you see in the horizon are the lights from party boats, the Staten Island ferries going back and forth to pick up and drop off passengers, and Manhattan office buildings across the harbor, under the watch of lady Liberty. Now imagine it as one of these teens, who were there with their brothers in arms, dining and sharing about their dreams, and their struggles.
The team set-up a separate site strictly for our rite of passage ceremony, and we lit up the way there with Mpowered solar lamps. The sound of a beating drum in the distance guided the teens over to the field next to the campsite for the coolest campfire I’ve ever seen. Especially because people are not really allowed to set up campfires on the island’s grounds. But, thanks to the nice people at BioLite, who donated three of these portable fire pits (along with a special anti flammable mat prototype), we put them together and made magic happen!
Andy Isaacson, co-producer of this program, set-up a LED laser light show that bounced against the trees over the campfire. Omar Aena played tribal drums as the kids made their way there, and Nick Demeris, a vocal improv teacher from Carnegie Hall, used the art of beatbox to create a harmonic vibration, and led them in a freestyle voice and dance experience that turned into a moving display of joyful, unencumbered free-spiritedness. The group broke into a cypher and everyone took turns flowing and showing their freestyle skills. It was an expression of joy, determination and connecting with our musical roots.
The fire, glowing off of the young curious teens faces as they were asked to provide a tone that would eventually create a dope beat, was magical. And then, we made s'more over the fire… all smiles. A harmonious bond. The adults felt like kids again, and the teens felt free, away from the pressures of their city block. For some, simply sinking their bare feet into the grass and sleeping in a tent for the first time was transporting enough.
In the distance, as we started to walk away from the fire pit, a random firework show started going off from two large tug boats, and time could have not been more perfect.
As the teens nestled into their tents and laughed themselves to sleep, the adults commune and under the stars, still taking in the experience we just witnessed, and sharing what we have learned from these amazing young men. And then it was lights out for us too, tired. Our cups full.
We woke up the next morning slowly climbing out our our tents, with curiosity and the best views of a Manhattan sunrise. Thank God for coffee, and for Stanley for donating the french press to brew it.
On the table we laid out free gear from our generous sponsors who provided us with Darn Tough wool socks and Saxx underwear, Seirus gloves and beanie hats, Buff neck warmers, caps and Exo protein bars, which were all packed on their sleek Eagle Creek backpacks. Big thanks to the good folks at Goal Zero who donated a much need Yeti 400 portable power station to keep the batteries for our cameras charged!
Campers gathered for light stretching and an exercise called “You can have it.” In pairs, one camper repeatedly asked another, “What do you desire?” At first, the camper answering offer ed superficial or playful things (“...blueberry pancakes”), but then got deeper and more vulnerable (“...to graduate from college.”) as the exercise went on. After each answer, the questioner responded with: “You can have it.” After two minutes, they switched. After 30 minutes, teens participated in a boot camp led by Mastermind Connect founder Marlon Briscoe. The teens hustled and committed to a 45 minute total body workout.
After devouring yet another fantastic meal, we made our way to GrowNYC’s Urban Farm Workshop, where they learned about aquaponics systems, vegetable gardens and mashed up some hummus. The workshop allowed them to understand the benefits of fresh food and how it plays into their own nutrition. After the workshop, the students emerged with herbs tucked into their ears and a new word--"aquaponics"--in their lexicon.
These young men are used to moving around the concrete jungle just like the rest of us city dwellers. A scavenger hunt designed to teach them about the island's rich history, staged from Fort Jay was set to go. We let them read the rules outloud to one another, and the games began. We gave them one hour to figure out two pages of clues they had to hunt the island for. The teams started slowly trickling in back to the camp site and this is when things started to get heated. The teams had to work together, without adults assistance. They had to use their leadership skills, teamwork, strategy, endurance and more. They were able to display their smarts, as well as behaviour under pressure.
As the teens disputed over who they thought had cheated, we brought in Mastermind Connect member Ivo Philbert for a discussion about leadership and teamwork. Ivo was able to use the dispute to teach the teens how to effectively communicate and make better decisions. We then discussed envisioning a better life and using everything they learned over the weekend to do some real goal setting.
Even as the experience come to a close, I could tell the teens wanted more. They weren’t ready to leave just yet, but were also anxious to go share with their families all the fun they had. A cool thing we had them do was write a letter to their future selves. The letters will be returned to them at the end of the school year, and some will be read during the Urban Ambassador’s recognition ceremony.
This weekend was a learning experience for all of us. I think all the adults felt like tearing up during our closing circle, as each of the teens expressed their gratitude for the opportunity they had to be there, and the appreciation for those who showed they care about their well being and future. They shared their thoughts on how Camping to Connect helped them bond with their new brothers, and helped them realize things about themselves when they spoke about their fears and dreams earlier on.
We look forward to making Camping to Connect a movement, and it’s because of your generosity we were able to make this happen. We would like to thank the NYC Urban Ambassador facilitators, Mastermind Connect members, folks who donated, and all of the brands who blessed us with much needed gear.