For a camper, it isn’t the amount of money or the size of the award, but the reason behind it. As a camp coordinator, it’s important to understand the distinction.
As a volunteer, I facilitate the sports hour at Camp Med, a licensed day-care program sponsored by the City of South Pasadena, Calif. During the summer, about 80 children, ages 5 to 11, participate.
In terms of my background, I have had the privilege to work on the Olympics every two years and other sporting events, and have been the recipient of souvenirs and sponsorship memorabilia.
Two years ago, at the end of summer camp, I felt compelled to give out an award, an Athens Olympic watch, to our Honor Camper. In front of the other campers, I read a speech:
Your thoughtfulness and caring are much appreciated. The kind words you have spoken to your fellow campers and to the counselors have not gone unnoticed. Your effort and good sportsmanship have been Olympian. To honor you, CampMed would like to give you a special watch that celebrates the Olympics and name you our Honor Camper.
This created a lot of excitement among the kids, so much so that the following summer, they kept asking if I was going to give out another watch. I did, as well as eight other awards. I also gave out prizes at various random times throughout the summer. I learned invaluable lessons about the awards and what they truly meant to the recipients.
Make It Personal
As I grew up, half of the awards I received seemed generic, even though some were large marble trophies. They had little meaning for me. The most thrilling award was in the second grade when I received a small blue ribbon for “Most Improved.” I liked it because it was authentic and true.
One of the more personal awards of summer camp went to a boy whose math team won the regional, state, western states and national competitions, and it had a wonderfully neutral Mr. Spock-like persona, a bust of Pythagoras:
The Pythagoras Award
Pythagoras was a great math genius of ancient Greece. He believed that numbers were the ultimate reality. Pythagoras was also known to be a keen observer, a good friend and awise man.
Camp Med has had the great fortune of having a Pythagorean in our midst, and we honor you now.
I always give the winning child a copy of the speech as a reminder of what was said and as something he or she can show to parents. The speeches generally are short because the kids are eager to see the award (which is always wrapped or covered), and find out who receives it. So, in a few words, strive to communicate an essence:
I recognized your goodness from day one. It is always a delight to have you here with us at CampMed.
The kids also like awards that sound cool. This one got their attention:
Ninja Soccer Girl Award
You are like a Ninja on the field: quiet, graceful, highly efficient and determined. It is a joy to see you on the field with a soccer ball.
In the following award I wanted to suggest to this modest boy that he was fully capable of doing special things on the soccer field:
Soccer King Award
You have improved steadily throughout the summer, but what has truly impressed me is your heart. You are willing to play on much smaller teams against an army of kids.
There is an element of poetry about your game. You know when to pass, where to position yourself, when to accelerate, how to curve the ball and how to lead on the field. [ (We have photo approval for him, the only boy.)]
Last summer, my wife and I cleaned out our garage, and she discovered a pretty pin with little jewels on it. She no longer wanted it, but I saw an opportunity because one of our best soccer players at camp was also a stylish dresser.
Camp Med Soccer Girl Award
There was a day in the middle of the summer when you had just about a perfect game. You were in a zone. Defensively, you took the ball away from everybody who came your way, and then booted the ball upfield or made an excellent pass. You did this for 45 minutes straight. It was so exciting to watch. [ (We have photo approval for her, she is wearing a gray shirt that has clouds and a colorful butterfly on it.)]
I worked at the 1994 World Cup and received a limited-edition silk scarf celebrating the event. Where does one find a happy home for such an item?
Most Improved Girl Award
This summer, you not only started taking shots on the goal, you started scoring goals.
It has been a pleasure to get to know you better. You bring a radiance and elegant presence to CampMed.
I remember this young lady very gracefully taking the large scarf from itse box, and later peacefully and meticulously folding it up again. In the caring way she handled the scarf, I could tell that she appreciated it.
Intending to give out awards that summer, I discovered that there was an interesting dynamic at work. In the case of the soccer girl, I wanted to give her an award, and then the award presented itself. In the case of the scarf, the award appeared, and then the perfect recipient was revealed. This intuitive process went on throughout the summer. As each new revelation came forward, it felt like I was cracking a code. I never thought there would be nine awards, maybe three tops. Strangely, it seemed like I wasn’t in charge; I just listened, cooperated, and went with the flow.
It Doesn’t Have To Be Expensive
During one match, the rubber tip of a plastic hockey stick broke. At the end of the game, I announced that the MVP of the game would receive the rubber tip. This cracked the kids up, and they all wanted to receive it. There was a buzz of excitement. The kids taught me that prizes could be silly as well.
Christmas In July
Meanwhile, at home, my wife and I went through the Christmas ornaments that filled the garage. I thought, if the kids wanted the rubber tip of a hockey stick, they would probably like some Christmas items, and announced that for one week (while it was 90-plus degrees in Southern California) it would be Christmas in July, and I would award Christmas items throughout the week. Each day, I brought a brown bag with a Christmas item inside, and the kids couldn’t wait for the award ceremony.
During the week, a young boy came up to me and said that he wanted a prize. I asked him what, and he said without hesitation, “I want a Santa.” All the kids wanted a prize, but with this boy, there was an extra need for acknowledgement.
The following day, he ran to me and asked if his Santa was in the brown bag. At the end of sports hour, I gave him the bag, and told him he was receiving this prize for being very sweet. He opened it and took out the Santa. The kids cheered and clapped for him. He just stood there in awe with his Santa, vulnerable, wide-eyed, taking in all the support. Later he told me dearly that he felt, “a little embarrassed.” It was one of the most beautiful moments of the summer.
It’s an example of how, by taking a positive action, (providing Christmas in July), an opening sometimes magically occurs for something even greater to come forward.
Make A Statement
The kids assist with setting up the field and then putting things away. This fall, one girl camper stood out as a good helper, and I wanted to award her and also send a message.
Best Helper Award
You are my best helper. You really get things done. You set up the rope in Capture the Ball. You take the cart back to the basement for hockey. You make good suggestions on where the cones should go for the soccer game.
If the other campers watch you, they will see what a good helper is. [(We have photo approval for her. She is wearing glasses and a blue sweatshirt]
Not everyone has an overflowing garage. There is a wonderful, free organization called freecycle that is dedicated to reducing landfill waste. Members essentially play give and take, asking for what they want and posting what they have to give away. You can send an e-mail to the group asking for what you want (for example, old trophies and jewelry, children’s toys in good condition, etc.). You’ll probably receive some interesting items, all at no cost.
Giving A Watch
A watch turns out to be a perfect award. It can be trendy, colorful and fun. It’s practical. You can take it to school. It’s with you all day. It feels special. Kids love a watch. This was the speech for this year’s watch recipient:
The MVS Award for Most Valuable Support
After just a few days of summer camp, I knew, by your supportive actions, that you were destined for an award. It turned out that what I found for you, however, was totally sold out in Southern California and Oregon and Minnesota. I finally found a store in Chicago, Illinois, that had one last one.
You have helped me so, so much. I appreciate you so greatly that words can’t even say.
This award goes to the one who has been my right hand and has been wonderful and supportive throughout summer camp.
This November, 60 Minutes did a piece on millennial kids whose childhoods are “filled with trophies and adulation.” The paradigm represented here is totally the opposite–heartfelt recognition and thanks to children who, by their very presence, give so much more than they receive. An award can go a long way in supporting the self-esteem of a child.
Lony Ruhmann is a career counselor from South Pasadena, Calif., with an MBA from the University of Michigan. He also works as a ticket manager for the Olympics. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org