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A compass in the Storm

We have a saying at camp – “Tumbleweed Forever”. Through fire and plague, fear and the unknown, this saying has gotten us through.

When you have been around for over 65 years, you think you have seen it all – and you get comfortable in your place. Coming to Tumbleweed invokes a certain sense of exclusivity, of celebrity status, you get the sense that you are sending your child to the best of the best. And so those of us who work here get comfortable with that feeling, too – 2020 was supposed to be OUR YEAR. After a major fire in 2019 and financial challenges, we were leaning into our high-society status: we brought on a marketing advisors, sought out the fanciest program offerings, we “implemented” and “recruited” and became even more “exclusive”, because that is what we knew to be the best path to success. But then, in March of 2020, we were challenged to even understand what “success” really meant.

Innovation takes many forms – it can be exciting, creative, challenging, superficial and even detrimental. However, all these forms of innovation start at the same place: a critical need for change. Why reinvent the wheel if it’s already perfect? Why fix something that is not broken? The onset of the Coronavirus in March of 2020 proved to be the perfect catalyst to show us all the many things that were broken. How did we get so far away from our true purpose, our true sense of success? And so we dove deep. The Spring of last year gave us time and space and perspective. With no future to be imagined, we could finally stop and be and think. And what came out of all this time? A new sense of self, a truer meaning to the phrase “Tumbleweed Forever”.

It must have been in April, that Andy and I sat down on the couch and talked about our fears –what were we going to do? We decided on that night what success was going to look like. It was not going to be the same old story of higher registration, fanciest programs, exclusive offers, more money – it was going to be community, care, connection. Success at Tumbleweed, and in our lives, was going to look like failure and processing, it would look like doing the most for whoever we could reach and delivering them the purest form of the camp experience – to be happy.

We were innovating the very meaning of our existence, it was a metamorphosis of sorts: familiar and common to start, ugly and grotesque and unsure in the middle, eventually leading to a relief that there is an end of beauty and newness, while all the time still remaining ourselves. To an outsider, it might seem that we are very much the same. We are still a day camp in West Los Angeles, primarily operating in the summer and offering outdoor experiences to kids from the surrounding Westside communities. But this is not what we DO anymore; this is not how we measure success. We realized in the Spring that if we could, we would – we would do everything we could to bring “Tumbleweed” to our families “forever”.

And so we set about the business of diving even deeper. We became closer to our camp families, our staff, our alumni. We believed that in order to achieve this new form of success, we had to get close and be vulnerable and show our community that we were going to figure this out with them and for them. We realized that we had the answer to these problems of isolation, sadness, and the unknown and we set about doing the work to be able to connect the solution with the problem. And so when, in the middle of May, we had to suspend camp, we had done the groundwork of making connections and caring for our families. We had shared with our families, campers, and staff everything that was behind the scenes, all the ups and downs so that when challenge inevitably arose, they knew us and trusted us. And believe in “Tumbleweed Forever”.

That week in May broke my heart. But I believed in our new idea of success, I trusted the work we did to reinvent our purpose. We pressed on through the month, still sharing with our community, knowing that we had to be ready if the time came to resume camp. There were logistical elements that we had to be prepared for that took hours and hours of reading and processing and documenting, all with the hope that if we could, we would. We believed through this time that what people needed the most was what we had to offer – being unplugged, being able to explore, and play. To connect humans in a way that offers these experiences is to directly combat the illness that was growing throughout our community. To be clear, the illness was not just COVID-19. It was fear, isolation, despair, and anxiety. It was the worst of ourselves because we could not be the best of ourselves. I knew we could fight that at camp, if given the chance. We were different now – Tumbleweed was not just the fancy day camp in LA, it was what we always hoped to be: a place of true belonging to be your true self.

If we could, we would. And finally, we did.

In a flurry of 3 weeks, we put everything that we had been working on into place so that we could deliver the solution that so many people were looking for. Last summer brought stress and anxiety that woke up with me every morning and kept me awake most nights. But was it worth it? I never had to question the worth of what we were bringing. Day in and day out, parents, kids, grandparents, uncles, nannies, anyone that could tell us would say, “you save my family”, “you saved my child’s life”, “my family is smiling again”. That is when I knew the change, the metamorphosis was complete. We were different now, and there was no going back.

Summer camp turned into fall camp turning into winter camp then into later-winter camp, at which point we realized we needed better names for all this camp. Even as I’m writing and reflecting on this past year now, it’s hard to think about camp in the ways we use to. Now all we can think of is how we can care more, deepen our sense of belonging, help more people find their truest selves.

Lots of people give us praise for running in-person during a pandemic, for being on top of our protocols and creating layers of safety. We receive positive words of encouragement for engaging our community and staff in assessing how equitable, inclusive, and accessible we are. The daily work that is on the surface is hard, it takes time and energy. But the deeper work, the innovation of the self and the reinventing of our purpose, has brought about a great sense of relief. It has given us something to always go back to, a compass to guide us. I lately have been thinking about why I feel a little disconnected from my peers and colleagues when we are discussing operations and “camp stuff”. I only realized now what it is – when making decisions about camp (which, let’s be honest, is more than just a job, it’s my life), I’m not looking at these individual pieces and programs. I’m not looking at the surface, and I never was. Others are starting in the middle with “how do you screen your staff” and “what policies do you use for cleaning” – I started at the very beginning. I started with “why are we here”. That has made all the difference.

As we look towards future years, we now know we can get through anything, because our sense of success has changed. The very idea of failure is different – failure is not the end, it is another iteration of change. We used to say “Tumbleweed Forever” because it was part of our camp song, a fun, catchy thing to say at the end of a staff meeting or last-day-of-camp speech. Now, we say “Tumbleweed Forever” because it shows us what is true. It is our compass in the storm, forever leading us back to our place of true belonging.

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