Almost all of us have experienced it. If we’re lucky, at any given moment we can have access to it. It can take different forms and change and evolve. And what’s truly special about it is that it can mean different things for different people, but at its core it offers all of us the same benefits. I’m talking about community. No matter their background, community is something that all people seek, will likely continue to, and most definitely always have. Many institutions, including our network of summer camps, spend a considerable amount of time discussing, building, and celebrating the value of community. Yet in a world where community still proves elusive to far too many, community shouldn’t be taken for granted. Particularly now, in an age with so much emphasis on online connectivity, it can be easy for people of any age to feel left short on interpersonal support. Which makes it worth asking: what are the key ingredients for a successful community? And: how can we establish one that is as inclusive as possible in order for the maximum amount of people to enjoy the benefits?
The need to belong is a powerful driver. CNN Health ran an article discussing our human need to join together, dwell among each other, and collaborate. Psychologists argue that it’s a fundamental aspect of our existence. The vast majority of human beings live within a community of some sort, after all: a city, town, village, or neighborhood. And yet, despite this, it’s not at all uncommon for people to feel like they don’t fit in, or that they don’t belong. Ask yourself: how many times in your life have you felt lonely or isolated despite being surrounded by other people? Clearly it’s more than just a numbers game. Clearly a community is about more than just a group of people in the same place.
Perhaps as a direct result, the phrase “intentional community” is a common one these days. It seems to suggest that a group of people is going to strive for more than physical proximity. By definition an intentional community requires direct engagement, and it’s within that direct engagement that the other critical components of community begin to take shape.
Community can be found in places of employment, sports teams, churches, interest groups, and yes – of course – sleep-away summer camps. One thing these places share is a common bond. A goal or a focus. In addition to the intentionality of their collectivism and their engagement with one another, there is a joint pursuit of a shared purpose. This is true, whether it’s the honing of a skill or curiosity, victory over an opposing team, or the betterment of one another and each other. What is intrinsic is an inherent system of support. Intentionality, engagement, and a joint mission strengthen the community and allow members to hold each other up; to rise together in the spirit of a united interest.
The benefits of this are staggering. Everyone knows the particularly sweet taste of success when a community is able to achieve its goals. And we certainly know the power of its support to soften the blows during shortcomings. It all comes back to that ubiquitous need to belong. To feel valued, appreciated, and cared for. When it’s given and shared, it feels completely natural to give. And when that trust is established – and those bonds are created – a deeper level of human connection is fostered.
The greatest challenge to community is the question of how best to appeal to its members. The more people in a community, the greater the chances of friction due to a difference of methodology, philosophy, personality, and even general background. For this reason, some believe diversity to be an enemy to community cohesion. However, while sameness can sometimes be conducive to smoothness, homogeneity tends to stifle and limit strength.
Just as a sports team must utilize players of different skills or a choir singers of different voice parts, so too must a community embrace members of different shapes, types, and minds. Indeed, one of the biggest challenges to community is perhaps also its biggest asset. True too, is the notion that – when it comes to accomplishing a shared goal – all for one does not mean one in the same.
For these reasons, the most successful communities embrace inclusivity as a central pillar of their existence. If members feel welcomed, if members feel embraced, supported, and cared for, members will be all the more free to embrace the mission and return this support to the betterment of themselves and those around them. It’s important to remember that community can form to accomplish any goal – no matter how grand or casual – and that that goal can be as simple as building friendships or enjoying oneself.
These observations and ingredients are at the core of what makes people have such a fondness for their group experiences, and are definitely central to positive work done in youth organizations across the country including summer camps like ours. We continue to challenge ourselves by asking, and being deliberate about, how we can build the best possible experience, for all campers, within a system of unyielding love and support. Because we believe strongly that, without community, summer camp is little more than a bunch of people hanging out in the woods.