Youth camps at USD offer life-changing experiences

All kids want to be accepted for who they are.

Thanks to two camps now reaching their conclusion at the University of South Dakota, more than 300 students have been able to experience just what that feels like.

The 29th Annual South Dakota Governor's Camp and the 24th Annual South Dakota Ambassadors of Excellence Program have given gifted middle- and high-schoolers the opportunity to gain experiences they might not otherwise have.

"We try to provide a really optimal experience for these gifted campers so they have academics that they don't get in school, that they have a very supportive environment so they'll try new things, and that they have a good social environment so they can meet with other campers and realize they … have common experiences," said program director Dr. Trudi Nelson.

Kevin Wendt has been involved with the program for the past 15 years – two as a camper, three as an ambassador and 10 as a staff member.

"It was the thing that changed my life," Wendt said. "I was a loner and I was kind of on the analytical side … and I moved to a really small town where if you weren't on the football team you weren't cool."

While he said he did not enjoy his first year at the Governor's Camp, he won an award, which encouraged him to return the next year.

"I met a couple of guys as my roommates and I just started moving out of my box," Wendt said. "I found I out I don't have to do what everyone does. I can have my own interests and likes."

Wendt now works as a senior instructor at the Dunwoody College of Technology in Minneapolis, and teaches a number of computer-related classes at the camp, as well as helping to coordinate end-of-the-week projects.

Heath Weber, who directs the high school program, has been involved even longer – 26 years.

"I think it's probably the most important work that I do all year," Weber said. "I love my work as an educator, but I think this work that I do here is powerful on a different level. Gifted kids have different needs, and oftentimes in their schools … they feel isolated.

"So, they can come to a place like this that is bigger than themselves but yet full of people who are just like them," he said.

That kind of peer interaction is exactly what encourages participants to return year after year, first as campers, then as ambassadors, then as volunteers.

"The environment here at Ambassadors Camp is very uplifting and an inspiration for a lot of people," said Elliot Johnson, 18, now in his fourth year with the program. "When I came here for the first time, I didn't really know what to expect, but after coming here for four years I've really learned a lot about myself and understood that being gifted comes with a lot of opportunities. …

"It really helped develop who I am as a person today," he said.

Fifth-year camper Ryder Wilson, 17, echoed these statements.

"My first year I was super-quiet," he said. "I didn't have (any) friends, I had no one, and now I am outgoing, I talk to everyone. I was elected the South Dakota State Student Council president, and I give everything to this camp for giving me the confidence to run for that position."

Molly Sterlich, 13, said she felt a bit overwhelmed by her first summer at camp last year, "but everyone is really welcoming so you don't feel scared to be away from home."

These are the kinds of experiences Nelson said she wants students to gain from their experience.

"I want the campers to walk out of here more confident that they can be who they are, that they can pursue the things that they are good at, that they will take a risk and try new things, that they will realize that they are not alone and that they will realize that they have some responsibility to help bring up other people around them," she said.

"Bringing up other people" is part of what the Ambassadors of Excellence is about.

Participants arrived Monday, July 16 and will stay through today (Friday). During their first week, the 10th- through 12th-graders took part in a variety of classes and team-building activities, and served as counselors, activity coordinators and mentors for the Governor's Camp, which started Sunday.

They also spent time practicing for the 24th Annual South Dakota Ambassadors Excellence Performance, which took place Thursday at 7 p.m. in the Wayne S. Knudson Theatre.

Weber said the show "is typically centered around a theme, so there is singing and dancing and choreographed songs. There is some theatre, drama, skits and improvisation."

Governor's Camp participants also take part in a variety of activities, including classes, tours, field trips and projects.

Some of the class topics include videography, computer programming, musical theatre, acting, dance, cake decorating, engineering, physics, forensic science, history, political science, singing, essay writing and environmental science.

"We have a real range. You name it, we pretty much do it," Nelson said. "They get a full range of theatre, art, science, literature, writing and technology. We have people from the university, from professional fields, we have graduate and undergraduate students who teach those classes."

Aside from their wide variety of academic specialties, the classes also give the students an opportunity to push themselves.

"You get outside your comfort zone, you try something new, you follow your passions, you do these kinds of things," Nelson said. "The things that make you unique are the things that you should be pursuing, not just saying, 'I can get an A without trying.'"

Weber said one reason the camps have lasted so long is their response to changes in students' needs.

"The state lost its funding for gifted ed, and so we had to really change how we delivered instruction and experiences to the kids, so that we were broadening our base," he said.

"In this state, we are not mandated or funded for gifted education," Nelson added. "Some schools have gifted programs because they choose to do it, not because they have additional funding. That varies a lot from school to school. A lot of schools don't have it, and every year we lose more. We lost Aberdeen this year. They had a gifted program for 20-some years, and it's gone now. That just kills us."

But as long as the volunteers are willing to donate their time, some of that void will be filled.

"I'll come back until they tell me not to," Wendt said.

The current campers said they want to return, as well.

"To put it into perspective, it's a place you can call home," Wilson said. "It's a carefree place where you can do anything you want. No one's going to judge you for who you are. If you mess up, people are going to build you right back up. These people are like my family."

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