Grand Rapids camp teaches kids to see past stereotypes

Meagan Beck
Grand Rapids Press

Grand Rapids — During an activity time at Camp Tall Turf, director of programs Miriam De Jong gave each camper a potato.

They were told to look closely at their potato before De Jong took it back. From their memory, campers had to find the specific potato they were given earlier.

Having children and teens find a potato out of a group might seem like a silly activity. However, Trinity Cook, 13, of Grand Rapids said there is a bigger meaning behind it.

The activity is just one of many at camp that teaches campers the importance of banishing all stereotypes.

“Even though they’re all special in their way and since people don’t take the time to look at people’s special features and just their bad features, they stereotype them into someone else,” Cook said.

Born out of a response to race riots in the 1960s, Camp Tall Turf is a faith-based camp created as a place to bring together young people of various racial, ethnic and other backgrounds.

According to its website, staff at the camp believe “in order for us to make progress towards God’s vision of wholeness and unity, we need to first be reconciled to each other, to ourselves and to God.”

There are camp sessions for youth, teens and families. The camp prides itself on not only welcoming diverse campers, but diverse staff members as well.

“One of the unique things about our camp, (campers) see a diversity among staff that reflects their own backgrounds, as well as backgrounds that are different from their own,” De Jong said.

Site manager David Brasser, whose family has been involved with the camp since its conception, said in this day and age, it’s important for young people to experience reconciliation and see people of various backgrounds working together.

De Jong said some campers have expressed the belief that racism is even worse today than during the civil rights movement half a century ago because it is more “hidden” in the systems.

“It can be anything from simply going out to a store and being followed around in that store while you’re shopping,” De Jong said. “Or an experience of walking down the street and a cop pulls over and says, ‘What are you doing, why are you out walking?’ questioning them really for no reason.’”

She said these issues can be traced back to stereotypes, assumptions and white privilege that persist in communities.

Young people want and have the capability to make an impact on these issues, De Jong said. If others listen to and empower them, she said they will be able to make a difference in systems and communities.

Head counselor LeMarr Jackson said he became a camper when he was 8, went through the Leaders in Training program and has kept coming back as a counselor.

“Tall Turf has really impacted my life immensely,” he said. “It has taught me everything I need to know about reconciliation.”

Brasser said the camp helps to build a climate where young people and staff members can have conversations about stereotypes, negative assumptions and racism.

“I see Tall Turf playing the role of developing leaders who can bridge the divide between races,” Brasser said.

Jackson, with help from other staff members, is able to help develop potential leaders by passing on what he has learned and by helping kids address the racism they might face in their everyday lives.

“If you ever want to change the future, then you have to change the youth because the youth are the future,” he said.

On the day before her last at camp, Cook said she will apply why she’s learned when she goes back to school.

“I think I’ll remember even though people still stereotype people, it’s not a good thing,” Cook said. “No matter what the stereotype is.”