Photo: Youth and Family Circle on Facebook.
I founded Youth and Family Circle about eight years ago with several friends. Each year we have 130, 140 people that we take to camp. It’s children and parents.
In our community, a lot of the children are from East Africa, so we don’t have a background of going to summer camps. I came to this country in the year of 2000. Somalia had civil war. They had to reconstruct the country. My family decided to take us away from there. I stayed with brothers and sisters and my aunt in Minnesota. I was placed in middle school. One day, my teachers told me, “We are going on a weeklong camping trip.” I didn’t know what that meant because I was still new to America. I experienced camp for the first time in my life – fishing, cabins. In America, it’s a normal thing for people to go to camp; for us, it’s not normal. It’s like, “Wow! What an experience!”
A few friends – Mahdi Osman, Neelain Muhammad, and Mohamed Amin Kedir – and I founded Youth and Family Circle. We started with a couple days of camping. We thought it would be a really cool experience for kids who had never had this kind of experience. It really turned out to be really good.
We didn’t have too many funds at that time. We went through neighborhoods, knocking on doors, getting $1 or $5 from each door. And we built it. Bloomington Public Schools reached out to us and we made a partnership. They have been supporting us. We also have support from Holy Land, a restaurant in northeast Minneapolis. We also have support from the St. Paul Police Department. They call the police department near our campsites and make sure they look over us, to make sure we’re safe. We’ve made many different connections over the last few years.
At camp, children reconnect with their families. In today’s world, a lot of young people are always connected to their phone, to social media, to Snapchat. Even their parents complain, “When we are at home, our kids are using their phones and never talk to us.” So parents are so happy inside when they are at camp and their children talk to them. They learn more about the children at camp than when they are at home because the phone doesn’t work, the signal doesn’t work, and they have no choice but to start having conversations.
A lot of kids don’t know about canoeing. It’s new to them. Last year, we had a big boat and we gave all the kids a chance to come in the boat. We do hiking on different trails. We do a scavenger hunt. We do soccer. We do volleyball. We do badminton, table tennis. When it’s lunchtime, we all eat together. We talk to everyone and get to know different parents. At nighttime, we do campfires. We invite the kids to bring their talent, whether they have a poem, a story, something to sing, something to say, a joke. All the talents come out at the campfire and that makes it really fun. We also have talks and lectures. We have a talk about drugs and alcohol because we want them to be successful in school and not end up on the street. Last year we had a presentation about how to prevent negativity on social media. We try to educate them, have some good presentations that are useful in their lives and that will benefit them as well.
Minnesota has 10,000 lakes and all these different adventurous spaces you can go. We try to go to different campsites. We’ve been to St. Croix State Park, Sibley State Park, Flandrau State Park, Whitewater State Park, and Wyalusing State Park in Wisconsin. We try to see what’s out there. We do cabins. We don’t do tents. We’re not at that level yet!
Nature is something that is part of human life. In the city, children are always like, “What’s next to do?” Work, school, it’s ongoing. But when they’re out there in nature, they reconnect to themselves and their families. They get to know more about themselves than they do in the city.
When a city boy or girl goes to camp for the first time and sees a river, they’re like, “Wow!” And when they’re out there, no one tells them what to do. They feel freedom. They can run. They can throw a ball. They can swim. They can do all the activities without someone telling them what to do. As they get closer to the rivers and lakes, their senses come alive.
Camps are not the only things we do. We do field trips. We take kids to water parks, to the zoo, to Valleyfair, to Minnehaha Falls. We hope to build a big center with a swimming pool and after-school programs, and not only for kids. It’s a place where families would have a connection, a place where everyone who comes there will know each other more deeply. It will be a place where everyone feels a sense of belonging, where families can get to know each other, eat together, a place where families can do activities together.
Mahmud Kanyare is a co-founder of Youth and Family Circle.