Leaving your place of birth for the first time can be a nerve-wracking experience. Without your family for support, and in a foreign country where your language isn’t spoken, you would be forgiven for finding everything a little overwhelming, especially if you were just fifteen years old. Yet Thaís appears to have taken it all in her stride.
“My mum was much more nervous than me,” she laughs. I fear I have to admit that I am too: Thaís scoffs at my idea that she might have been anxious about her first ever flight. “Why?,” she asks, “I just slept! Then I woke up with a headache, drank some water, and went back to sleep again.”
Although Thaís was able to make calls back home during her third week abroad – more to reassure her mother, it seems, than anything else – the no phone rule at camp meant she also had no contact with her family for the first two weeks. Caught up in her experience, however, Thaís explains how she was enjoying herself so much that she didn’t feel any “saudades”; she didn’t miss home at all. In fact, she was having the time of her life at Camp Hazen YMCA.
Initially worried about her level of English, Thaís quickly made friends with a girl called Claire, and from there she was soon talking to everyone. As one of the few foreigners at a camp of 70-80 teenagers – Thaís remembers there being a Colombian and a Jamaican too, though the latter obviously faced less of a language barrier – Thaís found her English developing quickly.
“Some things I had found difficult for a while I learned in a couple of hours,” she says. Immersed in an English language environment, she tells me, she had to find a way to understand.
I began talking to Thaís about her experience at Camp Hazen in Portuguese – we’ve never met before and I wanted her to feel at ease speaking to me first – but this seems like the moment to switch to English. I’m amazed at how seamless it is. I can’t say how good her English already was before but boy is it good now.
During Thaís’s stay, the camp-goers were divided into groups of five or six before being assigned a sleeping cabin in the woods. Each of these cabins had a counsellor, a slightly older mentor figure. “When I first saw my counsellor,” Thaís tells me, “I thought that she must be a model. She was so beautiful!”
It’s clear when listening to Thaís that this cabin structure, as well as the no phone policy, was extremely beneficial. Time was put aside every day for “cabin chat,” where each counsellor sat down with all the members of their cabin and encouraged them to talk about anything they wanted: their opinions, what they were finding challenging, what they had particularly loved doing, and so on. Each cabin was thus a space of emotional bonding and support.
Thaís speaks very highly of the counsellors’ roles during camp activities, too: “they were always motivating the campers to be involved in as much as possible and to try things they never had before.” With this wonderful network of support, perhaps it’s little surprise that Thaís didn’t miss home that much, especially as the picture she paints of a day at the camp is verging on the idyllic.
After getting up at 7.15am, the members of the cabin would walk together from the woods to the main camp area for breakfast, before a day of activities. The schedule for these changed each week, but every day had six periods of wide-ranging activity, such as climbing, outdoor cooking, and Thaís’s personal favourite, windsurfing. Although she had never windsurfed before, her experience doing stand up paddling with her father in Rio helped her take to it like a duck to water.
Camp life wasn’t entirely rosy, however. Cooking outside by an open fire, when it was already very sunny and hot, was sometimes a draining experience. But by far the most shocking thing for Thaís came at night during the walks back to the cabin, as they often involved frightening encounters with eight-legged beasts…
“The spiders were the worst,” she says, “I cried a lot because of them! One time there was a spider in my bed and they had to take me out screaming!”
Thaís laughs about it now and, spiders aside, she emphatically states that Camp Hazen was “the best experience I’ve ever had. I grew more than any other time in my life.”
As much as this is undoubtedly due to the fantastic environment created by the camp, credit too must go to Thaís herself. I’m struck by her maturity during our conversation and her advice to future camp-goers – “Be positive. Enjoy it as much as you can. It’s great for your English and growing as a person” – suggests she is someone who makes the most of the opportunities presented to her.
Thaís evidently took this attitude into the last week of her stay with a host family, once the two weeks at camp were over. Though some shyness returned at first, Thaís formed a strong bond with the family over the course of the week. She refers to Kathleen, Joe, Eme, and Jackson not as “my host family,” but simply “my family”; to Eme as “my sister,” and to Jackson as “my brother.”
The highlight of this week was unquestionably a trip to New York City. Even though this came with a slight sense of disappointment – owing to her passion for ballet, Thaís had hoped to visit Gaynor Minden, only to find it closed on the day she went – she still thoroughly enjoyed her time in other stores, like M&M, and at the theatre. Indeed, Thaís goes so far as to say that “New York felt like home: all the cars, people screaming all the time!”
We both laugh – not for the first time – at her characterisations of her home-town and the Big Apple. After camp, Thaís also delivered a speech at a fundraiser for Brayce, one of Edumais’s partners, about her experience at Camp Hazen. Once again, she had some butterflies in her stomach beforehand but overall was very happy with how it went. From the initial apprehension when she arrived at the camp, here Thaís was putting her much-improved English to use in public speaking.
Thaís fully deserves to feel proud of herself and her development, and I find myself feeling the same way about my involvement with EduMais while talking to her. Granting opportunities to talented, resolute young people like her is exactly what it is all about.
When I ask her whether the experience has changed her ideas about the future, however, her short answer – “no” – leaves me a little disappointed. But it soon becomes clear that I’ve got the wrong end of the stick. “No,” she says again, “I still want to study medicine in the United States. It has made me more determined than ever.”
Dreaming big, a mere three weeks in the United States have patently had a profound impact upon this intelligent, courageous, and admirable teenager. Thaís made lots of friends she is still in contact with and her confidence in English has grown immeasurably. Hopefully her time at Camp Hazen and with the host family has begun the process of realizing those dreams.