March 2005

Stephanie S. Tolan

Notes from the Author – March 2005

As you can see if you look toward the end of my Biography page, besides being a writer, I’m also a consultant on the needs of extremely bright kids (and adults). As a consultant, one of my titles is “Senior Fellow at the Institute for Educational Advancement (IEA).” The Institute is headquartered in South Pasadena, CA, but what it does includes the whole country. It has lots of programs to help kids with unusual minds find nourishment and challenges for those minds. You can check it out online to find out about the many wonderful things it does.

My own favorite IEA program is Yunasa – a one week summer camp for highly gifted kids ages 10 to 14, where I work (along with the other Senior Fellows) each summer. Yunasa is a Lakota word meaning balance, and that’s what we try to provide for the campers in a week packed with a whole lot of different kinds of experiences. Unlike most summer programs for bright kids, Yunasa isn’t focused on academics.

The first year Yunasa was held on the shores of Lake Michigan, the second year it was in Massachusetts. In 2004 we moved it to Camp Hanes, in King, NC – which is where it will be this year, too. This is especially nice for me, since it’s so close to where I live! Yunasa has plenty of “regular” camp activities (high and low ropes courses, swimming, hiking, canoeing, rock climbing, campfires, sing alongs, etc.) along with a whole variety of activities designed to help the campers balance mind, body, spirit, emotions and social self. No matter how bright you are, it’s not fun or healthy to be constantly pushed into your head, or noticed and valued only for your mind. So we try to give kids ways to avoid that kind of one-sidedness.

If you’ve read my book Welcome to the Ark (which all the campers were given to read the first year of Yunasa), you’ll remember that the Ark kids felt pretty isolated and misunderstood because they were so bright. You don’t have to be as far out as Miranda and Doug and Taryn and Elijah to find it hard to fit in at school or in social environments when you think differently from other kids. At Yunasa some of the campers say they feel as if they’ve found “home planet,” a place they can belong without having to figure out how to camouflage who they really are.

Every year the campers are given one of my books to read before coming to camp and we start off by talking about it. (In 2003 it was Flight of the Raven, in 2004 it was Ordinary Miracles and this year it’ll be Surviving the Applewhites.) Somehow there are always some themes that get revisited during the week. I do sessions later with all the campers exploring the possibilities of imagination. Schools pay all too little attention to this critical aspect of human consciousness! One of the optional activities I lead is a writing workshop. Another option is exploring some of the unusual mental abilities the Ark kids discovered they had (and lots of the rest of us have, too). One year one of the campers found that he could sit on the dock and “call” fish to him. Every time we turned around, there he was back at the dock!

The kids tell us that Yunasa changes their lives, but it has changed mine, too. Last year I got hooked on yoga and I’ve been doing it ever since. We try to help campers expand their “comfort zones” and mine expand more every year. The first year, after saying I had no intention of going near the high ropes course because of my fear of heights, I ended up doing it anyway. If the kids in my group could risk it, I decided, I ought to as well. I could hardly believe that I was able to walk a telephone pole 25 feet in the air with nothing at all to hold onto (of course, we all wore safety harnesses). Oddly enough, I found that holding on to my own hair gave me an amazing and very useful sense of security -- a most interesting lesson. That experience totally changed how I feel about ladders and glassed-in elevators!

In late January and early February, Michael Piechowski, Betty Meckstroth, Patricia Gatto-Walden (the other Senior Fellows) and I went out to the Institute’s offices in CA to begin planning this year’s camp. I think we have as much fun planning it and then doing it as the kids have attending. Last year’s campers have stayed in touch with each other, the counselors -- and us -- through the Yunasa e-mail list in the months since camp ended. When they get beyond the upper age limit (14) some of them come back for the “Emerging Leaders” program, and this year we’ll have the first of our campers to turn 16 returning as Counselors-in-Training. As spring really comes to North Carolina this month, I am already feeling the lure of those busy, intense July days with the kids of Yunasa!

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