School administrators requested in-school programming from Seeds of Peace, citing increased behavioral and emotional challenges of students following the onset of the pandemic.
OTISFIELD — Interested in learning how to change her community for the better, Deyonce Ward attended Seeds of Peace camp last summer.
“Before I came here, I was so closed in,” the Portland High School student said. “I didn’t want to talk.”
But before she knew it, the session had ended, and Ward found herself wishing she had taken better advantage of the opportunity to connect with other teens passionate about social justice from across the state.
So, she came back this summer ready to challenge herself to step further outside her comfort zone.
On Sunday, Seeds of Peace welcomed 62 campers for its first session of the summer, including roughly a dozen returnees from last year’s first Maine-only cohort.
The internationally recognized organization aims to bring teens from diverse backgrounds together to engage in deep, sometimes difficult, discussions surrounding differences in identity, culture and religion. Seeds, as the campers are known, are also challenged to grow their leadership and advocacy skills.
These challenges are complemented by traditional summer camp activities, such as boating, crafts and performances.
“We can create essentially the Maine we want to see for a few weeks here together,” said Camp Director Sarah Stone.
And beginning this fall, Seeds of Peace will bring part of these activities to K-12 schools in Maine.
The summer camp has two sessions this year for about two weeks each. The first session hosts campers from Maine, whereas the second will bring together campers from across the U.S.
Being at Seeds of Peace is very different from the outside world, Ward said. Here, she and other campers have the freedom to be more open about their perspectives and lived experience.
Kai Small, a Freeport High School student, said he’s been to summer camp before. None of them were quite like Seeds of Peace.
“It’s not like anything else I’ve ever experienced, just how people are with each other,” he said. “People listen to you. They really listen.”
One of the core components of Seeds of Peace camp is the daily dialogue session, where students discuss topics such as privilege, identity and power.
Sometimes everyone agrees, other times there are split perspectives, said camper Tyler Pelletier of Augusta. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
“Disagreement almost helps you grow more as a whole group,” he shared.
Pelletier said he left camp last summer with a newfound sense of confidence in his leadership skills. He ran for vice president of his class at Cony High School last year and won the position.
He originally came to camp because he “wanted to meet new people and see where they’re coming from,” he said. “(Last year,) I felt like I only scraped the surface of dialogue and hearing other people’s experience and views.”
“I really feel like people get turned off by the idea of talking about difficult (topics),” Pelletier said, adding there’s far more to the camp than that. His favorite activity at the camp has been boating on Pleasant Lake.
Ward said she would similarly encourage others to apply to the camp. “It’s very life changing,” she said.
Tim Wilson, director of the Seeds of Peace Maine program, said the organization is expanding its efforts to create school-year programming for students in kindergarten through 12th grade this fall.
Wilson said school administrators requested the move from Seeds of Peace, citing increased behavioral and emotional challenges of students following the onset of the pandemic.
“We know we have the right tools,” Wilson said.
“It’s not just expressing themselves, but feeling good about themselves,” he added.
Seeds of Peace alumni will lead “90%” of the activities, he said. The new program will start in Portland schools this fall, with Lewiston schools following soon after.
“We’re now realizing we have to work not just on high schoolers, but down the line,” he said.
Wilson has worked at the Otisfield camp for more than 60 years, starting as a 19-year-old counselor at Camp Powhatan, the previous organization on site. He says he sticks around for the incredible young people he meets and watching them grow as leaders in the world.
Originally created to empower Middle Eastern youth to find common ground in 1993, the camp has expanded its programming to teens in Asia, the U.S. and Maine.
Due to the difficulties of international travel brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, the camp has not held a session for international youth since 2019. The camp was closed in 2020, reopening to Maine and U.S. students in the summer of 2021.
The camp provides scholarships to campers who would not otherwise be able to attend; other students are sponsored by their school district, Stone said.
Seeds of Peace will celebrate its 30th anniversary next summer.