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Camp Confessions: I love middle-schoolers

Deana (Hamby ’93) Nall continues her week-long series of posts about her family’s three-generation tradition of attending, working or volunteering at ACU Leadership Camps. She and her husband, Chad (’94), and daughters Julia and Jenna are on campus this week:
Chad and I were group leaders at Kadesh, the camp for high-schoolers, for 14 years. Kadesh was my introduction to Abilene Christian University’s Leadership Camps as a camper in 1988, and that experience was life-changing for me. Getting to be an adult volunteer after having been a camper was one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done. As well as the toughest. Kadesh can be so physically and emotionally draining that my dad, another veteran Kadesh volunteer, used to say he was “Kadesh tired” to describe the feeling of utter exhaustion.
But we looked forward to Kadesh every year. There was nothing like investing in those high-schoolers during what can be an extremely intense week of soul-searching and seeking God in a rough stage of life. Those weeks were fun, but never easy. The teens we encountered were dealing with everything from typical adolescent pressures to the not-so-typical, such as the raw grief of one of our young campers over the baby she had just given up for adoption. At Kadesh, we often found ourselves in the deepest trenches of youth ministry. It was fun and traumatic, transforming and heart-wrenching. We laughed a lot with those kids, and we hurt a lot, too. But we always loved being at Kadesh with those high-school kids. We couldn’t imagine Kadesh not being a part of our summers.
But when we started making camp plans for the summer of 2008, we realized something had to change. Our daughter, Julia, was old enough for Learning to Lead, and Kadesh and Learning to Lead don’t run the same week. Learning to Lead shares a week with MPulse, the camp for middle-schoolers. For Julia to do Learning to Lead while we kept volunteering at Kadesh, our family would have to stay in Abilene for two weeks. Which wouldn’t be terrible; it’s just that we have a life back home in Little Rock. We decided to say goodbye to Kadesh, at least for a while. When July 2008 came around, we became MPulse volunteers.
I have to admit that I was so sad about letting Kadesh go that I forgot to look forward to MPulse that year. But once we got there, I was reminded of something I learned about myself in 2000, the first year Chad was a youth minister.
I love middle-schoolers.
I understand middle-schoolers tend to get a bad rap. People view them as too annoying, too dramatic, too high-energy, too apathetic, too … whatever. This could be because many adults do not look back on their own middle-school years with fondness. Heaven knows I don’t.
But I’m telling you. If you are one of those adults who avoids middle-school kids, you are missing out.
These are kids who are on their way to being grown-ups, but still have a way to go. This allows them to still hang on to qualities from their “little kid” years, which weren’t all that long ago. The result is a delightful mix of youthful silliness, inquisitive insight, and a generally optimistic view of the future. (Which could be rooted in naivety, but hey, we’ll take it.) And yes, they have their annoying moments. One year, a big, sweaty middle-school boy ran up to me, took his big, sweaty ball cap off his big, sweaty head and smacked it down on top of my hair, which up until that point, had been clean and swept back into a neat ponytail. My knees buckled as I melted to the ground in a state of absolute gross-out. Was I annoyed? Yes. Did I make a beeline for the shower to wash my hair? You bet. But I loved that boy. I loved his goofiness and his enthusiasm. I can handle the occasional gross-out moment if it means getting to hang out with these kids. They are fun, unpredictable, have yet to be jaded by the problems that tend to plague older teens, and – best and most challenging of all – their faith is just beginning to take shape. Investing in kids during this time of their lives is a beautiful and unforgettable experience.
Here’s what middle-school kids need: They need adults in their lives who are willing to love and respect them while overlooking the negatives. They need adults in their lives who will at least make an attempt to understand them. Most of all, they need adults in their lives who are not afraid of them.
This week at MPulse, we are spending our days with a big, loud, bungling, unpredictable mob of middle-schoolers. If you see Chad and me, we might look tired. And we probably are. But trust me – we are having the time of our lives.
Tomorrow, you’ll hear from my very own middle-schooler and lifelong Leadership Camps camper, Julia Nall.
MONDAY – Camp Confessions: We’re baaaaaaack!
SUNDAY – Camp Confessions: It’s all in the (Nall) family