Dream Camp: Kaki's Kids

The prayer flags made with the kids, as well as the brainstorm of things we
would love to do as a group during what we labeled the Summer of Awesome.


Take at-risk kids from Amelia Island, and give them direct contact with people who have achieved the things they dream of doing to set them on a positive path that included tangible goals that reached beyond the camp, as well as including something missing from the camp: 

This past summer, I put together a Dream Camp for the at-risk high school kids of Amelia Island enrolled in a YMCA program.

The organization that hired me had no money or resources for the teenagers. A largely government subsidized camp, any teenagers that showed up were thrown in with random groups of little kids, doing activities meant for 7-year olds.

The organizer of the camp wanted to change that and make sure these kids had a stelllar experience.

It was inspirational to work with the many businesses in town that rallied around these kids to fill in where we had no funds, and step up to the plate in bigger ways than I could have imagined, allowing me to build a Dream Camp for these kids.

The kids and I contacted these companies together - we would sit in a circle in the morning, and plan the day or week. 

This was a big part of empowering the kids, and starting to treat them like teenagers, and, just as importantly, self-sufficient leaders.

I would then make the calls, with the kids listening and offering suggestions, so that they could see the right way to ask for donations.

Thank you cards: While it is great to do art for the fun of it - and we did plenty of "Free Art" sessions - we, as a group, made sure to write thank you cards to each business. Great to teach the kids this very important aspect of good manners and good business. We had fun with it.

Tim Johnson, Professional Skateboarder
Donated a day of skateboard lessons, valued at over $1,000

Ritz-Carlton of Amelia Island, SALT Restaurant & Executive Chef
Gave kids a special VIP Tour of the vast kitchens at the Ritz Carlton, including food samplings, and lots of time to ask all of the various chefs questions.

Sally Industries
Tour of the animatronics company, to learn about the 
behind-the-scenes world of theme parks and robotics. 

Participant Media

Donated two copies of the book, 
Last Call at the Oasis: The Global Water Crisis and Where We Go From Here

Channel 4 News
VIP Tour of the Studio to see behind the scenes of a television station. Thanks to news anchor Tom Wills for helping me set this up.

Amelia Community Theatre, Acting Camp
Donated a professional acting camp for the teens, valued at over $1,000, 
with a visiting trained acting team.

The owner picked us up, and took us to our Ritz-Carleton Day. 
He treated us like true VIPs, from start to finish. First Class all the way. 
Donation valued at over $600
Call them for your transportation needs on Amelia Island:
904 - 261-1130

Liz C Kawecki, Director/Owner of Y Yoga Inc.
A number of my students had some substantial learning disabilities, as well as physical disabilities. Liz did an OUTSTANDING job setting up a really fun outdoor yoga class for us. 

Donation valued at over $500

We couldn't leave campus to take her class on the beach, 
where it is normally taught, so she generously came to us. 

However, I recommend you take her class on the beach at Amelia Island

Thank you to Mary Duffy and her staff. They came and gave an outstanding talk 
 about the sea turtles to the kids. Brought great teaching tools. We were supposed to walk with them on the beach to learn about the sea turtles, but the bus was canceled for financial reasons at the last minute. Mary's staff graciously adjusted the schedule, and came and gave a presentation to us in the classroom. Amelia Island Sea Turtle Watch also included these great sea turtle identification cards for the kids to use. 

Greyfield Inn, Mitty & Mary Ferguson
Generously offered a boat ride to Cumberland Island, as well as a tour and lunch at the Greyfield Inn for the kids, valued at over $1,000. 

Anonymous Donors 


Snacks so that the kids would have a say when they could eat. While there was government subsidized food, it was small and heavily regulated portions (signing out a snack, for example). Food freedom is extremely important, especially when you are talking about at-risk kids. 

As a staff we needed pens, and the kids also needed them. This was important; we only had crayons to write with before that, making it hard to do more teenage-level activities.

Water Bottles

This small thing was huge. In the Florida sun, we only had those tiny, small disposable cups to use everyday. Made it impossible to do activities outside in open field, because needed to gather group to go get water pretty far from water fountain. The fun water bottles made a big difference.

Driftwood Surfshop
Donated surf posters to the camp. We were in a drab classroom for over 8 hours a day; the surf posters added a much needed dose of color, and reminded us we were on an island.

They also agreed to come to the camp and do a surf-demonstration. Since I couldn't get the kids to the beach - not even just on the sand - Driftwood agreed to bring surfboards of different types to the camp, to explain them to the kids, and then to do a "Dry Land" demonstration of surfing techniques.

Cycling & Fitness Center

Set up a bike mechanic class for the kids to learn how to do basic bike maintenance, with a focus on the parts of a bike, and something super important - how to change a tire.

Private Donors

The television in our room was broken. 
A couple from Amelia Island donated two large televisions to myself and the camp
One for the teenagers, and one for the rest of the kids to use.

Sign Language Group of Amelia Island

The kids thought it would be fun to learn a new language. Great idea! I contacted the sign language group of Amelia Island that met once a week. They were going to come in, and give us a solid sign language lesson every week for the rest of the summer. 

The perfect language to learn, because it is so visual and hands-on, a great approach for the learning style most of my kids needed. I'm sorry we didn't get to do this, but hope to work with this group again.

Scuba Station

Learn to scuba lessons. These would have been held in a pool, at a very super-reduced rate. The plan was then to raise the money for the kids that needed the cost covered. 

Thank You to Scuba Station owner and former science teacher Kathy Russell for being so passionate about finding a way to give these kids a way to try scuba diving.

When I was hired, these kids had already been together, on and off, for up to a year. They were randomly stuck in different groups of much younger kids. 

Prayer Flags
We sat down together, as a group - and made prayer flags. 
  • Each student needed to make a flag that included an inspiring rally cry for the group for the remainder of the summer. 
  • We then displayed those in the room. This also added color to a very drab classroom, and made it look more like camp.
Summer of Awesome
These kids had been given a say over zero decisions, from the games they could play to when they could use the bathroom or when or what they could eat for snacks. That understandably had happened because they were with much younger kids, but not a way to build leaders, or achieve dreams.

I made sure that the group then played a part in as many decisions as I could turn over to them as possible.

After hanging the prayer flags, we then had a brainstorming session. 

What would these kids love to do for the summer? The notes up on the board shown in the photo are the ideas we came up with as a group.

Do you really know me? Great team building exercise for almost any age. Put the group in a circle, with everyone blind-folded. (Safety talk first, of course!) Everyone gets a number. Then mix the group up in different places around the room, set  up facing in different directions. Group then has to put themselves in order of the numbers, with ZERO talking. Hilarious and informative. Debrief with "Don't Judge A Book By It's Cover" talk.
This was a great way to turn over control to the group, and a big problem that needed to immediately taken care of - the room clean-ups had no structure, and so a few kids were bullied into cleaning up alone every time.

The solution was to come up with Dazzle Cards. 
  • This was a stack of cards that we made and decorated, with each one giving a student a specific part of the room. 
  • We decided as a group when good clean-up times would be.
  • I had the kids each come up with a fun name for an assignment. 
  • For example, we had two cards that said, "Sweep Your Cares Away." The student that drew that card would then sweep one half of the room, and another student the other. Included that was a "Floater" card, which meant a student could either sit out cleaning, or help others do their chores.
  • Every kid had a card with specific directions on it, so everyone cleaned up the same amount every day.
I made a promise to the kids I knew I could keep: If they would simply tell me their dreams - I would do everything I could to put them in touch with at least one person who had achieved that dream. I knew from my experience as a journalist and as a guide, no matter what they said, I could find at least one person the students could talk to.

The kids hard at work on their dream boards.
I took the kids outside, and did a team building exercise with them - we all held hands, in a circle, and then leaned backwards: If anyone let go, we would all fall backwards. That meant we needed to stick together this summer! Because these kids had no direction, the kids that were negative leaders had way to much say over the group. I wanted to start working immediately to change that.


A team building exercise called Helium stick. It's about a group working together, and everyone taking personal responsibility to make something happen the right way for the group as a whole. In addition to this, we advanced to more exercises, such as the NOLS Leadership quadrant, a great self-discovery tool for gaining confidence based on your own unique leadership style.
Dream Board: We sat down - myself included - and made Dream Boards (mine is the "Become a National Geographic Explorer" drawing). Using this board, we then started setting goals for the Summer.
These are the dream boards we made, with dreams ranging from being a house painter to being an executive chef. It was clear that we were going to have an extremely difficult time traveling more than 100 yards from the classroom; and my promised travel budget was canceled in the first few days. That means our dreams were going to have to come to us.

As a group, we set S.M.A.R.T. goals - Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Timely. 

I wanted to kick off the first "Dream Day" with something very fun. I knew it had to be on campus. It was PERFECT, thanks to professional skateboarder Tim Johnson.

The awesome Tim Johnson, who donated a day of Skate Camp to my YMCA Kids!
Thanks Tim. You made the summer kick-off awesome.
Tim Johnson came to the school, and brought skateboards and helmets for the kids, giving each one a skateboarding lesson. It was great! The lesson from a professional skateboarder would have cost upwards of $100 a kid. A great way to unify a disjointed group, and add some much needed fun.

In addition to giving the kids a step-by-step lesson in how he worked his way up to becoming a professional skateboarder, he also talked about the importance of giving back and helping others. Tim works with the Grind for Life foundation. Thanks Tim. 

Kaki's Kids with professional skateboarder Tim Johnson, pictured in the middle giving
 a thumbs up after a day skateboarding!
Two of Kaki's Kids skateboarding. Yeah!
with Liz Kawecki, Director/Owner of Y Yoga Inc.
We very seriously needed some outlets for exercise, since it was clear we only had a very small amount of space in which to operate for weeks. This was great, because she also taught us some basic moves that we could use for the rest of the summer.

Liz Kawecki, whose inspirational story includes a big comeback from a very debilitating accident. She used yoga to return to stellar health, and now does much to give back to others. A great role model for kids!

Thank You cards were a big part of our Summer. The kids were getting things given to them for free, so it was really important to role model saying Thank You to the people that helped us build the camp from the ground up.

Dream Camp Stop II
If you look at the dream board pictured above, you see the drawing of cupcakes - that was by Idaly, who wants to be an executive chef. As with all of our dreams, we agreed that we would support each other in pursuit of them. We called the Ritz-Carlton on Amelia Island together - I put the assistant to the executive chef on speaker phone - and we set up a private meeting and tour for the whole group.

A Thousand Miles
Only three miles away from the camp to the Ritz. Not a long walk, but against the rules of the camp. At the last minute - as happened many times during the summer - our bus was canceled. 

It was heart-breaking to miss some of the very cool tours we had set up in Jacksonville, such as the VIP Tour of Channel 4 News, or the tour with Sally Industries, because our bus was canceled.

The day the Amelia Community Theater was supposed to come to present their acting class - a big deal, since it was being presented by international, professional acting coaches - I was called at 8am to say they couldn't afford to have me come in that day (I couldn't volunteer my time; it had to be paid per camp insurance rules). With much embarrassment, I had to call the ACT and cancel that acting class.

It's a bad thing to promise something to an at-risk kid, and not follow through - they expect that.

 I couldn't take them to the Ritz in a private car; it had to be a commercial transportation place.

I called the Ritz, and they recommended First Coast Transportation. 

Not only did they come through, they put up with a long series of schedule changes. 

Finally all the pieces of the puzzle were together and we could head to the Ritz-Carlton at Amelia Island.

YEAH! Saved in a big way by First Coast Transportation. Thank you, thank you, thank you. These kids wouldn't have been able to go to their VIP day at the Ritz-Carlton without you! 
As with previous thank you cards, we came up with a fun new technique for making cards!
At the Ritz-Carlton. Head straight for the chocolate!
Ian Piamonte, part of the executive chef staff at the Ritz-Carlton. Great role models for these kids.


One of our first speakers was from the sea turtle place. 

My kids hardly said a word. 

I realized I had a lot of kids that were struggling in the classroom; of course they weren't going to ask questions. (Not all my kids were struggling in school, but the majority of them).

Setting your group up for success:

Before we went to the Ritz:
  • I gave each kid an index card. 
  • Wrote sample questions that a journalist would ask 
  • Each kid then had to come up with his or her own unique question, and write it down on the card, so that they would be prepared to ask the chefs questions once we got to the Ritz.
Yeah, part of the executive chef team at the Ritz-Carlton Amelia Island!
Best part of the Ritz-Carlton kitchen? Eating the food, of course! Here, we tasted some of the special dessert sauce served at the Ritz. Delicious, even just eaten straight off of a spoon.
Creative thank-you letters written to the Ritz-Carlton executive chefs and the kitchen staff at Amelia Island.

I had just gotten an iPhone, and it saved the camp a big way. I used it:
  • as a stopwatch for our soccer games
  • to search for photos and instructions for arts and crafts projects to use as a reference in art class (That's how we made the cool elephants you see in a photo above). 
  •  a way to look up information about foreign countries that were part of the required learning for the kids. For example, the director of the camp wanted me to have the kids learn about a different country each week, and present information about that country to the younger kids. The iPhone let us do this, to search for everything from African Art to looking up phrases in different languages.
  • to do the YMCA required reading

This is a big mistake on the part of many camps and even instructor groups - to not let kids see you use a phone. "What phone?", I thought to myself. The iphone isn't a phone. It's access to the world that I never would have had based on the basically zero resources I had for the camp.

It has more computing power than Buzz Aldrin had when he went to the moon.

I also used it as our books.

The camp required us to read for an hour a day. All we had were some discarded, cheap books meant for little kids.

(The local library was 200 yards away, but we couldn't leave the building to go there).

I got an account with Audible.com, which initially gave me some free books. 

We made it a fun, daily event. We would sit on the floor - kids could take the cushions off of the couch, or just lay in a circle on the floor.

We used two books that worked for our team, and for the goals of the camp:

Steve Jobs
This was the perfect fit; considering that the iPhone was literally my super-smart co-instructor that helped me plan this camp. Siri the Camp Counselor, literally. 

The book by Walter Isaacson had just came out, and a decent chunk of the book was spent on him going from having a tough time in school and as a kid to being a success through a lot of very hard work.


Napoleon Hill was another kid with a troubled childhood that triumphed over many defeats well into adulthood. 

This book was perfect for our team, because we passed the book around in the circle, and everybody had to read. Definitely some struggling kids with reading, but we took it slow. 

This book has much practical advice about achieving success in an ethical way. You can find it on many lists as the top favorite for CEOs and other leaders. 

It is also filled with great stories about overcoming adversity through personal achievement, making it a fun book to read:

To round out our reading, I sent an email to Participant Media, who have been involved with award-winning films such as An Inconvenient Truth, The Cove, Lincoln and The Help, when I saw a contest to win Last Call at the Oasis: The Global Water Crisis by Karl Weber - perfect for what we needed to round out our camp studies.

We won the contest, and got two copies of this book (based on the film by Academy Award–winning director Jessica Yu and edited by Karl Weber):

I found that for the rest of the summer, I had to make sure that donors could make changes on the fly. 

We actually ended up losing multiple donations from people.

Many places will donate goods and services, but I didn't have a way to raise any funds for my own salary. I actually ate about 3 months of savings putting on this camp.

it was heart-breaking to give up some very cool trips, but also made me hyper-aware of the major barriers these kids had to face just to do simple things like go to the beach on a summer day.

I had to sit by the phone in the morning, and call in to see if i could come to work. I was expected to have a full lesson plan done, for no matter what time I came in, or whether or not they could pay me that day. 

It was horrible for the kids, who didn't know if they were going to be with me doing our planned lesson, or randomly scattered with the little kids. 

Kids whose parents had just a little more money could send them to better camps, or be home with them and play on the free beaches and salt-marshes, surfing or boogie-boarding. 

We were stuck in a classroom, all summer. On an island, surrounded by free things to do. It was completely insane. It felt like detention, but these kids had done nothing wrong - they were just simply poor. 

A major frustration, and feedback for those that give grants - is the utterly insane lack of grants that allow you to pay yourself a salary. I had three jobs while putting on this camp.

What the founders of grants that don't allow grant seekers to include a salary say it this:

  • If you have a trust fund, or are already wealthy, you can put on camps, because you don't need a salary, but if you aren't, then too bad. Prepare to burn out trying to hold down three jobs while fighting for these kids, when you can't buy a car , pay rent or feed yourself.
  • Working with kids is important, but not important enough to get paid for; doctors can ask for a salary but teachers that want even a small salary "are just in it for the money." Starving teachers can't teach at a high level.

I hope those kids at least learned from our goal-setting sessions, and from learning how to set up informational interviews with people who had achieved things they dreamed about.

All summer, we also fought for the solution in order to change our circumstances, instead of just accepting our fate of being locked in a classroom. 

We learned much, and met some
 extraordinary people.
 Thank you Jacksonville & Amelia Island.

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