I have been at a loss for words since August 1, the day I arrived in Chicago for training with Camp Butterfly. (Camp Butterfly is a one-week sleepaway experience for girls ages 11 to 17 of African descent that focuses on cultural awareness, purpose, self-awareness and community. Founded in 2004 by Niambi Jaha Echols, the camp has served close to 400 girls from the Chicago area and cities throughout the country.) Even as I write this, the words engage in a game of hide and seek, falling silent to this overwhelming feeling of a spirit truly overjoyed. So many thoughts rush my mind when reflecting over last year's Camp Butterfly experience. So many lessons were learned and revelations revealed that I am surprised I can even balance what has and is taking place.
Of everything that transpired within those 10 days, there is one moment that replays in the cinema of my mind and heart. It was Sunday and I remember sitting down to lunch, observing the transformation of girls who, only a few days earlier, were so guarded. I was preparing myself for the closing ritual when one of the cousins, IyKeisha, came up to me. (At camp, we address the girls as "cousins" and they refer to us as either "Auntie" or "Mama.")
"May I sit next to you?" she asked.
"Of course you can," I said before even allowing her to finish her sentence. As she set down her plates and cup of lemonade, I watched her laugh at two of the cousins who were seated across from us.
"I'm gonna miss them, Auntie Dee," she said nostalgically. "They always made me laugh." I smiled and listened intently as she started to name who she was going to miss and what she would miss about them. I started to observe and reflect on how this young girl, who when I first met her, eyed me suspiciously as if looking into the depths of my soul to question my authenticity. I reminisced on the night she auditioned for the fashion show and the time I spent in helping her master her walk. I smiled when thinking of the collage of hearts and butterflies she drew for me on a piece of pink construction paper, as a way of saying thank you without ever uttering one word. I started to massage the wave of emotion that was forming around my heart; I have a penchant for being sentimental when I know my time with loved ones is winding down.
As I slowly refrained from my mind's bank of memories, IyKeisha looked at me and said, "And you...you made me more confident in myself, Auntie Dee."
Everything around me became blurry as the tears made their trek down my cheek bones, dropping into my hands. The sounds of laughter and conversations were drowned out by the intense beating of my heart. At that moment, everything stood still.
"Are you crying, Auntie Dee?" Cousin IyKeisha asked.
A few seconds passed before I was able to push aside the lump of emotion that had settled in my throat. I looked at her the way my mom looks at me whenever I say something to her that has touched her heart in some way. I was deeply moved beyond words and realized that the moment did not need any verbal correspondence to validate it. So I remained silent and let my tears and spirit speak. Cousin IyKeisha, as if sensing the space I was in, rested her head on my shoulder and cried with me. Experiences like these always happen at camp, so thankfully no one interrupted with questions. I came out of my solitude and was finally able to get a few words in through all of the tears.
"I don't think you will ever know how much what you said meant to me." And with that, I squeezed her hand and let the last few tears journey down my face; I then knew that this experience, this interaction, this intimacy, this love, this intense transformation, this space of safety is what life is all about. In that moment, it became even more real to me that the reason why we are here is to make life better for someone else. I knew that moments like these are the reason why I breathe.
After some later reflection, it became clearer to me why I had cried so intensely when Cousin IyKeisha attributed her confidence in herself to me. You see, this 11-year-old girl was a reflection of the little girl within me who always engages in a tug-of-war with her own confidence. To know that I aided in her confidence showed me, in a divine way, that I had finally won the war with my self. How can I strengthen a characteristic in someone else if I have not first strengthened that very thing within me? I realized that God was speaking to me through this little girl and was assuring me that it's been there all along; I just needed to trust it. And what is confidence other than trusting completely in one's self? What is life other than seizing, accepting and embracing each moment? What is one's calling other than being of complete service to others and leaving this place better than when we encountered it?
The mission and motto of Camp Butterfly is to "transform the world one girl at a time." What is most amazing is that not only are the girls we serve transformed, but the counselors who work there are too. My life is deeply enriched having experienced and worked with such an organization, and through Camp Butterfly, I have realized that change is indeed possible. The transformation, however, first starts with me.