You Belong at Sanborn Western Camps

“Where do you belong? Close your eyes for a second and ask yourself that question. Can you picture a place where, upon arrival, you feel totally safe, respected, and loved?”

That’s how I started my article in the January edition of Camping Magazine, “Building Belonging In The Age Of Anxiety”. The question was intended to spark some soul searching in the reader. Not only am I asking you to think about the place and the people that give you such a clear sense of belonging, but I’m also hoping you start to ask yourself what “Belonging” means to you in the first place.

Let’s talk a little bit about what Belonging is, and why it plays such an important role in who we are, and who we’re becoming. Brené Brown Ph.D. LMSW is a research professor at the University of Houston and became an overnight sensation with her presentation at TEDx Houston in June of 2010. The talk was titled “The Power of Vulnerability” and in the decade that followed it’s been viewed 46,224,748 times (as of today). Dr. Brown’s books, “Rising Strong”, “Daring Greatly”, and “Braving the Wilderness” have had record runs on the NYT Best Sellers list, and her subsequent TED Talks have enjoyed similar popular approval. I believe that this overwhelming popularity is due to the fact that Dr. Brown’s research touches on the core human need for a sense of Belonging that lives deep in all of us. My working definition of Belonging is this:

“Real Belonging means that we can show up, authentically, and we’ll be accepted for who we are. True Belonging does not require us to change, that’s called ‘fitting in’. True Belonging simply asks us to be who we are and the reward for this courage is safety, respect, and love.”

In order for us to develop this kind of Belonging we have to be willing to risk, we have to be willing to be vulnerable, and we have to be willing to expose ourselves to ridicule and rejection. That kind of vulnerability is scary, but it’s necessary. As Brené Brown put it:

“Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity. If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path.” -Brené Brown, Daring Greatly

Let’s bring it back to Sanborn Western Camps, and the camping industry as a whole. 16 of us recently returned from the American Camp Association (ACA) National Conference in San Diego. Having this many members of the Sanborn Leadership Team present (more than any other camp at the conference) gave us a broad view of the topics covered in the many educational break-outs and keynote addresses presented. We all spent the better part of a day together last week reviewing all of the sessions that we attended and trying to share the themes and great ideas we had all gathered at the conference. The thing that amazed me was that the themes of Belonging and Connection were everywhere.

As an industry, it seems that in our zeal to provide the most positively impactful experience possible we’ve largely arrived at the same conclusion…building a strong sense of belonging is necessary to unlock the rest of the benefits of the Camp experience. In order to create life-long friendships, develop and sharpen skills, build resilience, and have extraordinary adventures we first need to know that we Belong to the community in which we find ourselves. I was heartened to find out that Belonging has become a focus not only in the camping industry but professionals in education are looking at the human environment, the community, as they try to discover ways to bring greater opportunities for growth and learning, as well as safety, to their schools.

My focus on Belonging as a central factor in providing a meaningful camp experience for campers and staff has developed over the last 19 years as a camp director. Sanborn Western Camps does a truly extraordinary job at creating a community of Belonging across the entire program, Big Spring Ranch, High Trails, and the High Trails Outdoor Education Center. Yet, it would be overly simplistic to pin Sanborn’s success on just one or two factors considering the 72 years of growth and development that this organization has undergone. The success of Sanborn Western Camps is in the values-based leadership that has shaped this intentional community, and the experiences created there for generations of young people.

The Leadership Team here cares deeply about each other, and about providing the absolute highest quality experience possible to every camper and staff member that comes through the gates. The values of kindness, curiosity, humility, and dedication to the mission are woven into the fabric of the program and have been expressed in every interaction that I’ve had since joining this team in January. This is why Sanborn Western Camps is held in such high regard in the pantheon of ACA accredited Camps across the United States. Providing a place for your child to Belong, and through that Belonging, allowing him/her to flourish as an individual, is at the heart of what Sanborn has done successfully for generations! We look forward to the Summer of 2020 as our next chance to bring the mission of Sanborn Western Camps to life in the lives of all of our Campers and Staff Members!

“To live together in the outdoors, building a sense of Self, a sense of Community, a sense of the Earth, and a sense of Wonder through fun and adventure.”

For everything that we do at Camp, it is my contention that one of the most impactful contributions is that we teach the skills of Belonging to the children that we serve and the staff that come to work for the summer. It’s this experience and these lessons that go home with each of them and allow them to engage more courageously in the world out there. The opportunity to practice living in this kind of community builds the skills that will allow our children to approach the challenges and opportunities of their lives with wholehearted curiosity and courage. It just so happens that, in the process of building these skills we climb a few mountains, ride a few horses, and have more fun than we’ve ever had…anywhere. Welcome to Sanborn Western Camps!

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Matthew Cook
About Matthew Cook

Matty Cook has spent the last 27 years in the camping industry, 19 of those as a Camp Director and Executive Director. Matty started his professional camping career as the Camp Director at Paul Newman’s Hole in the Wall Gang Camp in CT, a position he held for 13 years. For the last four years Matty was the Executive Director at Teton Valley Ranch Camp in WY. Matty joined the team at Sanborn Western Camps in January of 2020 and is currently the Incoming Co-Director at Big Spring Ranch. Matty earned a B.S. in Psychology at Northern Arizona University, and a Masters in Social Work at Arizona State. He lists his favorite activities as backpacking (in Colorado and Utah especially), paddling anything on moving water, skiing, and cooking/baking over an open fire…anywhere. Matty is a certified Mental Health First Aid Instructor and has many years of experience in leading backcountry and adventure based programs. Matty and his family currently live in Victor, Idaho.