Third Culture Kids find a place to belong
OKLAHOMA CITY — Alex Cash didn’t fit in anywhere. …
Swimming. Hiking. Hot dogs.
These words often are associated with summer camp.
Kids & Culture Camp is different. For four weeks each summer, children ages 3 to 12 gather in the nation’s capital to cook Jamaican food, listen to African music, learn about Mexican history and Japanese clothing, practice Brazilian martial arts and tour the Tanzanian embassy.
“Our mission is to inspire children to love learning, embrace culture and to live mindfully,” said Jania Otey, a member of the Perry Hill Road Church of Christ in Montgomery, Ala. She launched the camp 12 years ago while living in Washington, D.C.
The home-schooling mother wanted to find a camp that would introduce her two sons — particularly her eldest, Caleb — to different cultures.
“But I also wanted him to experience things that I didn’t necessarily have expertise in,” Otey said, “like African drumming and chess instruction and capoeira, which is a Brazilian martial art.”
The nation’s capital city offered opportunities for her sons to have all of these experiences and more, but the camps Otey researched were expensive and singularly focused.
So she started her own.
Connecting with a network of fellow homeschooling parents, she soon had 70 campers registered for the inaugural Kids & Culture Camp, or KCC. Otey took care of the camp‘s legalities, having graduated from Howard University’s law school in D.C. in 2000.
“KCC for me was my answer to a problem that I saw worldwide,” Otey said, speaking particularly about the U.S. “I don’t think that we spend enough time instilling in our children the importance of learning about people who look like them and people who don’t look like them.”
“KCC for me was my answer to a problem that I saw worldwide. I don’t think that we spend enough time instilling in our children the importance of learning about people who look like them and people who don’t look like them.”
Children embrace a different culture each week by delving into its visual and performing arts, language, music, math, science, technology, cooking, physical fitness and games. They also participate in yoga and weekly field trips.
“I’ve actually received comments from parents telling me that their children have learned more in the time that they spent with Kids & Culture during the summer than they learned in an entire school year,” Otey said.
Amber Williams, a D.C. resident and member of the Silver Spring Church of Christ in Maryland, has been taking her 7-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter to KCC for four years now. She appreciates that the camp avoids surface-level lessons.
“I think what I love the most is the richness of the program and the level of depth that they immerse children in when it comes to different cultures,” Williams said.
She often thinks about how today’s society might be different if adults had been exposed to different traditions.
“Like, how much ignorance would that remove in our society if, at a young age, we were exposed to things and people and customs that are different from us?” she asked.
Nigel Reynolds, 19, attended KCC for years as both a camper and as a counselor. Once kids exceed the camp’s age limit, they have the option to return as counselors in training. He said the experience helped expand his mind — and his social network.
“It was a learning experience,” said Reynolds, a junior at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University in Greensboro, N.C. “As a camper I gained a lot of friends I still talk with today. And as a counselor, it taught me a few things and helped me be more patient when you’re working with people.”
Adoniyah Ben-Tsalmiel, 19, began his time with the camp in 2010.
“It was a great exposure at such a young age to learn about these different parts of the world,” said Ben-Tsalmiel, who is now a rapper, music producer and songwriter in Silver Spring. He plans to attend a digital media school in Nairobi, Kenya.
Williams encourages anyone interested in enrolling their children at the camp to embrace the occasion.
“I think that it’s worth taking the opportunity to have them learn something that they cannot and will not learn in a traditional school environment.”
After a decade of Kids & Culture Camp, the COVID-19 pandemic brought challenges and changes.
Like many schools, the camp transitioned to a virtual platform in 2020 and 2021. Pre-pandemic, the camp brought in from 125 to 150 kids per year. This summer, as the camp resumes in-person gatherings, 97 children are registered.
Innovations made during the pandemic have opened doors for the camp, which recently launched an online format for homeschoolers during the spring months. There’s also a self-paced online option.
Since launching the camp, Otey has moved to Wetumpka, Ala., near Montgomery. Her husband, Melvin, is an attorney and a traveling evangelist for Churches of Christ.
Every summer Jania Otey travels to Washington with Caleb and her youngest son, Christian, to conduct the camp.
Although KCC is not a religious camp, Otey builds connections with other families through their faith.
“I’m able to pray with them and encourage them, pray with some of my teachers and also help some of the families that attend,” she said. “So I think that is a blessing, and it’s definitely an aspect that I appreciate.”
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