Every summer, Shawn Thorns, Director of Camp Wakonda, tells his counselors the story of one of his former campers, Brandon, who participated in HFH Summer Camps during Thorns’s first year as a General Counselor in 2005.
“He had behavioral issues,” Thorns said of Brandon, then eight-years-old. “They wanted to send him home, but I said no – I’ve got him.”
Thorns spent the two-week camp session taking special care to mentor Brandon, counseling him and taking him on walks through the campgrounds of Camp Kiwago, a former HFH Summer Camp, in Harriman State Park.
“Eventually he became acquainted with me,” said Thorns. “Eventually, he became comfortable with me.”
In fact, by the end of the camp session, Brandon had become so comfortable at Camp Kiwago that on the night before the last day of camp, he refused to return to his bunk. Thorns encountered Brandon sitting on a porch.
When Thorns told Brandon to go to bed, the young camper, reluctant, tried to him and said: “I don’t want to go to bed because that means I have to wake up and go home tomorrow.”
Instead of attempting to persuade or reprimand Brandon, Thorns sat next to him, and the two, on the porch, talked about their lives during the school-year. At the time, Thorns was a Texas-based college student, studying to be a choir teacher.
“We sat on the porch and he was like, ‘So what do you do back home?’ I told him that I’m a teacher and he said that he’d never seen a black male teacher before,” Thorns recalled. “I said, ‘Well, Brandon, you can be anything you want to be.'”
As a result of his first summer as a General Counselor at Camp Kiwago, Thorns changed his major from music to education, having found passion and purpose in integrating his leadership, youth development, and communications skills as a camp counselor.
A whole lot of me switching over came from me working at camps,” explained Thorns. Upon graduating, he began working as a Behavior Specialist for the Houston Independent School District.
During his summers, Thorns continued to work at sleep-away camps, returning to Camp Kiwago in 2006, where he again encountered Brandon, then 9-years-old, before spending the next eight summers at a sleep-away camp operated by another non-profit provider.
Thorns believes that his background as a Behavior Specialist helps him to foster a welcoming environment at sleep-away camps, where he is able to adapt, empathize, and connect with the entire camp community.
“The techniques and knowledge that I gained learning about different behaviors have definitely helped me to work with these kids in an effective way,” he said. “I know exactly how to approach a behavior and a situation, and I know how to navigate in between certain circumstances-and that’s with campers and staff.”
Thorns’s strengths as a Camp Director have not been lost on the many staff members who work together to facilitate HFH Summer Camps.
“Shawn is a breath of fresh air and he really cares about his staff,” said Annamarie Santoro, a colleague of Thorns. “He is super loving and caring when it comes to working with the children and he always has a smile on his face.”
Georgeann Ramos, another college of Thorns, also noted his individualized and personal approach to working with campers, as well as his professional development over the course of his time working at HFH Summer Camps, going from General Counselor at Camp Kiwago to Director of Camp Wakonda.
“Shawn has been a part of the HFH Summer Camps family for many years, working his way up the camps leadership ladder,” said Ramos.
“Despite the large number of campers and staff that Thorns meets and works with each summer, Ramos affirmed that, “He always knows everybody’s names.
Thorns has found the skills and experience he’s accumulated as a Behavior Specialist to be especially useful for navigating the often unique and complex circumstances campers may bring along with them to HFH Summer Camps – all campers at Camps Wakonda and Lanowa have experienced homelessness in New York City.
“I’ve never experienced being homeless and most of the staff have never experienced being homeless. The struggle is trying to understand where the behavior comes from,” Thorns explained. “We definitely meet them over half-way to understand where they come from.”
In the Summer of 2016, Thorns returned to HFH Summer Camps as a Unit Leader at Camp Wakonda. In subsequent summers, he rose to the positions of Assistant Director and Co-Director before accepting the position of Director of Camp Lanowa during the Summer of 2019.
2016 was also the year that Thorns received a direct message (DM) on his Twitter account from a username he didn’t recognize.
“I rarely get on Twitter, but I had a notification that I got a DM,” said Thorns. “So I opened it up and it said: ‘Hello, my name is Brandon. I don’t know if you remember me, but you were my counselor back at Camp Kiwago. Do you remember me?'”
It had been over a decade since Thorns sat with Brandon on a porch at Camp Kiwago, so he was shocked and touched by Brandon’s decision to reach out. “My heart just dropped,” Thorns said, upon opening the message.
Brandon had contacted Thorns to share with him the impact Thorns had made on his life as a child. Brandon noted that he and his mother were no longer living in a shelter and that he was heading to college on a basketball scholarship.
Two months after their virtual reunion, Thorns and Brandon, then 19-years-old, caught up with one another in person for the first time in ten years, in New York City.
“That is one of my fondest memories of doing camp,” Thorns said. “To this day, I still keep in contact with Brandon.”
For Thorns, the exchange was a testimony to what he considers to be the mission of HFH Summer Camps.
“You can’t change a life in 12 days, but what you can do is have a positive impact on these kids’ lives,” said Thorns. “At eight-years-old, he [Brandon] never forgot me because I made that positive impact on his life.”
Campers and co-workers alike are eager to point out Thorns’s positive presence at HFH Summer Camps, and the impact this has on the people he interacts with.
Shallaya Neal, Assistant Director at Camp Wakonda, is emphatic about Thorns’s unique and indispensable ability to inspire the HFH Summer Camps community.
“A real man isn’t afraid to learn and grow, even when things are hard. A good man knows how to balance being tough and tender,” she remarked. “A great man knows the difference between things he might want to do, and the things he must do. That man is Shawn Ryan Thorns.”
Thorns enjoys telling Brandon’s story to his counselors precisely because it exemplifies the impact of the environment he strives to create at Camp Wakonda – one of warmth, selflessness, understanding, and mutual growth.
“I create an atmosphere of positivity. I create an atmosphere of family,” he said. “What these kids need most of all is love. A family type of love.”
For Thorns, positive impact is the foundation of the HFH Summer Camps experience, which is intended to provide kids the chance to relax and have fun for 12 days, away from their ordinary surroundings.
“Seeing the kids at their fullest happiness and enjoyment is my favorite part about camps,” he said. “The 12 days that they’re here, I want them to experience love, positivity, and family. That’s why they’re at camp.”