News from Family Work Camp

Dorothy Henderson, Head of School
Tuesday, June 16, 2009

What would get a two-year-old to plant seeds in the ground (with Mom’s help), a five-year-old to shovel manure into a wheelbarrow and deliver it down the hill to the garden compost pile, a 17-year-old to show up for breakfast at 7:15 am and go to work pulling nails out of old lumber so it can be reused in building a shed, a 35-year-old to cook breakfast for 50 early risers, and a 65-year-old to climb up on a two-story roof to put in insulation? And what would make it possible for all this to happen at the same time? The answer is Family Work Camp at Sierra Friends Center.

This year for the first time, the Woolman Semester alumni reunion has joined the Sierra Friends Center Family Work Camp. Last fall two Woolman alumni, Cassidy Gardner and Jesse Bradford, talked about wanting to give something back to Woolman as part of the alumni gathering, perhaps working on a project together. Those two notions, giving of oneself and working on projects, led to combining the Woolman Semester Reunion with Family Work Camp, which has been described as the Woolman Semester without the homework. In actuality it is much more.

Family Work Camp at SFC has a long history that began with work camps for the John Woolman High School before it was a school. Folks camped at Mel’s pond, cooked at what is now the Hedrick House and helped to build the school buildings that we now enjoy. The work camps have always been multi-generational affairs, with 70-year-olds and 3-year-olds literally working side by side. Some people at work camp today have been coming for over 30 years, and there are young adults here now who have grown up with this week-long work extravaganza as the family vacation.

Vacation?! How can living in a tent or a cabin for a week and working for several hours each morning be considered vacation? This is the very question we pondered during our morning work camp meeting. What is work and how can there be such a thing as a work party. Isn’t “work party” an oxymoron? We did not come up with the definitive answer but we had some musings. It seems that when people come together because they want to, not because they think they have to, they have a different idea about what it means to work. Cleaning the irrigation ditch of all the debris that collects over the year, walking through mucky water with rakes and hoes becomes a party when you volunteer to do it and your friends do the same.

Friends are a big part of what makes work camp a vacation. Friends who come back each year, rekindling relationships while making soup for the luncheon meal, planting seeds in the ever-expanding garden, or putting a new and improved roof on the Redwood house. Of course, the work does not go on all day and night. There are the evening sings with “Rise up Singing” and the late-night conversations that bring us back in touch with each other’s lives year after year.

There are always the new arrivals too, people who are here for the first time but become part of the family by the end of the week. These are folks who come from around the world to give of their time and skill because they want their lives to make the world a better place. Then there are the new arrivals who aren’t really new. Annie and David and their daughter Sophia have joined us for the first time. But Annie was a student at the John Woolman High School from 1976 to 1979. Annie remembers the Dining Hall deck before it had the wisteria covering and Madrone Hall when it was a dormitory for students. Now six-year-old Sophia has worked in the orchard, painting the exposed limbs of the apple and pear trees that were getting too much sun. Perhaps Sophia will find her way to the Woolman Semester some years down the road.

So when is work not really work? When it is done with friends, with purpose, with a spirit of giving, and given freely. This year the SFC Family Work Camp and the Woolman Alumni Gathering have come together for a week of working and playing together …and wondering about the difference.


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