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Trial by Seventh-Grader

One of the most frightening times of my life was when I found out that I would be in charge of the conduct, schedule and safety of a group of seventh-grade boys at a church ministry’s summer camp, but looking back on it, I wouldn’t change a thing.

That’s me, Jack Gienke, camp counselor, at the top-right of this photo with the “W” cap, ready to take care of several middle school boys whose parents trusted me with their most-prized possessions. But as I reflect back on that summer of 2015, and reflect further back on the time of my life when I was around their age, I recall fond memories and life-changing experiences for me and for these boys.       Photo by Jack Gienke

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It wasn’t until I stepped off the bus that afternoon that I fully realized what I had gotten into. 

In the summer of 2015, I was about to enter my junior year of high school back home in St. Louis in a few months, but at the moment I was in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, about to go through a trial by fire. 

Just a few weeks prior I had joined First Free Church’s middle school ministry as a student leader. It was a ministry I had gone through as a middle-schooler myself, and I was eager to try and make the students’ experience as great as mine was. 

What I had not realized when I was going through the application experience was that my first contact with the students and my personal group of seventh-graders would be during the ministry’s summer camp. 

The junior high summer camp is a week-long trip to a Wisconsin campground that is often the highlight of the year for many of the students. 

I showed up at the church parking lot at 6 in the morning the day of our departure, several buses were milling about being loaded by other leaders, and tired students were trickling up to the check-in desk.

In the half-hour that followed, I was hastily introduced to the boys in my group, we finished loading up the buses, and we were on our way north to Wisconsin.

Up until this point I had an understanding that while my co-leader, an actual adult who already knew the students, was not traveling on the bus with us, he would be meeting us at the camp that afternoon. 

We were not an hour into the trip when I was informed by my co-leader’s wife, another leader in the ministry, that the plan had changed. 

My co-leader, who is a commercial pilot, had been delayed in arriving at his destination, which would in turn delay his arrival at camp by a couple of days. 

I had just been informed that I was now going to be responsible for a group of seventh-grade boys for the next few days, and I was already stuck on the bus taking me to that fate. 

I spent the next few hours frantically trying to memorize the names of my students and imagining nightmare scenarios that could happen over the next 48 hours, all while the American Dairyland passed by outside. 

Sooner than I would have liked, we had arrived at Covenant Harbor campground, in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, and I was hurriedly trying to find my bags and corral six 13-year-olds. 

Somehow I managed to wrangle my group together, we located everyone’s luggage, and began our trek to our assigned sleeping quarters. 

When we arrived the situation seemed to get a bit more complicated as we found four bunk beds shoved into a room around half the size of an average garage.    

Undeterred, the boys quickly began to claim beds and talk about the upcoming week’s plans and activities. 

After everyone had settled in, I tried my best to point the boys’ energy into the direction of the next group activity and make sure no one got lost, or lost a limb. 

The next few days flew by, but I seemed to find a groove. A combination of advice from an older camp leader, growing connections with my group, and an injury that looked cool enough to impress the boys was helping me keep my head above water. 

The injury in question was sustained during a night game when I had jumped off a roof that was higher than I first thought. The resulting damage to my ankle caused my foot to turn a purplish black and swell to about twice its size.  

Hobbling along for the next day or two, I tried to make sure I didn’t lose anyone during the swimming test and that I kept all the guys from drinking only soda for breakfast.  

Eventually my co-leader arrived, and I was able to breathe a much-needed sigh of relief. 

At the time I wasn’t able to fully realize what exactly had just happened, but looking back on my first few days as a junior high church camp leader, I’ve discovered a few things. 

First of all, flying by the seat of your pants when attempting something new isn’t always the worst thing possible. 

I had no former experience working as a student leader besides once being a middle-schooler myself, and I was terrified before I even knew that I would be on my own for the first few days. 

But I think the fact that I didn’t have time to overthink everything and I just had to act helped me much more than it hurt me. 

Another aspect that helped tremendously was that I was not actually as alone as I thought I was; several other leaders who I reached out to for advice were all too helpful after I asked them. 

The other idea that popped out to me while looking back at this time was that my eventual relationship with my group most likely would not have been the same if I didn’t have to go through my trial by fire.

Over the next two years I was able to form strong relationships with the boys in my group, eventually to the point that I, the youngest in my family, felt like I had gained several surrogate younger brothers. 

I’m still in contact with several of the boys in my group as they approach their own high school graduations, and I look forward to every time I am able to meet or talk with them. 

I think that people often experience a bit of reservation whenever they consider volunteering with students, especially middle-schoolers. 

I would say from my own experience that those fears and reservations are nothing but lies. As students are growing up, it is important that they have structured reliable role models in their lives. 

And as I quickly learned in my experience volunteering with students, you learn from them as much as they learn from you. 

Six years ago I was petrified to step off that bus, but I will always be grateful that I did.

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Jack Gienke

Jack Gienke

Jack Gienke is a staff writer for MBU Timeline. Gienke is pursuing a major in history with a minor in communications. He enjoys watching almost any kind of sports and actively supports the St. Louis Cardinals and Blues as well as the Green Bay Packers. Gienke loves all things St. Louis and spends time volunteering at his church. He is also one of the founding members of the St. Louis Tigerball League.

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