Transformative Leadership: Empowering Young Hearts and Minds

As the summer sun shone on the picturesque landscape of a Wisconsin camp, a transformative journey unfolded for 11 to 15-year-olds seeking personal growth, camaraderie, and leadership development. 

At this enriching camp, the ethos of the Baha’i Faith came alive through the lens of the Transformative Leadership Curriculum, based on the work of Baha’is Eloy Anello, Joan Hernandez, and May Khadem. This year’s camp witnessed a diverse group of young participants united in their shared quest for spiritual empowerment and self-discovery.

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Strengthen These Fragile Seedlings

A Baha’i prayer from Abdu’l-Baha infused the mission and vision of the Hillcrest Orchard Camp, asking God to “… bestow a pair of heavenly wings unto each of these fledglings, and give them spiritual power that they may wing their flight through this limitless space …” 

The curriculum and the activities of the camp are designed to inspire and train these adolescents and pre-adolescents through hands-on, experiential learning. Another Baha’i quote that is front and center in every aspect of planning the camp is “Let deeds, not words, be your adorning”, from The Hidden Words of Baha’u’llah. Less talk and more action is one reason the young participants took so readily to the program and utilized its lessons to transform their lives.

Nurturing Hearts and Seeds: Companion Gardening

Rooted in the belief that nature is a manifestation of divine beauty, the Companion Gardening activity became a heartwarming embodiment of unity and interconnectedness. Participants, from a variety of cultural and religious backgrounds, came together to nurture the Earth, fostering bonds that transcended differences. As they sowed seeds and cared for plants side by side, they engaged in a principle-based vision and learned valuable lessons about patience, cooperation, and the profound impact of collective effort. 

Witnessing the beauty of diverse plants coexisting harmoniously in the garden mirrored Baha’u’llah’s vision of a unified and compassionate world, a cornerstone of the Baha’i teachings. Campers came to understand the connection that plants, like people, are seedlings in need of spiritual strengthening “so that each may become a fruitful tree, verdant and flourishing,” continuing the prayer

… that they may, even as the reviving breaths of the spring, refresh and quicken the trees of human souls and like unto vernal showers make the meads of that region green and fertile. 

Nature Conservancy: Guardians of Creation

The camp’s commitment to the environment, expressed through the Nature Conservancy program, saw teens venture into the wilderness to imbibe a deep sense of responsibility as guardians of creation, as exemplified by the first commandment in the Bible – to “dress and keep the garden.” Engaging with the natural world, they understood the significance of sustainable practices and how their individual actions could contribute to preserving the Earth for future generations. By learning from nature’s intricate balance and diversity, they discovered profound insights into cooperation, respect, and the importance of stewardship — lessons that transcend the boundaries of the campsite.

Service with Purpose: Camp Improvement

Selfless service, a core tenet of the Baha’i Faith and every Faith, took center stage as campers engaged in camp improvement projects. Inspired by the Baha’i teachings of unity, participants collaborated on initiatives to enhance the campsite for the greater good of the community. Through this hands-on service, they experienced the joy of giving back and the transformative impact of work as worship. 

Nature-centered service projects included planting an orchard of cherry and apple trees, plus “Agriculture as Art” projects: harvesting edible flowers, fresh cucumbers, peas, lettuce, and herbs for daily meals and sleepytime lavender-mint tea by night. As laughter and friendship echoed throughout the camp, barriers were broken and friendships blossomed, demonstrating the unifying power of service.

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Releasing the Leader Within: The Leadership Course

Guided by the Transformative Leadership Curriculum, the Leadership Course offered a dynamic experience designed to help tweens and teens unlock their latent leadership potential. Through a series of individual and group challenges, participants embarked on a quest to collect 11 capabilities of leadership, including consultation, perseverance, and creative initiative. As they embraced their individual and team responsibilities, encouraged one another, and overcame obstacles together, a tapestry of leadership styles emerged, each woven with the threads of compassion, humility, and the desire to uplift others.

One of the most heartening aspects of Hillcrest Orchard Camp was the diversity of its participants. With Baha’is in the minority, the camp embodied the true spirit of inclusivity and unity. These young minds, representing various faiths, cultures, and backgrounds, found a common ground where differences were not just tolerated but celebrated. Bonds formed at the camp transcended labels, religious or otherwise, nurturing friendships that will continue to thrive long after the summer has ended. Surveys indicated that participants are very eager for more activities and camps, and would welcome assistance to form Junior Youth groups to meet in between the quarterly events held at the Hillcrest Orchard facility. 

The youth gathered this past summer at Hillcrest Orchard Camp, infused with the Transformative Leadership Curriculum, had an unforgettable experience of personal growth, purpose, and unity. Amidst the shared laughter, the seeds of transformation were sown in the hearts of these young leaders, nourished by the wisdom of the Baha’i teachings. As they return to their communities, newly-empowered teens carry with them a vision of a more harmonious and compassionate world — one where diverse voices unite in the pursuit of common goals. 

Hillcrest Orchard Camp was sponsored by Desert Rose Baha’i Institute and The Royal Falcon Foundation. You can view a video of the camp here, produced by Emmy-nominated filmmaker Jafar Fallahi. If you’d like to get involved, or know a tween or teen who could benefit, programs for the entire family, including training for those wishing to assist at sponsored camps or conduct similar camps will be held in October at the Desert Rose Baha’i Institute in Arizona; and in January 2024 in Orlando, FL. Please contact [email protected] for information. If you’re 11-15 and would like to attend, or 16 and older and would like to learn how to serve at camps like this, feel free to register for the upcoming Transformative Leadership Workshop being conducted at the Desert Rose Baha’i Institute.

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