Wrapping up another season of Not Back to School Camp



There is a buzzing, bustling electricity at Not Back to School Camp. It is a place where the serendipity of a chance conversation or a planned activity have equal chance of bringing about a new friendship or a life-changing realization. It is a place where homeschooled, unschooled, and self-educated teenagers are celebrated and supported. It is also a place that literally includes “magic” and “wild spontaneous fun” in the mission statement.

It’s hard to believe that Not Back to School Camp has existed for more than 20 years. Many moons ago, when I first attended camp as a baggy-pantsed 17 year old, I never imagined how much camp would expand or how my journey would continue to meander alongside it. What was once one location has grown into many. From the base of a waterfall in southern Oregon, to the moss-draped forest of Camp Myrtlewood, to the blazing red leaves of Vermont in fall, to the desert of Joshua tree: Not Back to School Camp has become many places.

This past year, teenagers traveled from as far away as Serbia to see what happens when they convene with other young people who are trusted to pursue learning that is non-traditional. There are no set bedtimes. Few things are mandatory.  Workshops and activities are led by teens as well as staff. This past year workshops included: sticker making, basics of piano, Argentine tango, “how to get stuff done,”  cyanotypes (19th century photography), trauma resilience/how to develop emotional resiliency, tinkering/maker space, “how to move out,” nurturing soil for fertility and health, what goes on in a US Embassy?, babies: your questions answered, Charleston and Waltz (dance), intro to Arabic language, drawing cats & random things, investigating privilege, “how to have a non-trivial conversation,”  discussion on religion and spirituality, capoeira (Brazilian martial art), soccer, and so many more.


by-evan-wright_32466957986_o Executive Creative Director at Buzzfeed and NBTSC Alumna Summer Anne Burton leads a workshop for campers on social media.

I am often humbled by the young people who I meet at camp. By their intelligence, their courage, their instinct for fairness, and the trust they offer to those of us on staff.  Not everyone who works with youth experiences the feeling of being on the same team. It’s exhilarating and it’s a privilege. Campers seek out staffers to discuss the things that are central to their lives: friendships and families, passions and plans, heartaches and hopes.


img_1160img_0670In ways both large and small, I’ve seen teenagers do remarkable things. One of the most important things I’ve learned from campers at Not Back to School Camp is you don’t know what young people are capable of until you’ve believed in them.

by-celina-dill_32542853485_o I am so grateful to all of the staff, campers and families who played a part in the 2016 season. It was great to be at every session in 2016, but in 2017 I’ll be scaling back. Once again I’ll be delighted to be sharing the directing role with NBTSC founder, executive director and thinker-upper Grace Llewellyn and for the first time ever, longtime staffer Matt Sanderson! I hope you’ll join us!


Days 4-6 (Joshua Tree 2016 ~ photo essay)

Well, this was a session for the history books. We got so busy we forgot to update the blog. So here are some photos from the end of our incredible session together including the field trip (on election day) and our Halloween themed Prom.

Photo by Sierra McLean
Photo by Liam Shepherd
Photo by Celina Dill
Photo by Celina Dill
Photo by Celina Dill
Photo by Sierra McLean
Photo by Nathen Lester
Photo by Nathen Lester
Photo by Nathen Lester
Eleven. Photo by Willoughby Kinch
Photo by Willoughby Kinch
Photo by Willoughby Kinch
Photo by Willoughby Kinch
Permaculture field trip & workshop. Photo by Doug Alder
Photo by Liam Shepherd
Photo by Violet Sicard
Photo by Jessica Wilcox


Photo by Violet Sicard
Oliver and Margo Photo by Evan Wright


End of Session Exhausted Staff

Day 3 – Joan K

Today was filled with workshops, music, hugs, deep conversations, and not-so-deep conversations. I was up late last night and spent the first half hour of today in a relaxing jam session with Damian and Erich until Friendship Hall closed and we went to sleep.

At the staff talent show the previous night, Reanna had shared a story about someone named Sarabeth from back in the first few years of camp. Sarabeth visited camp today and led us through a lovely song to open the morning community meeting. Advisee groups followed on the back porch, and we all checked in and talked about how we were feeling and played a round of Hot Seat. There were some interesting answers although I think the range of questions was restricted by the setting. 

I participated in two great workshops in the morning – first, Nathen showed us a model of engagement with the world and various coping skills to become more emotionally resilient. Then a bunch of us lounged in the hot tub for an hour and took turns asking Boyo a string of questions mostly involving how to ask people out on dates. It was pretty awesome.

In the evening there were two staffer organized events – the art extravaganza and the concert. I sadly did not see much of the art and photography that was put up for the extravaganza (although I’m sure it was amazing) but instead got to provide a little bit of background music with Damian and Erich. 

Then the concert! Kiera did a fantastic cover of “Don’t Stop Believin’,” Kay performed three songs (and mesmerized us with their voice), I played two original songs, and Anika closed it off with two of their originals, one of which they had written the same day and both of which they powered through remarkably despite a cold. I was initially a bit nervous about performing but I’m very glad I did. It was really wonderful to get to play alongside them and in front of a very kind and supportive audience.

The most memorable part of today though was observing and participating in a heated conversation about artistic meaning in the freezing cold of the balcony. I think we all came out of it with a better understanding of the different ways in which people relate to art, as well as a surplus of inside jokes. Then the day ended the same way it began, jamming with friends in Friendship Hall until late-ish night. Also peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

Photo by Violet Sicard
Photo by Jessica Wilcox

Day 2 (Joshua Tree 2016 ~ by Guy D.)

photo_1920.jpegAs a first time ever camper I was a little nervous about coming to camp. Mostly it was just general anxiety ’cause I’ve never been to Joshua Tree and I don’t know anybody.

I was completely wrong in being nervous.

So Arrival day and 1st went great, the 2nd day went a little bit smoother for me just ’cause I had got into the rhythm by then.

The minutes before breakfast are always a delight, everyone yelling and talking over each other then the mad scramble for food. Because I am a go-getter I decided to join the Bonding Night committee, which took place during breakfast. So pretty much everything was sticky. It was interesting to be part of a committee that organizes something so sweet and bonding and how even though I had absolutely no experience they let me be a part of it.

After we achieved barely anything, ’cause we couldn’t stop laughing, Morning Meeting started. We start with a good morning to Evan the camp director, every one says good morning.

Workshops after were amazing! I learned how to swing dance which is now pretty awesome because I now can actually ask someone to dance and not embarrass myself.

Then one of the most enlightening workshops I did was… the cup game. I was so much fun that I literally couldn’t stop “playing” it all night!

A bit towards the end of the day was the Sexuality Panel, which was very interesting and very fun to watch as all the panelists got bright red with each question.

The talent show was great, NBTSC says on their website that the Talent show is for anybody and it totally worked out perfect! Very entertaining!

My opinion is that Bonding Night was the highlight of camp so far. It was a very moving occasion, the singing as everyone enters the room, the “om” was so powerful that the room vibrated. The eye contact and the questions were moving and, I guess, bonding. My favorite was the Unconditional Love section. Hugging people who had their eyes closed was sweet, though I felt even more moved by getting hugged without knowing who was hugging me.  I feel very happy that I participated in the ceremony.

I am very happy that I came to NBTSC and I absolutely love everything and everybody here.

Guy Dunphy, 1st year camper


Photo by Celina Dill
Talent Show Acrobatics


Arrival Day (Joshua Tree 2016 ~ by Zoë N)

Zoë N ~ Kitchen jr. staff


I woke up in time to see one last sunrise over Lester Flats, the home of some of our staff and the location of most of staff orientation.

The land glows lavender and gold and I am surrounded by desert life: cacti, a beautiful Joshua tree, and the sound of a rooster greeting the day. I finish reading my staff binder, all new information for me, entering camp this year as junior staffer.
Soon I head into the kitchen to help Rosa cook one last breakfast in Maya and Damian’s home.  She creates an incredible abundance of food, and after eating; well fed we pile into cars and head to the Joshua Tree retreat center, where the rest of camp will take place.
As soon as we arrive I find myself in a whirlwind of unloading produce, hanging up signs, picking up a food order with Maya, and joyful little meetings with the rest of staff.  By the time campers are beginning to arrive I am elbow deep in chopping lettuce for dinner.

Around 6:30 I emerge from the kitchen for the first time to hiding in the welcome circle almost all of the campers have arrived and Xander leads us in some games,

Then the campers and advisors separate into their first advisee meetings and it is time to serve dinner.
Later we have a beautiful welcoming ceremony where everyone has a chance to give voice to what they want to create this week. It’s the first time we all sing together and it feels like camp has really begun.

As a camper the time after the welcome ceremony period usually meant staying up late and getting to know people, but this year I go back to tidy the kitchen with the lovely cooks and then fall into bed, my first day as a junior staffer a joyful, exhausting success. I’m ready to see how this crazy, colorful, beautiful community manifests in the coming days.

Lester Flats – Photo by Celina Dill
Flying to camp – Photo by Jessica Wilcox
Working in the kitchen – Photo by Celina Dill
Photo by Violet Sicard

Staff Orientation (Joshua Tree 2016 ~ By Reanna A.)

Reanna – Advisor. Photo by Emi M.


This is my 8th year working at NBTSC, but my first year doing it as a mother (to 5-and-a-half-month-old Margo).

I was offered the opportunity to advise at the Joshua Tree session back in the spring, before my daughter was born. I knew I wouldn’t be doing the summer sessions, as she would be too fresh and the travel too far, but Joshua Tree seemed do-able since the site is less than 5 miles from our house. I eagerly accepted.

So, here we are on the first full day of staff orientation.

Staff have been trickling into town over the last couple days. Director Evan is sleeping in my husband Nathen’s office, logistics goddess Matt is in the travel trailer next to Maya’s house. Cook Rosa and her brother Amandla are in the dome, and so on. Between the four adjoining properties of Lester Flats (where Damian, Maya, Oliver, Nathen, Margo and I live year round) we have an impressive array of tents, trailers, tiny houses and guest rooms in which to sleep people.

Yesterday’s meetings (or “word parties,” as we propose to rename them) were mostly about we staff connecting and re-connecting, catching up on each other’s lives and what brings us here–again or for the first time.

Today we get down to the business of the session. We review the schedule, assign roles (song leader, games leader, field trip leaders), talk about what’s new and remind ourselves of what is important.

I am careful to volunteer for nothing extra except this blog post (you’re welcome) because I can already tell that doing camp and being Margo’s mama at the same time is going to kick my butt.

(For one thing, Margo is curious about the world now and I am already having trouble settling her down to nurse and nap at our usual times, with all the extra people around. What will it be like in a new place with 40 teenagers? For another, I notice that all camp’s evening events start after our bedtime. Thirdly, I will be carrying her a lot more than usual this week, and my back is already aching. Fourthly… well, you get the idea).

Now that I have a child I find I have subtly shifted from identifying with the campers (I was one myself, many moons ago) to identifying with their parents, who love these mostly-grown-up babies of theirs so.

I am also thinking about what has changed since I was a camper, 20 years ago. The campers seem the same, honestly. The memes are different (radical honesty and bike touring then, gender pronouns and consent now). But today the staff, rather than being a random group of fun adults gathered by Grace, are now mostly former campers themselves, or anyway people who have been involved with camp for ten or twenty years and had our lives changed by it. I wonder how the weight of our history changes the camper experience.

Rosa and the kitchen team feed us exceptional food, including a savory mushroom soup with wild rice she harvested herself in the wilds of Minnesota, quiche, and an apple-blueberry pie served around the camp fire in the evening, for Jr. Staffer Zoe’s birthday.

And then we scuttle off for an early bed in hopes of meeting tomorrow’s campers well-rested and lively.

Photo by Celina Dill
Photo by Evan Wright


Photo by Celina Dill




Photo by Celina Dill
Photo by Evan Wright