Every jUNe Day, Westport hosts hundreds of guests from around the world.
As you walk along Compo Beach, you hear dozens of languages.
For Jaime Bairaktaris, his “Westport United Nations” moment comes at Earthplace.
The 2016 Staples High School graduate has worked for several seasons as an Earthplace summer counselor. Previously, he was a camper there himself.
Every year, Jaime is impressed at the number of international visiting campers. They come from China, Spain, Germany, Singapore, England and everywhere else. They’re all ages too.
He and the kids climb trees, run through the brook, build stick shelters, have mud fights, swim and canoe down the Saugatuck River.
“No matter where they’re from, we all realize the nature sanctuary doesn’t have a language,” Jaime says.
Last week was extra special. In his group of 5 youngsters, only 1 — Andres — was from Westport.
Andres’ cousin is from Chile. Sofie lives in New York. Liv and Adam come from Paris.
The world comes to Earthplace. On the right is camp co-director Becky Newman.
Jaime relied on “Spanish for Dummies,” “French for Dummies” and Google Translate. He’d switch in mid-sentence from one language to another, without missing a beat.
But, he says, “these kids, without fail, form a connection. They communicate with each other. They start to play. They figure out how to work together.”
As always, children adapt — often better than their parents. One family signed up for just one day at camp. By the afternoon their child was talking excitedly about tomorrow. The parents quickly enrolled for the whole week.
“Our goal is to get them to a level where they’re comfortable and feel safe, by simply showing them they have nothing to worry about — that we don’t have words in English to describe the things we’ll be doing, so it doesn’t matter anyway,” Jaime explains.
The children quickly surpass that basic level of comfort. They mimic his voice, words and hand motions, especially as he counts down from 3 or tells them to quiet down.
“We use handshakes, fist bumps, pinky swears, hugs and a lot of facial expression when we need to explain something,” Jaime says. There are also plenty of high fives, smiles and Charades.
If things get confusing they laugh, grab his iPhone for Google Translate — then laugh some more at the “universal” emojis.
Once, Jaime pointed to words on his phone to show a young boy that they were going to a pond. His sister yelled at Jaime — in French — that he could not yet read. “Whoops!” Jaime laughs.
The Earthplace camp gang. (Photos/Jaime Bairaktaris)
For the counselor, the interactions between campers are his favorite parts.
“There’s nothing better than watching 6-year-olds sit down, build a perfect Lego house — sharing pieces, adjusting them — and then realize after 10 minutes that they didn’t even know they spoke different languages,” he says.
“Most kids truly have no clue there’s a language barrier. And when they do, they just keep playing.”
Some things need no talking. One child extends a hand to another, as they climb a tree. Together, they run over to show Jaime a frog they’ve caught.
“I think something of major importance happens here,” Jaime notes.
“In a world where screen time and organization is so prevalent, nature still teaches us how to be just human beings before we become students, athletes or artists.”
Earthplace’s “unscheduled” schedule is “whatever we want it to be. And whatever it turns out to be, we’re okay with. It’s a level playing field that binds them together, by making them equals.
“If an adult goes into the woods and sees a dead log, we see a dead log. They see a seesaw, and build one. Instead of watching a video about how tadpoles transform into frogs, they catch them — and see what’s happening.
“They can’t bury their head in their phone or rely on a computer to socialize. It’s all done outside, by themselves, and it works out just fine.”
Jaime loves that the Earthplace camp celebrates getting outside, and going with the flow.
And, he emphasizes, “we don’t even need to speak the same language when we do it. At the end of the day, we’re the same people.”
There are no words to describe how great that is.