Student travels to Thailand as a youth leader of the first NVC Family Camp Asia
While most Concordia students probably spent their reading week relaxing at home, Monica Thom spent that time working as a youth realm leader in Chiang Mai, Thailand. For two weeks, the communications and cultural studies student held compassionate communication workshops for a group of 18 Chinese children who, along with their parents, were the first-ever NVC Family Camp Asia participants.
“The main goal, for me, was just to role model,” Thom said about being a youth realm leader. “It wasn’t to teach, it wasn’t to impose upon these kids the idea of compassionate communication. It was to offer a demonstration of something different.” The purpose of NVC (Non-Violent Communication) Family Camp, Thom explained, is to get in touch with your feelings and needs, as well as those of others, and to develop strategies to respect both. These strategies can be learned through compassionate communication. “Whether you are in conflict or in harmony, there’s always a way to meet everyone’s needs without compromising the other,” she said.
The camps are divided into realms, Thom explained. The adult realm, for example, teaches parents the methodology for compassionate communication. While the parents receive that training, the kids are busy with crafts and games that incorporate compassionate communication as part of the youth realm. “It’s not a direct teaching,” Thom said. Since the camps take place outside, she added, “it’s a more natural environment, which is supposed to encourage a more natural state of being, thinking and not being stimulated by outside forces.”
Although NVC Family Camp has been operating in North America for the past 14 years, this was its first time in Asia. The group’s longest-running camp is held in Seattle, Wash., where Thom has been attending NVC Family Camp since she was 11 years old. “The first year I went, I met a few people who have become a fundamental, core family,” said Thom, who is an international student from Chicago.
Last summer, while Thom attended the NVC Family Camp in Seattle, she formed a connection with a four-year-old named Miles. “The parents noticed the connection and playfulness between us and noticed that I love kids,” she said. Attending the Seattle camp inspired Miles’s mother, Echo Hui, to host a similar camp in Asia. That is how she became the core organizer of the first NVC Family Camp Asia, alongside her husband, Eric Gonzalez-Payne, who supported her and did a lot of the planning.
Meanwhile, summer ended and Thom started school in Montreal. Months later, she was invited by Hui to lead the youth realm for the upcoming camp in Thailand. “My initial feeling was […] this is a great opportunity for practicing something I want to do after university,” Thom said. “It’s a great work experience, and it’s a great opportunity to see the world and then reconnect with this family I fell in love with.”
Prior to her arrival in Chiang Mai, Thom had to prepare schedules and activities for the participating families. She reached out to Maren Metke, who has been running the NVC Family Camp youth realm for the past 14 years, and Johnny Colden, a long-time youth realm program coordinator who has been working in Seattle.
“The goal is to make sure everyone is included and having fun,” Thom said, so she asked for suggestions of inclusive and co-operative games for the kids and parents. Once she got to the camp, Thom realized how easy it was to plan activities. “The kids bring a lot of inspiration and ideas and requests of their own,” she said.
Thom learned a bit of Mandarin to compensate for the language barrier. While most of the parents spoke English, communicating with the kids was mainly done through sign language and lots of “goofy miming motions.”
Many of the activities Thom organized for the kids incorporated nature, by making natural floral dyes, collecting leaves, painting coconuts and murals, among other things. “We wanted the kids to have a big impact on the surrounding beauty,” Thom said. “All their artwork was put up and hung around camp, just so that the parents can see how important the kids are to the creation of a community. This is a more physical and visual way of showing it, but it’s very emotional too.”
As the youth realm leader at the camp, Thom was constantly demonstrating compassion and empathetic communication, setting an example for the kids. “My goal is to [be a] role model, to be inclusive. There is no age restriction, no intellectual barriers or language barriers; everyone is included,” she said. “One of my goals was to make sure these kids had a safe place to be free.”
At the start of each day, Thom and her team would present a slideshow about the camp schedule and demonstrate the day’s activities. Then, Thom would lead a game at the morning circle to get everyone moving and interacting with one another. Later in the day, there would be communication workshops for the parents and time for the kids to do art projects, explore nature and practice parkour, among other activities.
Although a week might not seem like much time to make friends, Thom watched three teenagers form such a strong connection at the camp that, by the end of the week, they didn’t want to leave each other. “The surrounding space is one for cultivating that type of relationship,” Thom said. “You feel loved, you feel accepted. […] It was cool to see strong bonds form so quickly.”
These friendships can make it very difficult to part ways after just one week. “You are crying because this time has been so meaningful,” Thom said. “So saying goodbye is really challenging, but you are saying goodbye with this bursting heart.”
And that is exactly the purpose of NVC Family Camp Asia, Thom said. It’s about creating strong bonds and inspiring confidence. “Having everyone in tears at the end was a tribute to the success of that. That’s a little victory,” she added. “It comes down to having confidence with the power of youth, the power of family and the power of compassion.”
All photos are courtesy of Monica Thom.