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Thank You, Camden!

Ten weeks ago, I loaded my car up to spend the summer in Camden, Alabama. My mind raced with every possibility of what this summer had in store. Now that my summer of Living Democracy is over, I know the experience exceeded every expectation I could have ever had. In fact, it gave me a whole new perspective on life.

Camden is located in Wilcox County, in the heart of Alabama's Black Belt region, one of the most impoverished areas in the nation. This area faces significant adversity and lacks so many vital resources.

Yet, I discovered this community is full of ambition, passion, and drive. Camden is full of hardworking and dedicated leaders working toward the common good of their town. It has been an honor to get to know them and educate myself on the struggles rural Alabama faces from all angles.

My days were never the same this summer, which is something I grew to love. Having a schedule that I could make and was different daily always kept me fascinated and constantly learning about my community.

There were days I spent hours teaching kids art lessons and playing games and days I sat in on meetings with community leaders to discuss issues in the region. This gave me the opportunity to see Camden through the eyes of all types of people who make up the community.

Though my main focus this summer was leading a mentoring group for children, the knowledge I gained went much further than that. Speaking with leaders on issues surrounding natural resources, health care, broadband, and education, taught me valuable lessons that I will carry throughout my career and life.

Every Wednesday afternoon, I held a mentoring session for girls from the Westgate Community. Watching the girls’ faces light up every time they got to Black Belt Treasures was enough for me to realize I was exactly where I was supposed to be this summer. I led, or better put attempted to lead, art lessons each week. It was a time where the girls and I just got to hangout, not worry about school, work or other stressors but just to be present and enjoy time together in a new environment.

As interns we are asked to lead a community project in an identified area of our choice to create community engagement and learning opportunities for our town and ourselves. Being exposed to children all over Wilcox County through art camps, Vacation Bible School, and mentoring programs, I quickly learned about the lack of resources children have in rural Alabama. Every child within this region could qualify as "at-risk" to some degree because of insufficient resources available to them.

I noticed that kids in Camden don't have many opportunities to stay active or busy during the summer months, which sparked the idea of fundraising for outdoor recreational equipment. I was overwhelmed by the support I received, raising almost $3,000 and picking up donations of sports equipment from Auburn University and Auburn University at Montgomery.

Because of the contributions I received, I provided recreation equipment for the girls I mentor to use in their community park. I was also able to donate basketballs, footballs, and tennis balls to the Camden Community Youth Development Center and BAMA Kids.  In the coming months I will be using the rest of the donated money to add outdoor musical equipment to the Westgate Community Park.

My hope is that I am a small step into a bright future for children in Camden. I see so much talent in each of them, and I am confident that they can achieve their biggest dreams and have the hearts to do so.

I am often asked why I decided to do this internship. Now, as the summer in Camden is over, my answer is clear.  I wanted to challenge myself, understand ways of life beyond my own and most importantly to grow into a stronger, more confident person. Living Democracy is all about what you make it. The open-ended possibilities of this internship led me to experience new things and meet people I otherwise would have never encountered.

I say to anyone considering Living Democracy, or any opportunity that requires you to push your limits and step outside of your comfort zone, to do it. You are stronger and more capable than you think. I have doubted myself time and time again this summer, and every time I pulled myself through and came out better than before.

Coming from someone who has lived in the same town their whole life, always nervous about approaching strangers, and feeling very secure in the group that surrounded me, I now understand that is simply not where you grow. You grow in challenging yourself and acts of courage. If you believe in yourself enough to be put in the position to grow, you have already done the most challenging part.

Though there will never be words that can quite explain how grateful I am for this experience, I hope that the community of Camden knows just how much they mean to me. I would have never thought I would be packing up to leave, wishing I could stay another ten weeks.

My summer would not have been the same without the guidance and support from Mrs. Sulynn Creswell and Mrs. Kristin Law, both community partners for Living Democracy. They went over and beyond to ensure that my experience was successful. I am so appreciative of the time and energy they poured into me these ten weeks.

From the moment I stepped foot into Camden, I was welcomed with open arms, never meeting a stranger. So, to those who may have crossed my path this summer, from the bottom of my heart I want to thank you. Thank you for the time, commitment, and trust that has been put into me this summer.

This community is truly one of a kind, and I am leaving with a full heart, knowing I have made lifelong friendships and will be back soon to visit. I am now this town's number one fan and will never stop cheering them on from wherever my next adventure takes me.  A piece of my heart will forever be in Camden, Alabama.

It can't be said enough: thank you, Camden. You have forever changed my life.