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Sanibel Sea School provides leadership training for teens

By Staff | Jul 14, 2016

Counseling In Training member Ondrej Macek helps a camper practice her balance. PHOTO PROVIDED

Teenagers who have participated in summer camps at the Sanibel Sea School have the opportunity to gain leadership skills through the Counseling In Training program, which can be carried through many outlets of their personal life.

Sanibel Sea School Executive Director Dr. Bruce Neill said when they started the Sanibel Sea School years ago they offered programs for youth 6 to 13 years old. Once the children began attending the camp year after year, they surpassed the 13 year old mark, leaving parents asking what next?

“Eventually the vast majority are going to go to a university and engage with a lot of other people from all these other places. What are they going to bring different from growing up on the island,” Neill asked, adding that the youth needed to learn how to go barefoot, surf, snorkel and be well-rounded ocean people, which developed an Island Skills Camp.

From that thought process, the development of another program, Counseling in Training (CIT), eventually took shape to further engage the kids.

The CIT members take three to four hours of online training before they begin the program at the Sanibel Sea School. Neill said the online training includes bullying, leadership, sexual abuse and safety. On average, the Sanibel Sea School will have between eight to 12 CITs a week participating in the program.

Elly Rundqwist, 16, and Jesse Woodhull, 19. PHOTO PROVIDED

“We then sit down with them Monday morning of the week they are coming and explain to them you have been in this camp and you are now 13 and wearing a red shirt, which is our staff shirt that you cannot buy,” he said.

The staff also explains to the youth that they will now be leading 10 year olds.

“Every afternoon we have an hour long session at the end of the day. Every one of the CIT’s have to sit at the long table and tell us what they have learned this day about leadership,” Neill said. “I really want them to be thinking about leadership.”

Once the CIT program was established and ran for a few years, the parents began asking what was next once their child turned 15.

When the teenagers turn 16 years old and have been a camper with the Sanibel Sea School and are a lifeguard certified, they become a senior CIT. Neill said ideally they would select one of the senior CIT’s to be the head, lead CIT, of all the CITs.

Counseling In Training member Sam O’Konski and camper Lily Robinson show off the rainbow colored coquinas they found during Coquina Week. PHOTO PROVIDED

“We had a lot of returning campers, so we were flooded with applicants to be the senior CIT,” he said. “So we developed Big Dog, Middle Dog and Little Dog.”

The Big Dog is the head CIT for the week. The Middle Dog is also a senior CIT, but they are not in charge. The Little Dog is a regular CIT, not yet 16, or lifeguard trained, who are being supervised by the Big Dog.

Elly Rundqwist, 16, began attending the Sanibel Sea School the very first year the camp opened during Calusa Week. Ten years later, she still participates in the sea school’s programs.

Since becoming apart of the CIT program, the young woman has learned a great deal of leadership skills that she has been able to use at school. The skill that has stuck out the most is being able to talk to kids her same age.

“I’ve been able to mature a lot through it,” Rundqwist said. “You have to really rise above even when they are your own age and your friends. You have to be able to use your own capabilities to make yourself different from them.”

A Counseling In Training explores the beach with campers during Sand Dollar Week. PHOTO PROVIDED

The week of June 27 she was the Big Dog, which presented some challenges because she worked with CITs that she has known for a really long time.

“It’s been interesting to get them to listen and see that I am in fact the Big Dog,” she said.

Rundqwist said some of the activities she did as the Big Dog is have an hour long meeting at the end of the day that highlighted how the day went, what went wrong and what they could change to make it better and more effective.

The Big Dog and Middle Dog are first aid certified and the Big Dog carries the first aid kit during the week. If the Middle Dog has to administer first aid they have to go the Big Dog to get their first aid kit.

“On Friday, Big Dog gives up that first aid kit and it becomes kind of symbolic. The next week Middle Dog has to go to Big Dog to get the first aid kit. So, its a really interesting way to let them see over a small number of weeks the full spectrum,” Neill said. “The idea is you have to lead your peers. It’s kind of easy to lead the 13 year olds because you are 16, but you kind of have to manage your equally qualified, equally old, equally experienced Middle Dogs.”

Counseling In Training members Metin Basturk and Addy Rundqwist, who both began as campers at Sanibel Sea School, lead a game with campers during Cruising for Sand Dollars Week. PHOTO PROVIDED

The great thing about the program is the teens learn from one another about their strengths and weaknesses, which turns into a slight competition of how well a leader they can be as the Big Dog.

“Our CIT program has a social structure. They engage with each other all year round. They have CIT dinners that are not sanctioned by us, but are sanctioned by us. They become their own little tribe,” Neill said.

Part of the Sanibel Sea School’s goal is to help them find the strengths that they have to use towards the passion that they have.

“Our mission is to improve the ocean one person at a time. How can we enrich and strengthen the lives of people through ocean experience? We are really focused on creating strong, more capable humans to go out into the world and somewhere in the fabric of that strengthened capability is the bond with the ocean,” Neill said. “With the bond of the ocean, they will be better people to preserve the ocean.”

Rundqwist said since attending the camps at the Sanibel Sea School her love for the ocean has really evolved.

“I have really learned to appreciate the little things the most because it starts off with every kid loving dolphins, or whales, or seals. From there you realize that, ‘oh this fish is really cool.’ Then you realize that this fish that helps clean this fish is really cool. From there you say I really like the plankton in the water,” she said. “From there you start to appreciate the little creatures that you cannot see.”

Jesse Woodhull, 19, also started at the Sanibel Sea School the first year it opened as a camper and became a CIT the first year she was eligible at age 13. She was in the CIT program for five years.

“It helped me overcome fear in a very small amount of time because I was really scared of the ocean when I started here. I still kind of have some fear, but when you are a CIT you have all the kids and other CITs who look up to you. If someone wants you to pick up something and you are scared of it, you kind of just have to do it anyway,” she said. “Very quickly you have to get over it.”

After going through the different ranks, Woodhull became a counselor for the first time this year. As of June 30, she had been a counselor for three weeks.

As a counselor she said they spend a lot of time pushing kids out of their comfort zones, but not into the danger zone, which does the same thing for them as well.

“It pushes everyone out of their comfort zone, especially when interacting with kids your own age,” she said.

So far, she has enjoyed the weeks where the camps cater to 4 to 6 year olds. One of the themes of the camps was Shark Pup Week.

“Having a younger set of kids presents a whole new set of challenges,” Woodhull said. “There’s no having them be responsible for their own shoes, and their own things. We have to be responsible for 12 little kids and all of their things.”

She said working with kids that are so much younger than her, as well as working with peers her same age helped her out a great deal.

“It showed me that I have interest in working with kids. I don’t know if I would have figured out that I wanted to do this as a job in the future if I hadn’t been working as a CIT here,” Woodhull said. “I plan on majoring in psychology and specialize in child development. I am really interested in art therapy.”

Neill said they are at the whims of offering American Red Cross lifeguarding for their teens. He said they are going to train some of their staff to be lifeguard instructor trainers, so they can offer a teenage only lifeguarding course. The Sanibel Sea School also hopes to offer advanced first aid courses – wilderness responders and wilderness first aid for only teenagers.

Follow Meghan @IslanderMeghan on Twitter.