A party at Sense of Wonder

Pam Benjamin doing what she loves at Sense of Wonder summer camp. — Photo by Lynn Christoffers

Sense of Wonder, the creative seven-week children’s camp in Vineyard Haven, will be celebrating its 20th anniversary on August 13.

“What I want to say is that this is not from me,” founder and guiding force Pam Benjamin says. “It is not all about me. I feel my direction comes from a higher source.”

She talks about the camp and its mission from her home, the site of her studio and the camp, explaining that she spends some time each day in spiritual pursuits from which she draws inspiration.

Ms. Benjamin, wife of much-noted boat builder Nat Benjamin, started working with children 45 years ago. She was instrumental in helping other Island mothers start The Vineyard Montessori School, which just celebrated 35 years. It was after her daughters, Jessica and Signe, graduated from high school, that she decided to start a creative program for children, and in 1991, the Sense of Wonder experience began.

The camp is named after Rachel Carson’s 1950s book, “Sense of Wonder.” In the book, Ms. Carson expresses the philosophy that children have an innate curiosity about the natural world, and that this interest should be encouraged and developed. The mission statement of this camp holds true to that idea.

Ms. Benjamin’s love of art and children is combined with programs to educate the young participants in social justice, the environment, ethnic diversity, humanitarian causes, and an appreciation of local and global communities.

“I started out with high goals, blending creative goals with social justice,” she explains, and after a pause adds laughing, “I think I am a Sunday school teacher at heart. One of the missions of the program is to show a child how to use talents and skills to make a difference in the world.”

She explains, “Different art mediums are a vehicle for educating the children. We are always doing different projects to capture and engage their interest.”

This summer there are 30 campers from the Vineyard and from various places around the world. The programs involve all manner of artistic creations: Drawing, sculpting, creating musical instruments, puppets, masks, paintings, ceramics, writing songs, singing, and so forth. The children choose what they want to create.

“Every Monday the children introduce themselves and state their names, where they are from, the favorite things that they love to do, and their cause. They have incredible things to say.”

Each morning the counselors convene at 8:30 am, and at 9 am the children arrive and begin drawing. Then the various art projects are started. One group heads to the beach to swim and gather found beach items. Another group continues working on previously started projects. After lunch, everyone sits in a circle for discussion time.

“The circle is very important,” Ms. Benjamin says, explaining how it helps the children to feel equally worthy.

“If someone acts up it is usually because they are having trouble at home,” she says, and she’s learned to turn conflicts into discussions by asking, “Has anyone ever felt that…” In this way she engages the entire group in a conversation that will not target any one individual, and offer a lesson for everyone.

“The kids do listen,” she says. “As soon as topics such as compassion, caring, kindness, and love are mentioned, they always quiet down and listen.”

Visitors are a key element in the camp. Many have backgrounds in the arts, but many are activists in various causes. And among Ms. Benjamin’s many fond memories is seeing campers become counselors-in-training and then graduate to being full-fledged counselors.

Each year the camp holds a fundraiser for Felix Neck, where Ms. Benjamin serves as a board member, and for a different orphanage chosen from various countries. Ms. Benjamin says, “The camp has made me more aware of the organizations in the world that are doing things to help different causes.”

In the off-season she uses the studio for art classes and regularly works with the Vineyard Playhouse’s Fourth Grade Theatre Project.

“I have no plans for retirement because I love my work and I hope the Sense of Wonder will continue,” she says. “Every day is new and beautiful and challenging.”

The 20-year anniversary party and party for the release of a CD created by campers, is Friday, August 13, 11 am to 1 pm, at 23 Grove Avenue in Vineyard Haven. For more information, go to senseofwondercreations.org.