When trying to sum up my Southwoods story, it seems nearly impossible to keep it brief. I spent 7 years of my adult life at Southwoods and those were 7 of the most influential years of my existence. I have more meaningful memories of Southwoods than any other place on the planet, and no matter how far I go or how long I am away, it will always be my second home.
I ventured to Southwoods when I was 19 years old. I was a bright eyed education major from Murray State, who loved kids and hoped to beef up her teaching resume. At the time I was majoring specifically in elementary education and I envisioned myself as a Lower Junior counselor. As we all got to know Scott and Andrea throughout our training, we knew that those interactions would help them to determine which age group that we would work with. Since I just knew that my personality screamed “little kid fun,” I never had any concern about landing in the Lower Junior group that I wanted.
I was more than shocked when I was placed with Upper Inter Girls. I was placed well outside of my comfort zone, with TEENAGE girls! To say that I was nervous would be an understatement. In true Ralls fashion, they knew exactly what they were doing. During the summer of 2004, I worked with both Upper Inter Girls and Lower Junior Girls and I had the most amazing summer of my life. I was hooked; I was hooked on the camp experience, I was hooked on Southwoods, and I had found my calling working with teenagers.
While at Southwoods, Scott and Andrea taught me so much about working with kids of all ages. I learned that when talking with children you should always get down on their level; see eye-to-eye. I learned that teenage issues may seem trivial to an adult but they mean the world to kids at that age; you should always take them seriously but teach them not to sweat the small stuff. Upper camp campers want to be seen as mature but they still want to have those amazing childhood experiences as well.
That first summer taught me so much about myself and what I wanted out of my teaching career. It opened a door for a passion for working with teenagers and helping them grow in a positive direction. I returned to Murray State University that fall and quickly changed my major to middle school education. I went on to pursue my secondary certification and a masters degree in literacy. I now teach high school seniors at McCracken County High School in Paducah, Kentucky.
I also went on to experience many other amazing summers at Southwoods. I worked as a Group Leader, Upper Camp Girls Head Counselor, and Office Manager during my run at camp. I was blessed to work in the winter office for 3 years and to call the Ralls family my friends.
I was also blessed to have done all of this with my husband by my side. I met Shaun Rathgeber when we were placed on the same staff tribal team during our training in 2004. He was from Canada and I was from Kentucky. I can’t imagine that our paths would have ever crossed had it not been for Southwoods. We worked together through our years at camp and we learned how to be a team when working with kids. Those skills have proven invaluable throughout our marriage and our partnership as parents. We have 3 beautiful kiddos, Emmett who just turned 5 (and has spent 1 summer toddling around Southwoods), and our twins Jillian and Norah who will be 3 very soon.
Southwoods will always hold a very special place in my heart. It is the place where I truly learned how to be a “grown up” while also learning the value of seeing the world through the eyes of a child. Southwoods helped to form my family and taught me how to be a parent. Because of Southwoods I try to always “find the fun” when working with my own kids and my teenagers in the classroom. Actually, camp taught me to find the fun in life every day. Cabin clean up is always easier with music and dancing … so is housework. Climbing to the pines after swimming at the waterfront might not be the most loved adventure, but it is an adventure that is easier with laughter and a song. My English content isn’t every student’s cup of tea, but I know that I can make their experience in my classroom as fun as possible and I can create a safe environment where students can take risks during class discussions and activities.
Southwoods made an investment in me as a person. Scott and Andrea, and the rest of the head staff, went out of their way to instill all of these skills within us from our very first day of training to our last day of camp each summer. I see those skills manifest within my life every day. I couldn’t have asked for a more amazing work experience and I can’t wait for my kids to return to camp as campers in the future.
-Written by Stephanie Rathgeber, Former Southwoods Staff Member