Winners Camp transforms teens

Winners Camp, a seven-day residential accelerated learning program for teens ages 12 to 16, is gearing up for its summer program. Rosemary Smith, on-island spokesperson for the O‘ahu-based program, took notice of the camp 15 years ago when her 14-year-old son Shannon came home asking to attend. He’d seen the banner, then of his own volition attended an informational meeting.

His mother’s first reaction was no.

“It seemed like a lot of money back then, but he was so passionate about it,” Smith said. “So I made a deal with him. I said, ‘I’ll match the funds that you raise on your own.’”

The motivated teen canvassed businesses on Kaua‘i to raise half the tuition. The following year Shannon Smith attended again and then for the next five years worked as one of the peer staff. Smith said Winners Camp transformed her son.

“I can only describe it as he became complete,” she said. “It was a metamorphosis.”

Winners Camp thrives on the muscle of past attendees who return to share their experience with youth. The camp of 60 attendees is led by peers their age as well as staff. For one week they compete in challenging outdoor activities that help them recognize their limits and then overcome them. By repeatedly going beyond what they thought they could do, teens learn the joy of reaching their highest potential with courage and self-confidence.

Smith said, “They can’t break it, lose it, outgrow it or exchange it. They have it for life.”

Teens from all over the islands participate. So far 20 students from Kaua‘i are registered.

Winners Camp offers a scholarship that covers one-third of the camp’s cost. Parents are asked to cover one-third and the final third is up to the teen to raise.

The scholarship was created when Smith’s son, Shannon, drowned in 1997, just two days before his 21st birthday.

“He always dreamed of becoming a chiropractor so that he could build a permanent site for Winners Camp,” she said. Shannon Smith died while saving a mother and child from drowning. After his death, his mother devoted her energy to the program her son was so passionate about.

“When he died people wanted to help so I told them to give money for a scholarship to Winners Camp,” she said. “Then we invested those funds in the Stock Market and it grew.”

However, that money has dwindled and the organization seeks the generosity of donors to keep a scholarship fund going. The entire camp is staffed by volunteers.

“I guarantee all funds raised in the community go to getting Kaua‘i campers in — not to administration or anything else,” Smith said.

Kaua‘i kids receive a $100 discount already to help off-set the cost of airfare.

Participants develop consciousness for peers by working on projects together, doing teamwork and team-building and learning to trust each other and themselves.

“The first three days we tear down what wasn’t serving them,” she said.

The program provides wholesome homemade meals and eliminates all sugar and caffeine.

“By the second day they are through caffeine withdrawals,” she said. “The last half of camp is building them back up.”

The activities and challenges include not only adventure-based learning but scholastic games designed to expand vocabulary and self-expression.

“These are life skills exercises,” Smith said. “It’s not archery or athletics.”

There are opportunities for the ordinarily timid and shy to assume positions of power.

“You only need to be a leader once to get that you can do it,” Smith said. “It’s about empowerment.”

Teens discover the rewards of close and reliable friendships. Instruction in conflict-resolution and advanced communication techniques provide them with realistic ways to reduce conflict and improve cooperation in their lives.

When it comes to reluctance to attend for teens, Smith asks parents to reclaim their role as the parent.

“Ninety percent of my parents ask me how they’ll get their teen to go,” Smith said. “I just tell them, stop trying to be their friend, be their parent. Make the decision for them and walk away.”

Ultimately, Smith sees the confidence and team-building learned at the camp as essential ingredients for a healthy teenager.

“They arrive hiding behind their hats and sunglasses and leave here smiling,” she said. “Every year it’s the same problem — they don’t want to go home. They know they’re going back to something that didn’t work.”

This is why parents day, a one-day parenting seminar held on the final day of camp, is so important. It gives parents an overview of their teen’s experience, as well as specific skills to support teens in retaining what they have learned. The program’s final hours feature a parent and teen reunion and a presentation of communication and negotiation skills to support the ‘ohana environment.

“We run the parents through what the kids did,” Smith said, adding that it’s important for parents to get a glimpse of the commitment their teens made by attending.

“Let your children become your teachers,” she said.

To sponsor a teen or attend, call 822-5478 or visit


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