“It’s kind of what I imagine a Neanderthal’s life would have been like – totally not glamorous,” says Lauren Simpson on living in a tent in the American woods for six months of her life.
Lauren spent the summers of 2016 and 2017 living in the mountains of upstate New York where she had little contact with the outside world and few everyday luxuries.
She was working for a summer camp called Camp Homeward Bound, America’s first summer sleep-away camp designed specifically for homeless youth.
“It was the hardest but at the same time the most fun thing I have ever done,” says Lauren about her time at the camp. She took on the role of being a Counsellor during both summers, as well as being the Deputy Unit Leader when required.
Her job involved living, working and planning activities for the children almost 24/7. “We get two hours off every twenty-four hours, but sometimes we only get one if the children need us during that time,” Lauren says through her strong Northern Irish accent.
Many of the children grew up around domestic violence and are used to New York’s shelter system. “I think the hardest thing was what some of the kids disclosed to you or what you overheard them talking about,” she says. “It was shocking and hard to take at times.”
However, Lauren’s passion for working with children and young adults did not begin at Camp Homeward Bound. Her family have been fostering children ever since she was a child, which she says was a fundamental reason for her deciding to study an English and Education degree at Ulster University in 2010.
“I loved my time at university, I made the most of student life,” she says about obtaining her undergraduate degree. It was when it came to her pursuit of a Postgraduate Certificate in Education that Lauren began to struggle.
“Postgraduate study was the hardest year of my life because teaching is not an easy thing to learn, especially over a short academic year.” But, what Lauren found hardest was the level of “scrutiny over a short period of time” she faced. It was this which made her doubt herself during this year, but looking back now she believes it was all “worth it in the end”.
Lauren is now 26 and works as a Student Wellbeing Officer at a college in Belfast. This role is “whatever comes on the day” she says. “If a student is in distress, then I deal with it.”
Lauren credits her time working with New York’s homeless children at Camp Homeward Bound for helping her secure her current position in Belfast: “It definitely helped me get the job I have now, the experience I have gained from working at camp is invaluable and showed me I can cope with being away from 21st century life because at camp we had nothing.”
Although Lauren will not be returning to camp this summer due to other commitments, she asks what other people will be doing to help the less fortunate in our society as she ponders about the way she will do it next.