When Rebecca Gentner, an LSA senior, began her internship at the Waldpiraten Camp in Heidelberg, Germany, last summer, she figured she’d fulfill a graduation requirement and perhaps brush up on her German skills. What she got in addition was an emotional, life-changing experience that she says has defined her undergraduate experience.

Surrounded by trees in the scenic German countryside, Waldpiraten offers climbing walls, bike paths, and ropes courses—fun stuff that any kids’ camp would have. The difference is, Waldpiraten is geared toward kids with cancer and their families.

Gentner learned about the camp while looking for an internship as part of her Program in the Environment concentration. Hunting for something in the specialized field of environmental psychology, where she could study how the environment could affect those with illness, she initially found few opportunities outside academia. But when she stumbled onto the small camp, she decided that it might be a good fit, especially since she’d had personal experience with cancer in her own family: both Gentner’s mother and father had suffered from the disease.

The camp seemed like an ideal way for Gentner to observe for herself the effects of a space on those coping with an illness.  She hoped to study the camp’s ability to allow campers to explore and “conduct meaningful actions,” which environmental psychology defines as actions that make a person feel that they have done something worthwhile.

At first, Gentner was surprised at how intensely she connected with her young campers. She had never thought of herself as a “kid person” before, but she says the campers were “wise beyond their years.”

“It’s like they were eight going on 28,” she says.

Her work at the camp alternated between roles as a counselor and as support for other staff. As a counselor, she oversaw almost a dozen campers, with ages ranging from 9-12. She guided them throughout their daily routine, from breakfast to bedtime.  

Gentner recalls one particularly memorable camper whose father had left the family after her brother’s cancer diagnosis. Her mother worked long hours, and the girl, age 11, was expected to help raise her brother. She and Gentner became fast friends. For this girl, the camp meant everything. It was a way for her to escape the trappings of her everyday life, if only for a few brief weeks. Before she left, she confided to Rebecca, “I feel like a kid here.”

Gentner was also impressed that despite their physical hardships, campers were encouraged to do a variety of intensive activities. In addition to the usual camp fare, such as high-ropes courses, they rode horses, went scuba diving in a local diving pool, and even rode motorcycles.

“Children weren’t treated as ‘sick,’ but instead as normal kids with slightly different needs,” she says.

Gentner and her campers go for an afternoon canoe ride on a small lake near the campgrounds. Photo: Courtesy of Rebecca Gentner

A German concentrator, Gentner arrived with a working knowledge of the language, but quickly realized that she still had a lot to learn. Yet the campers never mocked or ridiculed her. Instead, they helped correct her mistakes. As her campers learned skills and received guidance from her, she too learned from them. Eventually, they selected her as “best counselor,” a badge of honor in the camp.

Gentner also spent time interviewing counselors and children about their experiences in the camp.  These, coupled with her personal observation of the campers and their interactions at the camp, helped her draw conclusions about the positive impact natural spaces can have.

“The camp director told me the children would put so much energy into the camp days, energy that they didn't normally think they had, that she would get reports back from parents that the kids would sleep a full 24 hours after returning home,” she says. “How often do you see groups of nine-year-olds focus on one task for hours on end without checking their cell phones or wanting to do something else?”

Gentner says the internship also confirmed for her the importance that space can have for those recovering from or coping with illness.  She saw improvement in the campers’ self-esteem, a reduction in their stress level, and an increase in overall happiness—all of which could positively affect their recovery.

The strength and determination that Gentner saw at the camp gave her a sense of hope for what natural therapy can do for those struggling with disease, and of its broader application to healthcare. After graduation, she plans to study or work in environmental psychology, to continue to advance healthy environments for patients of cancer and other afflictions.

“Now the world is open and I know what I can do—and more importantly, what I want to do,” she says, through a teary smile.

“This internship left me feeling more fulfilled than I have ever felt.”

For students interested in obtaining course credit for an internship, click here.

For alumni interested in offering or supporting internships, click here