On the last day of Camp MetroTown, teenagers held posters they made earlier in the week with images of the "monsters" in their lives. Spiders. Stress. Advanced placement physics.
Then, they tore them up.
"These are the things that hurt you and the people you now love," said the camp's program director Heather Burdick. "Rip them to shreds!"
Fifty high school students from Miami-Dade County attended Camp MetroTown - an intensive, six-day program that encourages conversations about diversity and identity - run by Miami-based nonprofit MCCJ. It was held June 25 - 30 at St. Thomas University in Miami Gardens.
"We get to focus on the real life experience of each individual camper ... versus having to focus on standards and test taking," Burdick said.
The participants, who are hand picked by staff from a pool of applicants, represent various faiths, races, sexual orientations and socioeconomic backgrounds. During the program, the students form small "sharing groups" where they discuss their personal challenges and learn from each others' experiences.
"Some people here didn't even know a trans person before. Some people didn't even know a gay person before. That to me is something so part of me, part of who I am, that I can't imagine a world where I didn't know myself," said 17-year-old Fabianna Salermo.
"I know a lot of people ... told things they wouldn't even tell their family," said 14-year-old Fatimah Salahuddin.
One of the final activities of the week involved group presentations about how the students can build off the momentum of the program and keep these types of conversations going in their lives.
Numerous campers expressed interest in starting new clubs at their schools or raising awareness of existing ones like the Gay-Straight Alliance. One group of girls said that when school starts in the fall, they want to give away cookies to people they don't usually sit with at lunch.
Some students described their time at Camp MetroTown as an “awakening.”
“I had no idea about it, and I’ve been in the public school system all my life,” Salermo said. “I think this is really something that everyone should experience.”