Member Spotlight: John

Member Spotlight,

Meet John Backus!

John BJohn (he/him/his) was born and raised in Bridgeport, Connecticut but is now living in Little Rock, Arkansas where he works as Camp Program Director and AmeriCorps Site Supervisor at Pfeifer Kiwanis Camp. John is also a double major in Business Administration with a focus in Non-Profit Management and Finance at Southern New Hampshire University.

Tell us a bit about what you do at your organization. 
My job generally entails me planning, executing, and managing a program targeting at-risk youth. This takes two separate forms during the school year and summer. From September-May I lead a team of 3-4 counselors at an elementary school on the outskirts of Little Rock. My day begins at Lawson Elementary, after I arrive at the school I schedule out the day and have a brief meeting with my team to discuss the events ahead. From there I sit down at my desk and instantly get restless and go to the recess area. Here I candidly interact with 5-11 year-olds and mentor them in peer relations, help them identify what kind of bird they are fascinated by, and get worn out in a soccer match. After an hour or so of this, I meet up with team members and we lead Character Building Through Organized Play (CBOP) activities. These programs are designed to target group relations through fun games and reflection and generally last around 30 minutes. After CBOPs end we have "Camp Class" a Social Emotional Learning (SEL) program where we go more in-depth on interpersonal issues. Some areas we target are communication, teamwork, and problem-solving. These classes are one of the highlights of my day as I get to see genuine learning happen within the youth through one of the purest forms of experiential education.
Scattered throughout these two programs are one-on-one tutoring sessions where we work with the lowest performing students and give them the skills and resources to succeed. Having this access to them provides us with the ability to design education around their needs as opposed to the needs of an entire classroom. Alongside these unscheduled times, we also have the opportunity to problem-solve with the kiddos and mentor them through issues that arise with peers and adults. The young age of our counselors makes them more relatable to the kids and I've had the pleasure of seeing massive strides in students through this aspect of our program. We end our day with mClass, a small group literacy tutoring program, and wave our goodbyes to the students during checkout.
After the school day ends, we head back to the camp and debrief the events of the day before we document and journal. After the paperwork is done we plan our programs ahead and sometimes find the time to schedule some teambuilding for the staff. After our counselor team leaves we have administrative meetings and I usually make it home before the sun is down. I end my days with school work, which seems like a drag to some, but for me, it's an engaging experience. This is because I'm at the point in my degree get to learn new management, writing, and interpersonal skills I get to actively apply.
During summer camp my life is utterly consumed by our work, which I love in a way. I usually tell people I work Sunday evening-Friday evening due to the requirements of managing a non-profit residential summer camp. My main role nowadays is logistics, scheduling kitchen duty, breaks, and adjusting program schedules to better meet the present. When I can get away from these duties, I lead Outdoor Biological Instructional Strategies (OBIS), Outdoor Living Skills (OLS), team building, ice cream making, and waterfront activities. I love nothing more than teaching kids the joys of "camp life" and the outdoors, even if it means getting eaten alive by fire ants and somehow losing my sunglasses four times a day. The feeling of fulfillment is shown almost instantly when a camper has a lightbulb moment during water studies or raccoon circles.
There are far more varied aspects of my job responsibilities. If the nurse went home for the evening and a camper had an upset stomach, I handled that. If the toilet is clogged or a tree comes down across a path right after the maintenance director leaves, I grab the plunger or chainsaw and head over. If the arts & crafts director needs help, I try my best (although any decent artist would cringe if they saw my work). Sometimes I even find myself assisting in relief efforts after natural disasters or organizing bicycle donations for low-income families. The variety that comes my way is during my day-to-day is what I look forward to and what has kept my fire lit over the years.
Ultimately, one of the key parts of my job is how I get to mentor our counselors. They're incredibly passionate and energetic people, generally younger than me by a few years. I see a lot of myself in them as they navigate their early years in the field. From not planning out their facilitation to forgetting paperwork to struggling with workplace relations, I support them. Watching them grow from the advice I have given them is an incredibly gratifying experience for me and something I treasure about my job. I believe the ripple effects that come from ethical and intentional management is key to success in experiential ed.
Tell us more about yourself! 
I'm born and raised in Bridgeport, Connecticut and am a passionate New Englander...mostly because who could be passionate about being from Connecticut? Post high school I wanted something different and joined AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC). This program took me across the entire western half of the country. I performed public service from the Mendocino Coast of California to the Tetons in Jackson Hole, Wyoming to the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, home to the Oglala Lakota. This experience is the foundation for my career goals and showed me far more about the world than any other has. From there I worked a variety of odd jobs, baking at bagel shops, working at Mark Wahlberg's restaurant, short term work at non-profits, and freelancing photography. I went back to the Pine Ridge Reservation in 2017 and helped run some service projects and kids camps. The lessons I learned on the rez that summer are some of the most personally moving ones I have had.
I first came to Pfeifer Kiwanis Camp (PKC) in January of 2017 and worked here for 4 months before leaving. I distinctly remember saying to myself "I'll never come back here". Well, what I've learned since then that reflection can really make you feel like an idiot. So in Spring of 2018 I sent an email to Binky, the assistant director at PKC, titled "Why the Heck Did I leave?". I returned to PKC that fall as a team leader and worked my up to my current administrative role. March of last year I begrudgingly went back to school...and have loved it...again, reflection made me feel quite foolish. This sparked a new love for learning that I hadn't felt in a long time. Since then I have gotten into woodworking, fishing, and cooking. The latter has always been a joy of mine but I recently noticed how it connects me with my mom back in Connecticut. We have a Mediterranean background and she has a long list of old family recipes that I've been learning over the phone and through texts.
Besides for this, I'm going on two years of marriage with my wonderful wife. We have two cats, a variety of herbs, flowers, succulents, and other plants I don't know the name of. When not working I wade fish, backpack, rock climb, and play a 24-year-old videogame called Age of Empires 2. I enjoy history and read quite a bit of biography's, the only time I venture into fiction is to read Lord of the Rings.
What excites you when you think about the future of Experiential Education?
Looking ahead in the field of Experiential Ed. I'm excited for its implementation in the traditional classrooms. While I would love for it to be normal for there to be classrooms in the open air, backcountry, and aboard sailboats, I also understand the impracticality of that. In the elementary school I work in I've seen more and more teachers teach through experiential education methodologies in recent years than ever before. Furthermore, the direction AEE is taking towards diversity and inclusion is an incredibly needed course. Expanding our reach into more communities will undoubtedly broaden the horizons of what is possible.
Who or what inspires you?
Ansel Adams, Indira Gandhi, John Muir, MLK, Sanford Tollette, and my mom and dad have all been role models for me over the years. Each approaches what needs to be done with a calm and creative mentality that seeks for the best possible outcome for those around them. While I struggle to do this 100%, I find that this approach mitigates issues long before they arise.
In your free time, we can probably find you:
Walking down some trail contemplating if I locked my car or not.
How long have you been involved with AEE?
I've been involved with AEE for about 6 years and have attended some virtual conferences as well as the international in 2022 and the Southeast in 2023. I'm currently helping plan the Southeast-Midsouth joint conference for February of 2024!
What is the most rewarding part about being a Member of AEE?
Being a part of AEE and meeting other educators has made me feel more normal and validated my views on education, the outdoors, and society in general.
Favorite Moment at AEE?
The first AEE workshop I ever attended was at the 2022 International in Black Mountain. The name of the workshop was “Rethinking Leave No Trace” Experiences from an Indigenous Perspective on Leave No Trace" and it was lead by Heather Yazzie Campbell, Neal Ferris, and Patrick Willmont. The room it was held in would have been cramped with 20 people, and there was about 60. Through this workshop we discussed how indigenous people approach the subject of Leave No Trace. The big takeaway for me was that land is sacred, and not only in an environmental perspective. The woods, mountains, streams and lakes have been homes for people long before anyone who looked like me arrived. While I'd known this for a while, it never really came to the front of my mind as it did in that moment. I used this lesson with our campers this summer and will carry it with me for the rest of my life.
Fun Fact:
I really enjoy the smell of dehydrating basil but couldn't find a way to put that in here.

Find John here:
Instagram @johnbackus

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