At age 14, Mariel Chee wanted “something to do during the holidays,” but it wasn’t a typical school holiday activity that one might find teenagers indulging in. Instead, she galvanised a group of like-minded friends to conceptualise and run a four-day art camp for children aged five to nine, a project they christened “Camp Chartwell.”
That was almost a decade ago, and Camp Chartwell lives on today. Last year, the sixth instalment of the camp hosted over 20 child participants, who worked with facilitators to engage with environmental themes in the form of visual arts, music, dance, and theatre at the Goodman Arts Centre. Now 23 and in her final year at the Yale-NUS College, Mariel recalls what it was like to be a 14 year old with a plan—and the drive to bring it to fruition. Do you remember your inspiration for setting up Camp Chartwell, back when you were 14 and a student at the School of the Arts (SOTA)?
MC: Funnily enough, I was inspired by my own childhood. My co-founder, Nicole, and I both grew up in the same neighbourhood. When we were younger, our families had these large gatherings with other family friends during the school holidays. Our parents would book a bungalow near the beach and all the kids would spend the whole day together. We’d go swimming, organise our own games, and play make-believe in the playground. At night, everyone would assemble in one bungalow and the adults would take turns to tell us scary stories. It became quite a memorable part of our childhood! Nicole and I wanted to relive these memories but were a tad too big for the playground, so instead we thought it’d be fun to organise something like this for the younger ones—to give them space to build their own worlds, to learn through doing, and to just be kids.
What made you take action?
MC: I remember being on the bus back from school with Nicole and another friend as we reflected on our semester, feeling grateful that being in SOTA gave us access to such a wonderful arts education. The conversation somehow moved from that to discussing our December holiday plans. We wanted to work but were too young to be employed in a proper job and too restless to stay at home, so we figured it made the most sense to put our time and energy into organising something fun for ourselves and meaningful for others. All three of us enjoyed working with kids, saw the value in an arts education, and were brimming with ideas for activities. I can’t remember who connected the dots, but suddenly it all clicked—we could marry the idea of experiential learning through structured play with the arts, in the form of a children’s arts camp.
Did your parents support you in any way?
MC: Oh, so many ways! We were, after all, 14 year olds who knew little about organising anything other than the surprise birthday parties we threw for each other. The first Camp Chartwell was casual and small; it was held at my place. My mom kindly gave us permission to use my house as the camp venue. She and Nicole’s mom sat down with us to work out the administrative details and taught us things like how to draw up a budget sheet. They also helped us with publicity. In that year, most of the kids who came were children of our parents’ friends.
But their greatest support was not in teaching us the hard skills. What I appreciated most of all was that they took us seriously and were committed to helping us achieve our vision as best as they could. I’m sure they had their doubts at many times, but they never belittled us or took our age and inexperience as reasons to dismiss us. Instead, they saw it as an opportunity to teach us troubleshooting and creative problem-solving skills. I’m glad that they never imposed their ideas, but walked us patiently through the process, advising us according to their wisdom. I think they saw in this a golden opportunity for independent learning and growth, and they were right.
How did you round up like-minded friends to help out?
MC: Positive peer pressure, perhaps? The camp started off as a creative experiment of sorts, like a big collaborative art project amongst friends. It didn’t take too long for the word to get around and for other people to take an interest in it. It became an alternative way of spending time with one another; instead of spending money on movies or playing computer games, we chose to work on achieving a common goal that was larger than ourselves. We invited friends and acquaintances from the various art disciplines—music, dance, theatre, and visual arts. Everyone had a slightly different motivation for coming on board, but I think what bound us together was our passion for the arts and the desire to share that love with others.
What were some of the challenges you faced, as young students trying to spearhead a community project? Did you charge participants back then?
MC: One of our realisations was that unlike the games we played as kids, this was not a make-believe world. These were real children we were taking care of, and everything we did had real implications. It’s one thing to play with your nieces and nephews during a family gathering, and another to look after 20 kids for full days. In the first camp, we had to learn how to deal with nosebleeds, kids who refused to eat, kids who insisted on calling their parents, and kids who would bully other kids. I was so grateful that my mom and some other parents were there! That taught us to take responsibility for others and for ourselves; I’d say that many of us grew up quite quickly during that experience.
We also had to learn how to deal with parents. Most of them were friends of our parents, so they were nice to us, but we still needed to learn how to communicate with them professionally and hold their trust.
We charged a small fee to cover material costs in that year. None of us expected to make very much from that run; we did it primarily out of passion. But working with such a tight budget also taught us to be resourceful.
What’s motivated you to keep it going through the years?
MC: Knowing that it’s made an impact on the kids. I always look forward to the end-of-camp showcase where we watch the participants perform with pride onstage or excitedly present their works to their parents. There is nothing more rewarding than knowing you played a part in giving quieter children the confidence to express themselves and recognise how creative they can be. Parents have written to us asking when the next Camp Chartwell will be held and whether they can sign their kids up… one year in advance! Many of our Camp Chartwell participants return every year because they enjoy it so much.
That said, it is a two-way street. As much as we have provided this space for kids to explore their creativity, working with kids also brings out the child in each of us. They constantly surprise us with their unbridled imagination. In their candidness, they challenge us to become more authentic. Both parties learn in different ways how to be captains of our own creativity. That mutual giving and receiving, which brings us so much growth, is perhaps what keeps both campers and facilitators coming back year after year.
How did you come up with the name “Camp Chartwell?”
MC: “Chartwell” is the name of the street that my co-founder Nicole and I lived on. We thought it had a nice ring to it and found its (incidental) pun quite fitting.
In your almost-10 years of running the camps, what would you consider your proudest achievement?
MC: We had this one mischievous boy in our first few installations of Camp Chartwell. He was playful and bright, but could sometimes be very naughty. During dance classes, he would sit at the back of the class and refuse to participate in the activities. However, we observed that when he did the visual arts activities, he was unusually focused. We noticed he had a talent for drawing and would encourage him to create more works. After the showcase of his third and last Camp Chartwell, his mom came up to me and said, “I don’t know what it is that you guys do here, but Tyler loves it. He’s not usually excited for anything else we send him for, but we know that Camp Chartwell is different. He won’t say it, but I can tell.” I will always remember those words of affirmation.
If you could go back and do things differently, is there anything you would change?
MC: If somehow I could’ve known then that we’d still be running the camp 10 years down the road, I’d have sat down with my team and drawn up a more long-term plan. I’d have considered external collaborations, gotten our facilitators to undergo proper training programmes earlier, thought about succession, hired someone to do proper branding, and so on. Mostly practical stuff! Working from passion is one thing, but sometimes it’s wiser to be intentional with where to direct your energy and resources to. But given that we were still students preparing for our International Baccalaureate exams, I’m not sure how feasible that would have been.
As you get older and more ambitious, what are the different challenges that you face?
MC: As we move away from a “for-fun” initiative, we need to start applying smarter business sensibilities to our project. This means having to set ourselves apart from the array of holiday camps in the market. After all, no matter how much pride we take in the inventiveness of our programme, or how much we work towards the vision of Camp Chartwell, we need to convince parents that it is worth investing in. This also means having to restructure the organisation with a more long-term plan in mind, which includes hiring full-time or part-time staff, paying our facilitators, and not having the team consist only of volunteers. I think we have done a lot of the groundwork, including designing and establishing a unique programme. Now, we need to ensure that it can be run more sustainably. I intend to hand this project over to my juniors this year. I think it’s about time for Camp Chartwell to be driven by new blood. These are things I hope they bear in mind as they take the project forward.
Is Camp Chartwell, for you, a stepping stone to something greater?
MC: We have always designed our activities in Camp Chartwell with the intention of providing children with a space to explore their creative capabilities. In recent times, I’ve sensed an increasing need to go beyond just nurturing creativity—values such as compassion, sensitivity, and empathy are essential as well. Thus I’ve also been involved in developing community-centric projects where we use the arts and design thinking to explore social issues such as urban poverty and elderly care. We are in the process of figuring out if there is a way to merge these two interests, or if they will run as separate but parallel projects.
What advice would you have for kids who want to start a project of their own?
MC: Whatever project you hope to pilot, it has to be personally meaningful for you. If you don’t have any ideas yet, or if you have too many ideas, I find it helpful to start by asking, what do I care about? What moves me or bothers me? What sort of impact do I want to create? Is there something I would like to learn more about?
Once you have identified the crux of the project, draw up a game plan. It helps to know the scale of your project. If it requires time and additional manpower, plan for it—start early, look for people who share in your vision, and pace yourself so you don’t get burnt out. And plan for failure, because it happens and it is perfectly okay! I’ve learnt many things the hard way; it’s part of the journey. People are generally more forgiving towards kids, so be forgiving to yourself too, and don’t be discouraged. It’s more important to know where and why things went wrong, and how they can be improved.
Finally, someone once told me that clarity comes from action, not thought. Once you have done the thinking part sufficiently, just do it! Over-thinking can lead to inertia; it’s easy to let fears or “practical considerations” hinder action. You don’t need to know every single thing before embarking on a project. You just need to know why you’re doing it. Who knows, this project might even end up being your full-time job 10 years down the road! But you won’t know until you get started.