photo of Judy Lavori Keiser

Play for peace

In Judy Lavori Keiser '82's Culture Camp, kids "travel" the world.

In India, for example, campers make cucumber raita, chopping cucumbers, measuring ingredients, and finally enjoying the dish. In Australia, campers learn about the Aboriginal tradition of walkabout, taking a metaphorical walk through one's life. They think about their own lives and draw their own walkabouts.

Keiser's Culture Company, operated from her Pompano Beach FL home, outsources Culture Camp curriculum to nonprofit organizations both in-state and out-of-state. The goal is for campers to appreciate diversity while recognizing the inherent commonalities among all people; children ages 6 through 13 experience many cultures hands-on through storytelling, crafts, music, dance and cuisine.

Inspiration for starting the Culture Camp came from her son William, whose passion is geography, and from her response to the events of 9/11/01. "In trying to explain September 11th to William, then 5 years old, I said, 'It's such a shame that someone felt so strongly that this was the only way to make their point, because it's a bad way to make their point and causes people not to want to listen to it, when their point may have had some good in it.' We haven't set up good enough systems for everybody's voice to be heard." The importance of communication on a global scale can be linked to our everyday lives, Keiser says, and the fact that many interpersonal problems are caused by misunderstanding. That's why she incorporates conflict resolution and cooperative trust-building games into the camp.

That peacemaking aspect makes the curriculum unique. "The idea is not just to learn about geography," Keiser says. "The idea is to learn about character development, and how thankfulness is a central tenet of Islam, and how we might be able to learn something from that."

During one lesson, a Buddhist monk from Tibet visited the camp. "He told stories about what it's like to live in a monastery and cook for 2,400 people," Keiser says. According to Buddhist principles, gifts are rejected as a way to de-emphasize the material realm. "The kids offered the monk a beautiful white scarf, which he took and thanked them for, and then gave back to them. Because of that experience and then the guiding to understand why this happened the way it happened, it really sank in. The kids did it. They didn't just hear about it. Experiential learning is deep learning."

Bryn Mawr gave Keiser an early taste of learning through doing. As a senior Italian major, she studied the poems of Petrarch. In addition to writing a musical and literary analysis of the works, she put together a madrigal choir and conducted a performance of Petrarch's poems set to music.

That experience came in handy for her volunteer work with The Symphony of the Americas, a South Florida orchestra, for which she created PBJ: Peanut Butter and Jamboree Picnics. Members of the orchestra and families with young children picnic together, and the musicians explain and demonstrate their instruments, giving children a chance to experiment on them. "Even toddlers learn something about music and the instruments that make it and get a sense of the importance of music and how delightful it can be," she says. "Those children are the audiences of tomorrow.

Keiser's work in the field of law has also helped her prepare for the Culture Company. "My orientation as a lawyer was what I called preventative maintenance," she explains. "My business clients were ones who hadn't gotten into trouble yet, and I didn't want to them to. I wasn't focusing on what happens after a problem. I wanted there not to be problems. In the same way, the Culture Camp is preventive. You have to be taught to hate and fear. We do the other kind of teaching: teaching not to hate and fear."

This summer two social service agencies used Keiser's curriculum in camps for more than 300 children, and two Unitarian Universalist congregations-including the Unitarian Society of Germantown (PA)-adopted it for their Sunday schools. The curriculum also is being considered for use in after-school programs.

In addition to being a full-time mother and part-time law consultant, Keiser trains counselers and teachers; provides "culture crates" which include any needed "artifacts," textiles, games, and hard-to-find supplies; and evaluates and improves all aspects of the the Culture Company. "I'm learning a lot about various educational philosophies, which is great because you can never learn too much," she says. "That's what life should be about: to keep learning."

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