I’m a camp director – actually a corporate refugee with an encore career working with kids. I lead four camps each summer for children with chronic illnesses – Crohn’s disease, colitis, skin disease, and Celiac disease. Each camp brings together children who are dealing with similar issues around their affliction, and allows them to be campers first, and patients second. They swim, boat on the lake, play soccer, do arts and crafts, go through the ropes course. In short, they experience overnight summer camp with other kids just like themselves.

Every year, I try to introduce something new. Sometimes these innovations work, and sometimes they’re a flop. At Celiac Camp this year, I thought I’d create an opportunity for the campers to say thank you when someone did something nice for them.

I’m talking little things – holding a door open, finding someone’s swim goggles in the cabin, minor things that happen many times a day.

So the first morning of camp, I found a large plastic jar in the kitchen, labeled it the “Mayonnaise Jar”, and put it on the piano in the front of the dining hall. I put pencils and a few pieces of paper next to the jar, and told a couple of counselors that it was a way for their campers to say thanks if someone did something for them. At lunchtime, there were two anonymous notes in the jar.

     “Thanks for lending me your sunscreen at the pool”

      “Thanks for finding my hat”

During lunchtime announcements, I told the camp about the “Mayo Jar” and read the two notes. I thought a few other campers and counselors might want to join in, so I added a few more sheets of paper – 20 in all. I figured that would be enough for the rest of the day, maybe the rest of the week.

I stopped by the dining hall later that afternoon to meet with a few counselors and checked to see if the Mayo Jar had been used. To my surprise, the stack of paper was gone and the jar was beginning to fill up. I added 20 more sheets of paper and continued my afternoon. At dinner, I again checked the jar. And again, the paper was gone, and the jar was practically full.

Before evening announcements, I sorted through the notes and found dozens of expressions of thanks for all sorts of things – being a friend, clearing a table, sharing a water bottle, making a snow cone. Forty notes in the space of four hours. I read every note during dinner announcements – some were cheered, some weren’t. But I was struck by the number of kids that took the time to acknowledge that someone had done something for them, and to thank them.

After dinner, I put 50 pieces of paper next to the jar and sharpened the now-dull pencils. The next morning at breakfast, the paper was gone and the jar was full. The notes described different things – sharing a teddy bear, telling a bedtime story, thanking the kitchen staff for a great meal. Again, I read every note during announcements, replaced the paper, and continued with camp.

By the end of the second day, we were averaging 60 notes between each meal – almost 200 notes per day. This from a camp of 95 campers and 40 counselors. And during the third day, I began to notice a change. The camp seemed to take on a different feel. Campers and counselors seemed more conscious of doing things for each other. The process of saying thank you appeared to be generating acts of kindness and consideration. Several times during the day, there was a line at the Mayo Jar as kids waited to write their note.

Maybe it was my imagination, but it seemed that as the week progressed, normal and expected small incidents of mischief and misbehavior at camp had almost vanished. There were no cabin pranks, no bullying, no harsh words.

It was as if expressing gratitude had created a shift in how the camp operated.

The jar continued to fill up, I continued to read the notes during announcements, and the paper continued to run out. As I removed the notes from the jar to organize and read them, others quickly took their place. The jar was never empty.

By the end of the week, there were between 600 and 700 notes – from the scrawls of eight-year-olds to the thoughtful comments of long time counselors. The stack felt like a treasure. Here were hundreds upon hundreds of documented acts of kindness that were acknowledged simply because these campers were given the opportunity to express thanks. Some of the notes were clever, some were simple, some were revealing, and some moved me to tears.

“Kim from Pine Cabin – thanks for encouraging me on the zip line”

“Thank you Chelsea for teaching me how to make a lanyard”

“Thank you Riley for always smiling. It makes me happy”

“Thanks Joan for understanding my weirdness and being weird with me”

“To all the staff – you guys made my dream come true this week. You made me proud to be gluten-free”

I am humbled by the actions and wisdom of my campers and counselors. And I will never run camp again without a Mayonnaise Jar.

Richard Bernstein is a former financial services executive now working and volunteering in the non-profit sector. In addition to directing camps, he works with foster kids, tutors at a local middle school, and helps run a non-profit where local teens cook for cancer patients. Richard can be contacted at [email protected].