BILLINGS - The citizens of Peace Village don’t carry cellphones or wear branded clothing or jewelry, and they say “please” and “thank you.” They value exercise and nutrition. They practice meditation, focusing on their breathing in an attempt to clear their young minds.
This week, Rocky Mountain College’s Institute for Peace Studies invited a small group of children to the 13th Peace Village Day Camp. Stripped of socioeconomic identifiers, they form a cohesive group focused on building relationships and embracing diversity.
Cindy Kunz, director of the Institute, said the camp is open to the community but half of the students come from difficult home situations and are referred by area agencies.
“We’ve had children arrive here in a van and that was their home,” Kunz said.
She said some of the more affluent children struggle with the Peace Village rules at first. But by Wednesday they identify with the group and don’t mind giving up the things some of their peers don’t have.
Campers learn about the connection good nutrition and exercise have with healthy minds. Volunteers prepare large lunches with a wide assortment of food. The rules require the children to eat at least one fruit and one vegetable, even if it’s only an olive.
There’s also a cultural awareness component of the camp.
“The cultural aspect is important because our mission is peace education, and that is critical,” Kunz said.
She said people in Montana are at a disadvantage because of the lack of diversity. On Wednesday she taught the campers that they live in a global community. They will meet many people who speak or look differently from how they do, and it’s important to remember others’ humanity.
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The Institute of Peace employs RMC international students throughout the year, and several of them assisted with Peace Village.
Benson Koech, a student from Kenya, said he also learned as much from the children he worked with throughout the week as they learned from him.
“In Africa we are not allowed to be with the kids, really,” Koech said.
He received training before the camp on how to handle uncomfortable questions from children regarding race or cultural differences.
Koech said he was in a grocery store recently, and a child pointed out his dark skin to her mother. The mother was embarrassed and chastised her child. But Koech reacted differently because of his experience with Peace Village. Instead of getting offended, he spoke with the pair and turned the awkward situation into a positive interaction.
Koech will return to Kenya soon, so this will be the only camp he’s involved with, but some of the volunteers return year after year.
Morrie Bryan, a recent high school graduate, attended Peace Village for his 11th year.
“It’s a really fun place, and no matter how old I get I never get tired of it,” Bryan said.
He said Peace Village helped him learn to deal with emotions, accept others and relate to people. He said wouldn’t be the same person without his experiences at Peace Village.