J.R. Best had a great idea.
He would move to Japan, and start a sports camp for Japanese youth. It would be a cultural exchange – U.S. students could come and intern as camp counselors, while Japanese youth would have the opportunity to learn from Americans.
In 2005, Best, a UC Davis 1979 alumnus, turned that idea into a pilot project in Kiyosato, Japan, a small town in the mountains three hours west of Tokyo.
“We started with 15 kids. We decided that the camp was not just going to be a football camp; we wanted the kids to experience a typical American camp … the whole bit,” Best said in an e-mail interview.
Since then, Sports Camp of America (S.C.O.A.), founded by Best, has become the only established sports camp in Japan conducted in English with American athletes as camp counselors. It has received support from the U.S. Embassy in Japan and NFL Japan, as well as sponsorship from All Nippon Airways.
In the past four years, the camp has provided Japanese first grade through junior high students, and young American athletes, the chance to interact through football, cheer and other sports. Run in the summer during August, the camp works in partnership with Kiyosato Educational Experiment (K.E.E.P.), a Japanese nonprofit located in Kiyosato that provides S.C.O.A. with cabin facilities and logistical support.
“For the kids, we want to accomplish several things … we want them to come away from their camp with a good feeling about Americans. Second, we want to get kids out of their shells by exposing them to American traits like self-expression and being outgoing. And third, we want S.C.O.A. to be the spark that makes them want to go visit other countries and experience other cultures,” Best said.
The idea for S.C.O.A. came in 2004, when Best and his wife, Keiko, were in Japan visiting relatives near Tokyo. Aware of his football background, Keiko’s sister asked if he would volunteer to help at his 11-year old nephew’s football camp.
The coach at the camp asked Best if he could show the campers how to run a pattern. Best acquiesced, and with a combination of broken Japanese and some physical language, demonstrated his technique.
“Next thing I knew, the head coach stopped practice, and twenty kids, ten dads, and five coaches are standing in front of me waiting for the American football coach to teach them about patterns,” Best said.
Watching from the sidelines, Keiko saw potential.
“At the end … she said that she had witnessed something amazing. At the start, the kids were quiet – almost afraid of me – but after two days they were into it, learning new things and repeating the English phrases I was throwing out rapid fire. That was the ‘aha!’ moment,” Best said.
That ‘aha!’ epiphany was, Best said, the ability to use sports as a universal language; it was a way for college students from the United States with little or no knowledge of Japanese to share an experience with Japanese kids with little or no knowledge of English. Sports would be the medium.
Interns, often undergraduate or recently graduated college students with high school or college backgrounds in sports, staff the camp as counselors.
Nolan de Graaff, a 2005 UC Davis alum, played three years of football for the Aggies while an undergraduate. De Graff heard about S.C.O.A. through the UC Davis Grid Club, a newsletter and network serving the extended Aggie football family of current/former players and associates.
“I went because I love to travel and I love football, and I love teaching kids; I thought it was a perfect opportunity,” de Graaff said.
A typical day for de Graaff started at 7 a.m. with breakfast with the other counselors and campers. Afterward, counselors would teach sports sessions (football, cheer, dodgeball and soccer).
“We would focus on basic skills – since it’s flag football, passing and catching and defense, not blocking or anything like that. [We’d also teach] how to line up, how to run routes, and catching skills,” said de Graaff, who coached football during the camp.
“The kids were super attentive – like a sponge,” de Graaff said. “Even though sometimes they didn’t know what you were saying, they would follow you, based on your physical action.“
Counselors would also instruct students in “English Time” sessions, where the interns would act out words using stories and body language, as well as playing games like Pictionary and Simon Says.
Julanne Wessely, a cheer dance counselor and Cal State Long Beach graduate, interned for the camp the past two summers.
“The camp was great … for us as Americans to go over there and interact with a different culture, especially kids, who are so open and willing to learn. You get there and you see smiling faces from these kids who are so anxious to learn from us,” Wessely said.
But despite the sports character of the camp, Best and the counselors go to great lengths to make sure their Japanese companions get the full, authentic, American camp experience. There are potato sack races, treasure hunts, water balloon tosses, campfire songs and s’mores.
“It says a lot that the kids…stayed for the second session – they would call home, say they had a really good time, and want to stay longer. We had a good time – I can only see [the camp] growing, and word of mouth spreading,” de Graaff said.
At the helm of the entire operation is Best, who has dedicated his time and effort into cultivating a small pilot into an innovative experience for both Americans and Japanese.
“J.R. is very passionate about what he does, you can tell that just by talking to him – he loves this camp; he cares so much about it that you want to care about it just as much,” Wessely said.
S.C.O.A. is currently looking for individuals with a high school or college sports background interested in summer internships like de Graaff’s during this coming August. Airfare and most expenses are covered; interns will also have the opportunity for a few days of sight-seeing in nearby Tokyo.
Visit S.C.O.A.‘s website at scoacamp.com to review the application and find out more.
ANDRE LEE can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.