OTISFIELD — The Seeds of Peace Camp will not have its usual international flair this summer.
Because of the uncertainty with COVID-19 in many parts of the world, organizers will hold two sessions for campers only living in the U.S.
Camp spokesman Eric Kapenga said the organization cannot safely bring campers into the country due to the pandemic.
In their place will be ninth- and 10th-grade campers from Maine, New England, the New York City area and the Syracuse, New York, area. They will be divided in two sessions, with the Maine campers grouped in the second session from Aug. 1-18 and everyone else in the first session, which runs from July 11-28.
Officials expect between 150-180 campers over the course of the two sessions, Kapenga said.
The camp was closed last year due to the pandemic.
Founded in 1993, Seeds of Peace is a nonprofit with an annual budget of more than $7 million. In a non-COVID-19 year, the organization brings hundreds of teenagers to Maine for dialog, leadership development and relationship-building across lines of conflict. Officials hope to create courageous leaders, who can help bring clashing communities together.
Establishing conversation and dialog is the important first step to build trust among the campers, especially when they first meet.
“They have a lot to say to each other,” Kapenga said. “Some of the conversations are extremely polite, and some are not. And that’s OK. This is often the first time they get the opportunity to sit down together and talk.”
Much attention has centered on Middle Eastern campers from Israel, Palestine, Jordan and Egypt, but the camp has hosted teens from 27 countries, including hot spots like India, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The camp has more than 7,300 alumni who have become involved in dozens of peacekeeping initiatives.
It has included Americans since 2000, Kapenga said.
Officials are carefully monitoring the situation in the Middle East where reports indicate that the violence in Israel and Palestine has claimed dozens of lives, including children.
“It’s rough. Our alumni and staff living in the area are highly impacted by the situation,” Kapenga said.
Tim Wilson, 80, senior adviser and director of the Maine Seeds program, has been with the program from its inception. He was formerly the director of Seeds of Peace Camp in Maine and Seeds of Peace Center for Coexistence in Jerusalem until 2006.
Wilson, a former coach who was recently inducted into the Maine Sports Hall of Fame, said he is closely watching the situation as it unfolds in the Middle East. According to his sources, some of the Seeds of Peace alumni have had homes damaged during the fighting and bombardment.
“People don’t start wars. Governments do,” Wilson said.
Josh Thomas, executive director of Seeds of Peace, said in a statement the organization is “following events closely and reaching out to support our Palestinian and Israeli communities on the ground. Today, we join with all those calling for an immediate end to military attacks and rocket fire so that no more innocent lives will be lost.”
“These events come after weeks of tension in Jerusalem, including in Sheikh Jarrah, where Palestinian (alumni) have been working to prevent forcible expulsion of families from their home,” he added. “We stand firmly with them and all who are engaged in nonviolent struggle for equality and justice. In these painful times, it is important to remember that our struggle is not against one another, but against the dehumanization, hatred, and unjust systems that have taken root over decades.”
The organization hopes that the seeds of peace they have sowed can help lessen tensions and find a path to eventual peace and coexistence.
“The goal is to get them to build conversations, relationships so that they can take on the issues in their communities,” Kapenga said.