Rays of Light: Madison Vandersee

Hometown(s): Wichita, KS/Sterling, IL

Current Location: YMCA Camp Benson near Mt. Carroll, IL

Current Role: Assistant Camp Director at YMCA Camp Benson

Nominated By: Ben Bruster

Reason for Nomination: Madison is an absolute rockstar! Plain and simple. She exudes incredible humility, compassion, determination, and resolve to “Be the change [she] wants to see in the world.” As a lifelong learner, Madison finds great joy in asking questions and intrigue in pursuing answers to these questions. Motivated to solve problems, she works tirelessly to find real-world solutions and help others. Madison is also one of the most genuinely loyal, non-judgmental, hardworking, and kind people you will meet anywhere. Thus, she is someone you want on your side when the chips fall in whatever direction they may.

As a fellow geography major at Augustana College, I was privileged enough to befriend Madison, and learn alongside her as well. Needless to say, long hours in the GIS lab would not have been the same without Madison and our department’s motley crew of professors and students. And, in the two years since our graduation, it has been rewarding watching Madison grow while in Santa Fe, NM and, now, at Camp Benson! Great things are, and will continue to be, for Madison Vandersee.


A Short Bio.

 Madison Vandersee was born in Wichita (KS) but was mostly raised in Sterling, Illinois—a town of 15,000 people located two hours due west of Chicago. She has an older brother, older sister, a mom, and a dad, and family has always been a staple of her life.

Madison and her family. Photo courtesy of Madison Vandersee.

Growing up, she set the pace for her life to come, acquiring many hobbies and participating in numberless extracurricular and school activities. In her words:

My life was very busy growing up. I have an older brother and sister, and our lives revolved around the many activities we had going on every day. Sports, theater, band, you name it! We’d get up early for band practice, go to school, have sports practice after school, and finish homework before we did it all over again the next day.

Out of all of Madison’s childhood activities and experiences, however, her time at YMCA Camp Benson (near Mt. Carroll, IL) likely proved the most formative. For her, summer camp meant new adventures, friends, fun, opportunities to learn and explore the outdoors, and chances to “figure out her place in the world.”

No surprise, as a child, she maintained a deep passion for the outdoors and, for a while, even considered becoming a veterinarian. “I always wanted to work with animals. I was shy when it came to meeting new people but was a completely different person when interacting with animals,” she writes.

Ultimately, her focus shifted to understanding people—specifically, “how people interact with the world around them, why they are that way, and how we can evolve our relationship with the planet.” Upon attending Augustana College in Rock Island, IL, Madison immediately knew what she wanted to study: Geography, Geology, and Environmental Studies, the studies of place and everything about them. Naturally, the pairing could not have been a better fit. Over her four years, Madison travelled to 18 states (yes, you read that correctly) and 3 countries, learning more than she could have imagined, about things she previously didn’t even know existed. In Hawaii, she hiked volcanoes and learned about lava flows. In California and Nevada, she studied the effect of water distribution on agriculture and citizens alike. Then, while in Ireland, she traveled from city to city, learning about local culture, history, and mythology. Of course, being an avid soccer fan, she took in plenty of football while she was there as well.

Madison on one of her many journeys. Photo courtesy of Madison Vandersee.


After an incredible four years at Augustana, she pursued work in Santa Fe, NM through a partnership between the Student Conservation Association and the AmeriCorps National Service Program. There, she worked with the National Park Service, aiming to identify, maintain, and preserve historic trails. After nearly a year in the Southwest, though, Madison felt a calling to return to the Midwest—or, at least, to return to her home at Camp Benson.

For nearly the last year, then, Madison has worked as Camp Benson’s Assistant Camp Director. This coming summer will be her 14th year at camp. And despite her experience and familiarity with “this little camp in the woods,” life here never becomes dull or routine. For her, camp never fails to afford new challenges, joys, adventures, and meaningful bonds. Right now, she, “Is set on learning the guitar…starting with ‘Save Tonight’ by Eagle Eye Cherry.” Professionally speaking, she is working to develop an outdoor education program at camp, because “connecting [kids] to the physical world around them” is what it’s all about!

Lastly, she is a devoted plant owner. Her plants have travelled with her from Illinois to New Mexico and back again. And though Madison currently lives in a small studio apartment, she will always make room for more plants!


Q & A: [The Not So] Serious

BB: Imagine there is a Boeing 747 outside, waiting to take you anywhere in the world right now. Money is not a constraint. Where are you going and why?

MV: That is seriously the hardest question. Do I go back to a place I love, or go somewhere new? I actually can’t decide, but now I need to plan a trip…


BB: What is one thing you wish everyone knew about you?

MV: I’m a very thoughtful person, which makes it hard for me to make decisions. When it comes to work, I can make a decision on the spot when needed, but if I have time to think I will analyze every angle and option. Don’t ask me to pick where to eat because I will never choose.


BB: Beach or mountains?

MV: Mountains always.


BB: In what important ways do you see that you have grown since graduating college?

MV: I have learned more about myself and to stand up for what I believe in. I have always been a people pleaser and wouldn’t have a firm stand on much. I’ve learned that there are ways to please people without feeling like I am putting myself or my beliefs on the back burner.


BB: Imagine you and three famous people (dead or alive) are holed up in a Trans-Siberian Express sleeper car for the eight-day journey from Moscow to Vladivostok. What three people would you pick? How would you pass the time?

MV: First person will always be Duff Goldman from Charm City Cakes. He has the creativity and energy I strive for every day and the ideas we could come up with in 8 days would blow people away! The second person would be Bethany Hamilton because she has been through so much mentally, physically, and emotionally, but has come out being a stronger person all around and lives her life with an inspiring positivity. Lastly, I would love to add Alicia Keys to the mix to discuss her activism and learn about the adventures she’s had throughout her life in music and travel.

I feel like our trip would be filled with music, laughs, and trying to solve the never-ending list of the world’s problems.


BB: Tell about a recent moment when you felt proud to be you. Why do you think you felt this way? And what does this moment say about you?

MV: I recently went to a camping conference with a couple hundred other camp professionals. While there, we attended sessions and learned about the efforts so many people are putting into providing the camp experience for kids really made me feel so proud to be part of that community.


BB: What is your favorite movie? Why?

MV: I never have a good answer for this because I have an awful habit of saying everything is my favorite. Since 2006, I’ve stuck with the movie Aquamarine. This way I can answer that my favorite movie, color, and gemstone is Aquamarine. Plus, who wouldn’t want to be a mermaid?


BB: Imagine you were asked to explain why kids, or anyone, should go to camp. What would you say?

MV: Camp isn’t a place a kid goes and at the end of the week they say, “it was fine”. Camp is a place where you pick up your kid and they don’t stop talking about everything that happened until you drop them off the following summer. Camp is a place where kids are disconnected from their safety net of electronics and connect with people on a deeper level by sharing a home for a week, teaching others their favorite games, trying something new, and learning empathy from adults who have only the best interest of each camper at heart. We have campers and staff come from across the world because this 113-acre piece of land feels like home after a week! It’s a place for everyone to grow and reflect on who they want to be when they leave camp and to connect with a community who all want them to be their true self.

Camp is something that I believe every person should try. Try being a camper. Too old? Be a counselor, work for a summer in the kitchen, be a program specialist, attend family camp with your kids… anything! We work with and shape the next generation of humans and instill a caring, honest, respectful, responsible, dedicated, and inclusive spirit in these humans to take with them and spread to their community. This isn’t something that is learned in many schools. This isn’t something you experience in every workplace. Learning and living this spirit is something that is considered a bonus if your kids get that in school from teachers and peers. It’s considered a bonus if you find a workplace that includes everyone and values their employees. We strive to build better people who will share that spirit and build better communities when they leave camp.

I cried my first night as a camper because I wanted to go home. I cried that Friday night at closing campfire because I never wanted to leave. It’s been 15 years. I still cry every closing campfire because I see those friendships being made and those future leaders blooming. Camp gets you out of your bubble and questioning why people label others as ‘different’ instead of trying to understand them and just work together in this big crazy world.


BB: What three foods could you not live without?

MV: Potatoes, eggs, and broccoli. The perfect breakfast combo.


BB: I understand that you have a heart for adventure. What is your favorite travel story?

MV: Every adventure I’ve been on has its own story and it’s so hard to pick a favorite when they’ve all been completely unique. Living in Santa Fe was a really amazing experience as every day I experienced new cultures and new environments I never dreamed of growing up in Illinois. I would hike in the mountains in the snow one day, and then be out in the desert finding petroglyphs the next. I met some amazing people and learned a lot while I was there. I have one friend who lives on the San Ildefonso Pueblo and she invited me to a few holidays with her family. Those experiences are something that I struggle to describe because they were so emotional, spiritual, and like nothing I’ve ever been a part of before.


 BB: If you could give one piece of advice to anyone, what would it be?

MV: Never stop asking questions. There’s so much to learn and so many people to learn from.


BB: It is the year 2050. Humans live on the small, newly discovered planet Quantas. To save space, humans must either shrink to one-quarter their size or choose one plane of their body (front/back, top/bottom, or left/right) to live on. Which option would you choose? Why?

MV: I would shrink everyone to a quarter of their current size. In my mind, it would make sense that then everyone would only use a quarter of the resources they currently use and would need less space in general for shelter, growing food, and workspaces.


BB: Whether through your vocation, your relationships, or your passion projects, how would you like to change the world in the foreseeable future?

MV: I want to convince more people to step outside and just do nothing for 5 minutes each day. I want to get kids learning and growing in nature. The Midwest may not have the most jarring features, but there is a lot of beauty out there and a lot of ways to ground yourself and reflect on what really matters in our day to day lives.


 Author’s Note: All responses are found as they were written, except in the few cases when subtle rewriting improved narrative flow.


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