Utilizing Summer Camp Experiences to Promote Understanding Between U.S. Regions and Other Countries

Summer camp has been a throughline in Cenet Senior Director of Program Development and Support Michael Thompson’s life. As a child, he attended Camp Chippewa for Boys with his twin brother in northern rural Minnesota for seven summers, experiences that profoundly shaped his life. Specifically, he recalls three-week canoe trips into Canada, time during which he paddled 20 miles each day, seeing wildlife such as bears and beluga whales along the way.


“You really do gain confidence. It really helped fill me with [the belief of], ‘I can get through that, I can get through literally anything,’” Michael says. “I still retreat back into that mindset when something difficult is going on in my life.”

In addition to teaching him perseverance, Michael attributes his “adoration of being outside” and appreciation for the healing presence of nature to this time in his life. After attending as a camper, Michael became a cabin camp counselor at the summer camp, then the unit head, then assistant director.


After helping transition the camp from a for-profit company to a not-for-profit, Michael became director of the camp. During this time, he hired 15% to 20% of his staff members from other countries, giving them the experience of interacting with American campers from major metro areas while they were working, as well as rural Americans from the surrounding area, during their time off.

“You want a slice of Americana … there’s nothing more American — other than going to the state fair, maybe — than going to American summer camp,” Michael says. “If your English isn’t great, you don’t have a choice [to speak a different language]; your English is going to improve. If you want to understand Americans as they are, there’s nothing better than a summer camp.”


He began to feel there was more that could be accomplished in the camp community than what he could enact as director of a single camp, though; so, he started Lantern Camps, an online marketing company for long-term residential summer camps.


Subsequently, Michael began running the U.S. operations of Smaller Earth, a company that recruits camp counselors and resort staff from other countries for positions in the U.S. Michael sold Lantern Camps to Smaller Earth and became the U.S. director of Camp Leaders, growing his camp network from 75 camps to 500.


During this time, Michael first worked with Cenet, one of the nonprofit BridgeUSA sponsors Smaller Earth partnered with to facilitate their programs. In 2023, he joined Cenet as a consultant and became a full-time Cenet staff member in 2024.


The work Cenet does from Cape Girardeau, Mo., combines two of Michael’s passions: camp and cultural exchange. As a child, Michael cites family trips to England, Norway and France as formative, and as an adult, traveling for work to China, Russia, Poland and Colombia helped shape him. When he owned Lantern Camps, he had an office in Bangkok to recruit young people from Thailand to American summer camps. In the U.S., he has lived in places as diverse as New York City; Austin, Texas; Tulsa, Okla.; and Kansas City, Mo.


Because of his diverse living and travel experiences, Michael is passionate about Cenet’s mission to inspire a safer, more prosperous and compassionate world through international education and cultural exchange. As part of this, Cenet’s work promotes understanding about rural America by placing people from other countries in positions found in rural communities, as well as promotes understanding about urban and international places by helping people from rural and middle America travel abroad, developing mutual understanding and building bridges.


“When people get to know each other, [they find out] they’re more similar than different,” Michael says. “I think there is something about driving that home in a way that’s a little more soft, it’s not in-your-face, it’s based in human interaction, and you just see time and time again the transformation that happens.”

Cenet strives to inspire a safer, more prosperous and compassionate world through international education and cultural exploration.