Camp Coca-Cola: Outcome-Based Programming Changes Lives

by Sara Riney

The Vision
Thousands of promising youth across the United States graduating from high school, prepared to lead productive lives and serve as role models for others in their community.

Jamal's Story

Jamal lives in a challenging environment. Drugs, alcohol, and gang activity are prevalent in his neighborhood. There are lots of temptations. Jamal lives with his grandmother. Mom is disconnected from the family but shows up occasionally; her visits are more disruptive than enjoyable. His father lives in the neighborhood and visits once in awhile, but his visits are also sporadic and unpredictable. The family income is slightly less than $10,000 per family member.

In 2002, Jamal was selected for Camp Coca-Cola based on a recommendation from his teacher, an essay that he wrote, and an interview. His essay outlined the challenge of staying clear of trouble. In his neighborhood, there's not much to do — no public pool, no sports leagues, no recreation center, few role models. His greatest hope was to find something to keep him busy so that he would be able to steer clear of trouble.

Jamal's arrival and first session of camp were not smooth. It was so different from the life he knew at home. After a great deal of discussion, he decided that camp wasn't for him, and left before the session ended.

Back in his neighborhood, Jamal couldn't stop thinking about Camp Coca-Cola. He quickly realized that he had made a tremendous mistake, sacrificing something very positive for the difficult challenges of a summer in his neighborhood. Several poor choices led to a minor scrape with the law. Things seemed pretty bleak.

Later in the summer, a chance encounter with a group of Camp Coca-Cola teens on a field trip convinced Jamal of what he needed to do. He called the camp director and asked if he could re-join the program. He explained that he understood his mistake and that he needed Camp Coca-Cola if he was to realize so many of his dreams.

Since being reaccepted into the program, Jamal hasn't missed a meeting or an event. He gives presentations to younger students about their choices and about the importance of staying focused on a positive goal. He is doing well in school and very active in a variety of extracurricular activities. He has been hired as one of only two student assistants working with after-school activities for elementary school students. Recently, Jamal and another student made a presentation to the local neighborhood stabilization committee. Their presentation was so well received that they have been asked to serve as standing members on the committee.

Jamal has already completed the thirty hours of community service required by Camp Coca-Cola, but he continues to volunteer without any sign of stopping. Recently, at a Camp Coca-Cola reunion event, Jamal impressed the entire camp community by proving that he knew the name of every person in attendance . . . more than one hundred people! Upon returning to school he proclaimed the weekend event as the best of his life!

When you ask Jamal about the sudden positive change in direction that his life seems to be taking, he smiles and credits three things: the Stars & Heroes after-school program, a particular teacher who has placed great faith in him, and Camp Coca-Cola.

A Need Recognized

Preparing the Next Generation for Leadership Roles
Four years ago, the Coca-Cola system recognized a need to invest in the lives of young people –– especially those from under-resourced environments –– helping them become successful, productive, contributing adults.

Far too many American teens do not graduate from high school, dropping out because they lack a positive vision for their future. And, across the country there is also a gap in services for youth ages thirteen to eighteen who are at greater risk of becoming "disconnected" from school, community, and even family. In consulting with youth development, community, and school leaders, a recurring theme was the need for programming that reaches high-potential teens with limited resources.

There is a tremendous wealth of talent and energy in today's youth, and while some of these teens have the means to develop their talents to the fullest, others simply do not have the resources necessary for this to happen. In fact, the number of opportunities for community support and involvement offered to younger children decline at the very age that teenagers most need guidance and positive interaction, as they are faced with the challenges of adolescence and early adulthood.

The Camp Coca-Cola program was created to provide the framework essential to help talented young people develop as leaders and achieve success in their lives. Continuing Coca-Cola's history of community-based support for youth and educational initiatives, Camp Coca-Cola works closely with local schools and youth organizations within the community to provide opportunities for young people to discover and explore their interests, values, and talents.

Camp Coca-Cola will challenge young leaders to see the world as a place where anything is possible and to ask themselves, "What can I accomplish that will really make a difference?"

Why Camp?

In searching for avenues to make a meaningful, impactful difference in the lives of today's youth, camp was chosen as an integral part of the newly created program because it immerses teens in positive activities and relationships and provides a great environment for building character, self-esteem, and healthy life habits. Like no other youth activity, camp has the ability to shape young people's futures and to transform lives. Participants have the opportunity to take risks, learn to accept challenges, and utilize their own untapped potential — skills that will help them succeed throughout the rest of their lives.

Camp Coca-Cola is a program teens enjoy and want to attend because it is fun and includes experiences not otherwise available to them — high ropes challenge courses, caving, backpacking, horseback riding, and journeys to national parks. At camp, teens also engage in a variety of leadership development activities including public speaking, resume writing, career exploration, and the Expanding Horizons program that invites local business and community leaders, educators, and other experts to share their advice and experiences with youth. These activities keep participants interested in the program, excited about their future, and engaged with positive adult role models over an extended period of time.

For adolescents from challenging environments, camp — as part of a comprehensive positive youth development program — could make the difference between success and failure. Yet the cost of summer camp is far beyond the reach of many families. Camp Coca-Cola is especially committed to providing structured growth opportunities for promising young people who would not otherwise have the means to participate in such a program. There is no charge to students who are selected to attend the program.

Creating a New Program

Research and Resources
In 2001, The Camp Coca-Cola Foundation moved forward with the decision to create a comprehensive youth leadership program. Executive Director Paul Gunderson began an intensive study and nationwide review of youth development and camp programs, including a first stop at the American Camp Association's (ACA's) national office.

"Everyone we contacted within the camp community was incredibly open and supportive of our learning process," said Gunderson. "We visited Dawn Ewing at Morry's Camp; Don and Carole Cheley at their camp in Colorado; Dave Hilliard, president of Wyman; and countless others to whom we are indebted."

Foundation leadership also met with youth development advocates including The Forum for Youth Investment, The Search Institute, Girls Incorporated, and others. Through this process, it became clear that the Foundation's emerging vision and that of Wyman were aligned. Hilliard and Gunderson agreed to collaborate on developing a formal five-year curriculum and to operate the first Camp Coca-Cola in St. Louis. Since that time, the partnership has come to include staff training and supervision for the expanding national program.

Extensive strategic planning workshops and continuing program assessment are creating an innovative program model. The goal of the programming is to build a cohesive relationship between intentional curriculum outcomes, the skills young people must acquire in order to achieve these outcomes, and the logical sequence of learning experiences and competencies that will help them acquire these skills over a five-year period.

"We're not just helping kids beat the odds. This program is giving them the tools, support, encouragement, and expectations so the odds are changed in their favor," Hilliard says.

The Foundation now operates four Camp Coca-Cola program sites: St. Louis (in association with Wyman); Texas (serving Austin, Dallas, and Fort Worth teens); New England (operated in the Boston area in association with Crossroads For Kids); and Atlanta. A program to serve Los Angeles teens is scheduled to open in summer 2006.

Camp Coca-Cola Youth Have What It Takes

The Camp Coca-Cola program is specifically geared toward helping promising (high-potential, high-functioning) teens of limited means and resources, emphasizing "positive youth development" not "youth problem prevention."

Seventh graders are nominated by teachers, administrators, or agency representatives from participating Community Partners (schools and social service agencies). The nominees are teens who have demonstrated the skills needed to become successful adults. They are doing well in school, have leadership capabilities, and a desire to learn, grow, and thrive, but risk factors may affect their school performance and challenge their ability to achieve their full potential. The teens chosen are generally from a background that precludes exposure to a long-term program of this stature.

Cynthia Nunn, president of Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Dallas, a Camp Coca-Cola Community Partner, acknowledges the results, "The youth who were selected for this long-term intensive program came home with stories of life-changing significance and are grateful for their experience . . . [it] will create the kinds of people our community needs as tomorrow's strong and respected leaders."

An Ongoing Commitment

The Five-Year Program
The Camp Coca-Cola program model offers long-term support and guidance for each student, from the summer prior to their eighth grade year, through high school graduation.

Rising eighth graders attend camp for four weeks — beginning a journey of personal growth and leadership development. Residential summer camp is an essential, basic element of the program, as the summer curriculum allows for more time to reshape habits and thinking into positive, outward-centered behavior. The teens are immersed in a positive learning culture that can provide incredible growth in self-image, teamwork, problem solving, and exposure to many new experiences.

While camp is the centerpiece of the program, Camp Coca-Cola is really much more than a summer camp experience. The program continues year-round as the students commit to thirty hours of volunteerism, participate in extra-curricular activities, maintain academic standards, conduct themselves as exemplary students, and meet regularly with their peer group to discuss their goals, dreams, and achievements. The continuous nature of the program engages students over five of the most crucial teen years as they develop their leadership skills, organize service projects, study community issues, and explore options for their future.

The curriculum developed by Wyman and The Camp Coca-Cola Foundation demonstrates the intentionality of the program. For each of its seven outcomes, Camp Coca-Cola offers a behavioral description of what success looks like, or Evidence of Mastery. For each component of mastery, there are specific developmental objectives and program activities for each of the program's five years.

By their fifth year in this program, these youth leaders will have completed one hundred days of leadership development programming, participated in after-school and extra-curricular activities, completed at least two hundred hours of community service, visited college campuses, planned an adventure trek to Wyoming, and formed relationships with others from diverse cultures and backgrounds. Participants learn to implement a variety of skills such as public speaking, team dynamics, social justice, and environmental ethics. Staff members provide interactions with caring adults, stimulating programs with meaningful content, and high standards and expectations.

Within the short history of the program, students and their parents have provided reports of changed lives. Deb Dias, mother of a first-year camper wrote, "Last year I sent you a shy, rather self-conscious girl, and in return, I got a very confident and assertive young lady. I truly believe, that in just one year, Coca-Cola's program has turned my child into a leader!"

In addition to the extremely high student retention rate of 85 percent, in a recent reporting period 80 percent of Camp Coca-Cola St. Louis youth indicated they carried a B average or above in school, along with regular attendance and a record of good behavior. School counselors, teachers, and administrators are raving about student involvement, grades, and improved conduct.

Dr. Pat Forgione, superintendent of the Austin Independent School District, has expressed his appreciation, saying, "We are proud to be partnering with the Camp Coca-Cola program to help create the leaders of the future. This experience provides positive growth opportunities for the youth we serve."

Measuring Results

The Camp Coca-Cola Foundation places significant emphasis on long-term evaluation and program improvement. The Foundation is working with Youth Development Strategies, Inc. (YDSI), the same firm that is collaborating with ACA on the Camp Program Improvement Project.

Early results indicate that Camp Coca-Cola is providing developmental supports and opportunities to the level that would indicate probable success at youth achieving the program's outcomes. Additionally, the Foundation is working with High Scope in preliminary assessments with their Youth Program Quality Assessment (YPQA), which helps identify strengths and areas for improvement within after-school and summer programs.

"Our commitment to helping youth succeed means a commitment to program and process evaluation," says Rob Watson, director of Camp Coca-Cola Texas. "These assessment tools provide valuable information, ‘actionable data' as we call it, helping us to continually improve our program."

Future Plans

While The Camp Coca-Cola Foundation anticipates providing more and more deserving young people with life-changing opportunities, specific targets regarding numbers of camps or teens served have not been set. "We are only in the first five years of this program," reminds Gunderson. "We want to know that we are really making a difference in each community that we serve, rather than trying to expand too rapidly and disappointing teens or communities." The inaugural class of Camp Coca-Cola youth leaders will graduate high school in St. Louis in 2006.

Camp Coca-Cola Outcomes

  • Goals for the young person who attends Camp Coca-Cola include:
  • Form and maintain positive relationships with other youth and adults
  • Make a positive contribution to their community
  • Explore a variety of positive options in their lives
  • Respect human diversity and be capable of working and living in a diverse community
  • Have a healthy understanding of the environment and our natural resources
  • Graduate from high school and pursue a college education or meaningful employment
  • Develop leadership skills in the areas of: self awareness/confidence, communication, group effectiveness, organization, and decision making/problem solving

Sara Riney is the director of public relations for The Camp Coca-Cola Foundation. For more information on the foundation and the five-year program, visit the Web site at or e-mail

Originally published in the 2005 July/August issue of Camping Magazine.



Wow! That's a very nice program from the Coca Cola Company. As we all know, Coca Cola is also the parent company of Vitamin Water. Keep spreading good works! Kudos to all!