Serving Diverse Populations: A Profile of Three Camps

20/20 Toolbox

While the benefits of camp are relevant to every child, not every child gets to experience them. Whether it is because of a lack of funding, opportunity, or precedent, children from some communities do not traditionally attend camp. But in order for 20 million children to experience camp by the year 2020, leaders in the camping industry must reach out to these communities. In this month's "20/20 Toolbox," the American Camp Association (ACA) interviewed three camps that are doing just that: Camp Izza, which serves Muslim children and youth, and Camp Cuff and Camp Gid D Up, which serve inner-city kids from diverse backgrounds. The following camp profiles give insight into the goals and operations of camps that serve diverse populations, and how the children and youth they serve are benefitting from the camp experience.

Camp Izza

Dr. Omar Ezzeldine and Munira Lekovic Ezzeldine, directors
Irvine, California

www.CampIzza.com

When Dr. Omar Ezzeldine, a director at Camp Izza, a Muslim summer day camp, was going through the ACA accreditation process, he found the Find A Camp database on ACA's Web site and searched for other ACA-accredited Muslim camps. To his chagrin the search returned no results. Today Dr. Ezzeldine hopes that Camp Izza will soon have the title of being the first — not the only — ACA-accredited Muslim summer camp.

Typically, the Muslim community centers much of its youth and community development on mosques, Muslim schools, or advocacy organizations. The idea of a Muslim summer camp that is independent of a mosque or school is a new concept for members of the community. However, that is changing — in large part because of pioneers such as Dr. Ezzeldine and his wife, Munira Lekovic Ezzeldine, also a director at the camp. The Ezzeldines saw the benefits of camp, and in Dr. Ezzeldine's case, experienced camp as both a camper and a counselor. So in their teaching and youth development work, creating a Muslim summer camp just seemed to be "the next natural step," says Munira.

As the Muslim population in America grows, and more and more youth face the challenge of finding their Muslim- American identity, the idea of a Muslim summer camp not only seems to be a natural step, but an important one. Dr. Ezzeldine explained that the Muslim communit y in America is relat ively young; the modern wave of Muslims immigrated to America in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Many Muslims are still forming their sense of what it means to be American. Add to that the pressures of a post-9/11 world, where anti-Islamic propaganda is often palpable, and one can see why Muslim youth need a place that develops self-esteem, builds lasting relationships, and allows them to be themselves.

For this reason, Dr. Ezzeldine starts off every camp season by telling the campers two things: 1) Have fun; 2) Be proud of who you are. Through Camp Izza, the Ezzeldines work to dissipate the inferiority complex that many members of underrepresented groups often feel. "We want everybody to like who they are," says Dr. Ezzeldine. In fact, "Izza" means "Pride" in Arabic. And the slogan "Be proud of who you are" is displayed on Camp Izza's Web site (www.CampIzza.com). The goal of Camp Izza, which includes non-Muslim children in addition to children from the Muslim community, is to instill confidence in all its campers.

And the impact of children feeling good about themselves cannot be understated. At Camp Izza, the kids feel safe, comfortable, and free to express who they really are — enabling them to do their very best. Even kids who might usually be labeled as "problem children" are able to shed their negative identities at camp, and parents notice a marked difference in their behavior.

Also at the heart of Camp Izza is relationship-building. Everything at the day camp occurs on-site, so the focus is not on off-facility excursions, but rather on the people there. The Ezzeldines certainly recognize the fun and importance of the activities in camp, but they have crafted a camp experience that emphasizes relationships and relationship-building. "Camp Izza is not about the stuff we do, it's about the relationships we build," says Dr. Ezzeldine.

The religious activities, important aspects of Camp Izza, are incorporated in a way that is conducive for the campers. The transition into prayer time is like a unique campfire activity: All the campers gather together, sing songs, and interact with other campers before prayer, and Dr. Ezzeldine always tel ls a story from the Qur'an afterwards. Many campers — even non-Muslim campers (who are not required to participate in prayer) — cite this time as their favorite part of Camp Izza. Teaching the Qur'an also becomes a fun activity for campers, as desks and chairs are pushed aside in favor of sitting on the floor and making the lesson more like an interactive "circle time." And of course, the religion portions of camp are balanced with a good dose of water play, arts and crafts, sports, and free play.

To anyone interested in starting a religiously-focused camp, Dr. Ezzeldine suggests allowing this question to be the filter through which one makes any decision: "Is this going to make our campers have positive opinions of themselves with regard to their religious identity?" Munira adds that for any camp, religiously-focused or not, "It's all about staff. [Campers] are inspired by the counselors." Dr. Ezzeldine agrees: "Your campers will say, 'I want to be like that person.' So you need to make sure it's a person you can count on. The most important thing is to pick the right teachers."

The Ezzeldines strive to be an excellent example in the camp community, especially to those who are looking to work with Muslim youth. They look forward to providing support to anyone in the camp community who is interested in making camp more accessible to Muslim youth. For more information about Camp Izza, visit www.CampIzza.com; e-mail Dr. Ezzeldine at info@campizza.com.

Camp Cuff

Bruce and Katherine Cuff, directors
Montrose, Pennsylvania

www.CampCuff.com

In 1921, land was given to Mary and Bruce Cuff as a wedding present. This proved to be a valuable gift indeed, becoming the catalyst for a camp that has touched and changed children's lives for decades.

Camp Cuff was officially started in the early 1940s, and from the beginning, was very diverse — bringing together children from the Women's Christian Alliance, foster children, and children from private families and churches. Camp Cuff 's purpose was to get children out of the innercity, and introduce them to the possibilities and natural environment of the country.

After more than forty years, Camp Cuff 's founder and champion Mary Cuff passed away. The camp closed in 1988, and remained closed until Mary's son Bruce and his wife Katherine had an idea.

"I just fell in love with the camp," Katherine said. "I started finding out as much as I could about running a camp. I took classes with ACA, talked to other directors, and did a lot of online reading."

In 2003, Camp Cuff reopened with the same purpose and similar mission. "Camp Cuff 's mission is that all children should learn to live and work together," said Katherine. "This would enable them, as adults, to be more open and accepting in their work endeavors as well as their personal lives."

Children ages five to fourteen from inner-city Philadelphia, Connecticut, and New York enjoy the beauty of the country from mid-June to early September. Camp Cuff also boasts a successful Leadership in Training and Mentor Program.

"It is our hope that children from diverse backgrounds learn that there may be some difference in race or religion, but that children are basically the same," said Katherine. And, sometimes, this means convincing parents and families to put aside prejudices. "Sometimes it's the parents' influence that gives the children the wrong impression about other cultures."

Before campers arrive, camp directors and staff review profiles and match children into buddy pairs. The goal is to match children with dissimilar life experiences together. This has proven to be a helpful tool to teach tolerance and encourage teamwork — regardless of differences. To help ease any initial discomfort, the camp is structured like a family, with everyone learning and working together. The family builds bonds quickly, and buddies become best friends — often developing very deep relationships with each other. Returning campers frequently check to see if their buddy is also returning to camp.

Holding true to the tradition of camp, Camp Cuff uses activities to educate and develop shared experiences among the campers. Since so many children are from urban areas, camp staff take advantage of the natural surroundings to teach lessons in plants, animals, and the environment — discussing how ecology effects their lives. And every year, the camp takes field trips to places like the Salt Springs and a reenactment of the Underground Railroad to teach the campers about the resources and history of northeastern Pennsylvania.

Required journaling each night ensures that the campers not only have a record of their thoughts and experiences, but they also continue to stimulate writing and language arts competencies. The camp also uses activities like hiking to develop math and visual literacy skills. "We have the kids use a compass, mark trails, and calculate the number of miles hiked," said Bruce. "It's really about hands-on education."

"In one instance," explained Katherine, "we had a group of seventy-five children from a charter school coming out to camp. They were scared, never having any experience with camp." She goes on to explain that the camp is located in a small community, and at the same time they had a group of local children attend camp. "We had a group of Caucasian children who had never been around African-American children, and African-American children who had never been around Caucasian children."

The experience proved to be immensely rewarding. The children taught each other to pick berries and to hike. It was a new experience that opened up a whole new world to the campers, and one that the staff at Camp Cuff believes is vitally important.

Intentionally blending children together from differing backgrounds doesn't just happen by following a magic formula — it is a process. And, like most things in camp life, it takes dedication and perseverance. The Cuffs say other members of the camp community were a big help, and that people shouldn't be afraid to reach out to their peers and ask questions. "You have to have guts to be a camp director," said Katherine. "If you are afraid to step out and start, you'll never make it."

Calculated diversity is a lot of hard work, but the rewards are outstanding. By moving campers closer to cooperation, acceptance, and tolerance, programs like Camp Cuff move the entire camp community one step closer to the 20/20 Vision.

"Absolutely it is worth it," said Katherine. "It's about teaching patience and understanding the differences in ways of living and backgrounds." 

Camp Gid D Up

Glynn and Jo-An Turman, directors
Los Angeles, California

www.campgiddup.org

In the early 1990s, when most of South Los Angeles was ablaze because of civil unrest in the city, Glynn and his wife Jo-An Turman decided it was time to host a summer camp at their forty-acre ranch, sixty miles north of Hollywood, California, in the Mojave Desert.

Camp Gid D Up is a free summer camp for disenfranchised inner-city and at-risk youth, founded as a promise at a peace conference to the late Coretta King and Ambassador Andrew Young to bring harmony to the community after the youth gang riots of 1992. For eighteen years now, the Turmans have operated this camp through their IX Winds Ranch Foundation.

From the very beginning, Camp Gid D Up has been supported by the generosity of the Turmans' friends and family. Jo-An's sister Allyson is the camp director; Glynn and some of his professional rodeo buddies and Hollywood friends teach riding and roping to the kids; Jo-An is the camp cook; and her mother Dottie is the official "beverage queen." The entire staff is comprised of volunteers, and the camp runs solely on donations.

In Camp Gid D Up's first year, there were twenty campers. In less than five years, that number grew to 120 youth attending the week-long camp, and demand continues to rise. Why has Camp Gid D Up been such a success? The Turmans have created a camp atmosphere that develops the whole child: Campers get to experience camp activities such as swimming, archery, and arts and crafts, but they also learn trust, gain self-esteem, and learn survival skills in a clean, fresh environment that is uninterrupted by city noise and corruption. The nature component of Camp Gid D Up is particularly eyeopening to campers, some of whom have never been able to experience life outside the city in such a personal way. Campers learn how to care for animals, plants, and trees; how to enjoy free play and nature; and they get to simply breathe in the fresh air of the great outdoors.

Something unique to Camp Gid D Up is the authentic rodeo programming campers can receive in the Jr. Rodeo and Riding Club, established in 2000, for campers who demonstrate the ability and willingness to learn professional rodeo training and competition techniques. The youth are sponsored by the IX Winds Ranch Foundation, taken to various rodeos throughout the state and country, and are able to compete on the professional circuit alongside professional cowboys. The youth not only gain professional alternate career skills, but earn college scholarships for their skills. Some of the Jr. Rodeo and Riding Club participants are given and/or lent horses and other livestock owned by the IX Winds Ranch in order to compete in rodeo activities, and have hands-on training like other participants. At the end of the camp session, the Turmans have the campers put on a junior rodeo with the different cabins competing against one another in front of sponsors, their parents, and the participating youth organizations.

The goal of the Jr. Rodeo and Riding Club is to give the campers the confidence to compete on the rodeo circuit and try something new and different. Another goal is for the youth to have an alternative career option they would have never experienced had it not been for Camp Gid D Up. The camp is also an opportunity for prior campers to be reunited with other youth and staff members who have previously attended Camp Gid D Up.

The Turmans strive to ensure that Camp Gid D Up creates lifelong friendships among the participants so they can forever have a bond and relationships for years. The Turmans believe camp is so important for inner-city children because there is such a lack of resources and opportunities in most minority communities. They see the need for all children to experience new things, take safe risks, and just be kids: "It is vital that these youth have an opportunity to ride horses, breathe fresh air, do skits, archery, and free play," Jo-An said.

Among the challenges of running a camp such as Gid D Up, the biggest hurdle of all is funding. The camp is a "real mom and pop" operation and lacks funds to build new facilities. But in spite of these problems, Jo-An said, the Turmans "still continue to make do and do camp."

When asked if she had any advice for others working with inner-city kids, Jo-An offered this: "Have patience, don't give up on them, show love and respect and open your hearts. They are just kids, even the gang-affiliated kids, foster kids, drug kids, and underserved; they just want a chance to be kids, have a place to play, make new friends, and feel love."

Originally published in the November/December 2010 Camping Magazine.

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