Summer Camp Program: Pluralism in the Camp Experience

by Joy Rosenberg, S.P.H.R.

In a perfect world, our camp communities would reflect our increasingly pluralistic world, where campers could experience a multicultural, multinational environment that fosters understanding, respect, and personal growth. While some camps have made great strides toward this ideal, for many, camper populations can look surprisingly mono-cultural. In moving toward this ideal of pluralism, the Girl Scouts of Chicago has run a camp program for the last several years that can springboard campers into achieving success in a traditional camp environment.

“The essence of the Girl Scout program is about helping girls develop the values that will guide their decision-making, and we do this by providing them with age-appropriate opportunities to make decisions. The best way to do that is with programs that progressively move them through the process,” explains Cindy Tessarolo, director of outdoor program and property for the Girl Scouts of Chicago. “We believe that this summer camp program, which currently combines a week of day camp with a week of resident camp, helps these girls — many who have never been out of the city before — achieve success within the camp community. Although many girls continue to participate in the program each summer, there are others for whom these weeks of camp have enabled them to be comfortable transitioning into our traditional resident camp programs, which draw girls together from urban, suburban, and rural areas.”

The program began in 1997 when the Chicago Housing Authority approached both the Girl Scouts of Chicago and Boy Scouts in Chicago and proposed funding a two-week resident camp program for the children living in the inner-city housing projects. At that time, Tessarolo worked within the field, recruiting leaders and girls. But with extensive prior experience in camping, she was tapped to assist with the development of this new program. “We all believed strongly in the value of the camp community, but it was clear that to take these children and plunge them into a resident camp experience so far outside their day-to-day reality would set us up for failure. We devised a program where they would move from a week of day camp within the city learning basic camping skills and nature studies and progress into team-building and conflict-resolution techniques. We prepared them for the second week — a week of resident camp.”

The program — originally titled Scoutreach — was recognized by what is now the Drucker Foundation for innovation in aligning diverse agencies to address social issues. This model has been continually revised to address changing campers’ needs and the development of new funding sources. “Our first change,” reports Tessarolo, “was to separate the girls and boys programs. We believe that girls learn best in an all-girl environment where they have the opportunity to see women as leaders and to take the leadership roles themselves.” This philosophy is backed up by researchers such as Carol Gilligan of Harvard University, who have studied how an all-girl environment promotes increased self-esteem in young women by allowing them to take risks, feel supported, and grow in their abilities without feeling pressured by stereotypes.

For many of the girls who come from low-income areas of Chicago, poverty pervades their lives. In many cases, these girls are given primary responsibility for younger siblings and housekeeping duties while parents juggle one or more jobs. Or as the result of drugs, alcohol, or issues of abuse, they have become “parentified” children — struggling to protect and care for both parents and siblings.

“Families in crisis exist at every income level in our society. Addictions or money worries are problems you can find everywhere. The major difference is that families from higher income levels may have more access to private therapy or employee assistance programs, as well as fewer transportation issues,” says psychotherapist Pamela Johnson, M.A., L.C.P.C., D.A.P.A. “What that translates into is that children of impoverished families may be thrown into a double bind. They have more responsibility, and their parents’ time is more consumed with the tasks of providing basic needs like food and shelter. The development of the child’s self-esteem or ability to sort through the peer issues surrounding respect and learning to work together often takes second place. The camp environment is an opportunity for these girls to have the experience of making decisions and learning skills in a situation where guidance is immediately available through teaching, trying something new, and ultimately the mastery of a new skill set.” By using the knowledge gained from the six years this program has been operational, administrators and camp directors should consider the following:

  • Paperwork The delay in completing and turning in paperwork often causes program or operational details to be revised up to the last week before camp. Keep it simple. Try for one form, with one signature for permission, medication, treatment, and photo release. Include waivers, if possible.
  • Meals Be prepared for children who may not bring a lunch or beverage to day camp. Children who did not have breakfast may be hungry and eat their lunch on the bus in route to camp — or, in the worst-case scenario, there might not be appropriate items available for a sack lunch at home. At resident camp, some campers who are new to the dining hall experience may feel the need to hoard food — taking leftovers from the dining room to their tent or cabin. Reassure them that there will be enough food at each of the meals at camp, as well as letting them know that animals will seek out the food that is kept in the cabin.
  • Equipment Always assure campers and their families that no one will be excluded from any activities if they don’t have everything on the packing list. If your camp does not already provide supplies, look for sources to help meet this need. We can never presume that children from disadvantaged families have access to things like sleeping bags and extra bedding.
    Sometimes children come to camp without adequate clothing for a week of camp — it is important to have a supply of extras to ensure that each camper has a good time and doesn’t worry about ruining the clothes she brings. The Girl Scouts of Chicago provides each camper with a water bottle and T-shirt. Let the families and the girls know up front what clothing or camping items you are providing as gifts and which will need to be returned at the end of the session.
  • Behavior Older children who participate in these programs often crave attention and adult interaction and may display behaviors usually seen in younger campers. Work with your staff on understanding the regressive behaviors that may be exhibited. For many campers, this place we call camp is the most terrifying encounter they have ever had. No matter the work that is done in the city day camp environment, the woods and cabins at camp are far outside the realm of what most of these children have ever experienced. Counselors need to understand that the sound of sirens may signal danger to them. But when that sound punctuates most nights, it becomes comfortingly familiar. The camp setting is a new environment for these children, and one mercury vapor light in the camp parking lot will not light up the night like the world they come from — and the natural nocturnal sounds of crickets can be frightening if you have no understanding of the size or quantity of insects creating the noise.
  • Creating a safe space Adults think of a safe place in relation to location, while the girls surveyed reported that emotional safety is just as important. Perception is reality, and without a lock on the tent or cabin, campers may be hesitant at first to stay. Counselors should talk with the girls about what creates a safe space and about making good choices. In a short week, campers will begin to feel both emotionally and physically safe at camp, so it is important to be prepared for anger and acting out when they are about to leave. Preparing to return to the uncertainty that permeates their world, campers are sometimes angry and frustrated. A focus group conducted in mid-March with program participants found that campers thought about camp a great deal, long after they had returned home, “because I can get safe” or “I can be who I want to be.”
  • Changes in the program As Chicago has changed in its approach to low-income housing, the make up of campers has changed as well. It has required the Girl Scouts of Chicago to recruit campers in more diverse neighborhoods, and the campers who came to camp last year reflected this trend, with 89 percent African American, 9 percent Latino, and 2 percent Caucasian. “These last two years we have also utilized international staff to bring a more broad-based understanding of all the world’s cultures to our campers,” said Tessarolo. “We know from the evaluations the girls fill out about their camp experience that they enjoy this tremendously. We can talk about other cultures, but there is no comparison to actually getting to know someone who speaks another language or can share with you how their family lives. And I think it can be an eye-opening encounter for the international staff as well. Our camp program operates for two weeks in mid-to-late August, so these are international staff who are coming from more traditional resident camp programs at either private or agency camps. For many, this is a population of campers quite different than those they have worked with the rest of the summer. I think it may very well change some stereotypes about Americans and American culture. We have international staff who have returned to our program because they say they really feel as though in those two weeks they knew they had significantly impacted a child’s life.”

The campers, too, find the camp experience to be one that has lasting impact on their lives. Recently, a former camper was referred to a therapist, a new and strange event in her life. With some trepidation she entered the waiting room with her grandmother, uncertain what to expect. Within a moment, another child waiting there approached her. They had both attended camp last summer, and although they had not forged a close friendship there, the commonality of that experience, bridged the current gap of anxiety. They were soon sharing their fears, wondering what to expect from the therapist, and remembering special events at camp — hoping that they would see each other there again this summer.


Joy Rosenberg, S.P.H.R., is employed as the director of program services for the Girl Scouts-Fox Valley Council. She received her master of arts in leadership studies from North Central College. Rosenberg serves on the Illinois Section Board of the American Camping Association, as well as the Section Steering Committee for the Association of Girl Scout Executive Staff (AGSES). For more information on the Summer Camp Program, contact Cindy Tessarolo at 312-416-2500, ext. 231, or by e-mail at


Originally published in the 2004 July/August issue of Camping Magazine.