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Summer Camp Program: Pluralism in the Camp Experience
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:
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Originally published in the 2004 July/August issue of Camping Magazine.