Recruiting Latino Youth to Participate in Resident Camps

by Mario Magaña, Maureen Hosty, and Beverly B. Hobbs, Ph.D.



Latinos are the fastest growing minority group in the United States and face unique problems relevant to language and culture. As the Latino population in the United States continues to grow, youth-serving agencies including camp organizations are challenged to find new avenues through which education and recreation programs can be delivered to this group. However, many organizations do not know how to best reach out to Latinos, what programs are needed, or how to deliver programs to this group.

Oregon is characteristic of many states where the Latino population is rapidly increasing. According to Duarte & Castillo (2006), Latinos are the largest ethnic population in the state representing over 11 percent of the state’s population, with over 383,925 Latinos. Between 1990 and 2000, the number of Latinos in the state grew by 144 percent, one of the top ten fastest growing Latino populations in the nation. In the Portland metropolitan area alone, the number of Latinos increased by 191 percent to 161,831 in the last ten years.

The Oregon 4-H youth program sought to identify the factors that discourage Latino youth’s participation in camp and to design and implement a camp that would attract these youth. As a result, the 4-H Latino Olympic Summer Camp was developed in an effort to address these issues and to help Latino youth gain skills, knowledge, and attitudes that will prepare them for self-directing, contributing, and productive lives.

This article describes some of the challenges and barriers in recruiting Latino youth for camp and strategies used to overcome these barriers in establishing the Oregon 4-H Latino Olympic Summer Camp. Its focus is on the process we used to create a resident summer camp that has enjoyed great success in engaging Latino middle school youth.

Barriers to Participation

Camp programs that reach out to Latino youth face many barriers at multiple levels. Each of these barriers must be addressed if Latino youth and families are to be reached.

The Influence of Personalism and Familism
Personalism and familism are key values present in the Latino culture. Personalism refers to the faith in person-to-person contact. In other words, there is no substitute for face-to-face interaction. Camp staff needs to personalize their recruitment in reaching out to the community. Familism refers to the central position that the family holds in the life of the individual. All decisions by the individual are made with regard to the well-being of the family. As a result, sometimes parents tend to be overprotective of their children, especially girls, thereby limiting their children’s ability to “expand their horizons” (Marsiglia 1990). In the Latino culture where the family unit is valued and important, it also means an invitation to one family member is an invitation to the entire family. Camp staff recruiters need to be sensitive to Latino parents’ concern that allowing their child to attend an overnight experience without the entire family may be unsafe.

Personalism and familism also play a very important role in how camp programs are designed. Latino parents have concerns about cultural differences, values, manners, and religion where most of the campers are non-Latino. Parents are afraid that their children might face discrimination or put-downs. Parents need the assurance that the camp provider understands the value of the person-to-person interaction with their children and that the parents themselves should be considered the central influence in the child’s life.

Concerns About Overnight Stays
An overnight camp experience is a tradition that is not embraced by the Latino culture as it is among traditional camp audiences. Even the popular “overnight stays” and “slumber parties” are not common among the Latino families. Slumber parties are hard to understand even for second and third generation Latinos. Overnight stays with friends are not a part of or accepted by Latino culture. Gaining the involvement of Latino families in camp often takes dedicated staff time. Latino involvement is premised on establishing personal relationships with Latino parents and developing a level of trust, two very time consuming tasks (Hobbs 2000).

Limited Understanding of the Value of Camp
The majority of Latino parents do not have a camp experience themselves either in the United States and/or in their country of origin. Some parents have a limited education and do not understand how camp can benefit their children. Furthermore, many parents are monolingual Spanish speakers and camp organizations often do not have staff who can explain details about the camp experience in Spanish. Organizations also seldom provide printed informational materials in Spanish. Latino families place a high value on education, yet Latinos tend to have less education than other ethnic groups (Caudle 1993). Camp programs that emphasize the educational benefits and challenging academic opportunities of camp will go a long way in effectively recruiting Latino youth and families. Having professional bicultural and bilingual staff that can assist with recruiting and meeting with Latino families and highlighting the educational benefits of camp is an important step in helping parents recognize the value of camp.

Limited Financial Resources
In Oregon, approximately 72 percent (103,118) of Latino children live in low-income families compared with 31 percent (188,673) of white children, and 38 percent (54,615) of Latino children live in poor families compared with 12 percent (69,597) of white children (National Center for Children in Poverty [NCCP] 2006). Many children in the state of Oregon do not participate in activities in out-of-school time because they lack financial resources to pay for costs that are associated with participation. In most cases Latino youth will not be able to participate in a summer camp without a camp scholarship.

Lack of transportation is another challenge facing Latino families. Many families own only one car, and in most families, just the adult male drives. As a result, many Latino youth have no transportation to get to the camp or even a camp bus pick-up location. The Oregon 4-H Latino camp had to reject many children who wanted to participate simply because their parents could not provide transportation, and there was no budget for transportation to pick up the children at their homes. While some community organization partners were available to help transport children to camp, not all children who wanted to attend camp received transportation assistance.

The Digital Divide
Local needs assessments identified Latino youth and families as underserved audiences in a number of counties in the state. National assessments have drawn attention to the fact that a “digital divide” is evident between those people who are technologically adept and those who are technologically illiterate. Many of those who lack technological skills have low-income levels and fewer learning opportunities, characteristics shared by most Latino youth and families in Oregon. As more and more camps turn to Internet-based registration, promotion, and communication, the Latino population may be largely left behind.

The Oregon 4-H Latino Olympic Summer Camp

The Oregon 4-H Latino Olympic Summer Camp is designed to help Latino youth develop the skills, knowledge, and attitudes they will need to succeed in life. One hundred forty-five middle school Latino campers and thirty-eight high school Latino counselors participated in the five-day resident camps in 2004 and 2005. A key component of the project plan was to help Latino students understand the importance of education and to encourage them to finish high school and plan for post secondary education. In addition, they had the opportunity to meet new friends with a positive vision and attitude towards the future, meet professional people who could be resources in the future, and meet other Latino role models from the community.

Volunteer professionals from universities, private businesses, and community organizations provided a varied menu of workshops focused specifically on technology, natural resources, health, and the arts. Evening programs highlighted successful professional Latino speakers who provided motivational speeches on the importance of finishing high school and how to pursue a college career. Presenters and speakers also talked about the many careers in natural resources, technology, health professions, education, business, etc. A robust schedule of sports activities and traditional camp events rounded out the program. An emphasis on reinforcing Latino culture was apparent throughout the camp.

At the end of camp in 2005, campers (n = 71) and counselors (n = 17) participated in reflective end-of-camp surveys evaluating their camp experiences. Campers gave the camp high marks for life skill development in eight life skill areas including cooperating with others, working as a team, and learning responsibility (Sawer & Magaña 2005).

Campers also reported significant and positive changes when asked to reflect on how they felt before and after their camp experience in terms of meeting new friends, being away from home overnight, and developing a love for nature. When asked what they liked best about camp, campers focused mostly on sports and recreational opportunities (swimming, archery, soccer, dancing, etc.). Counselors reported numerous gains in personal development as a result of their counseling experience. In a separate survey, the counselors were asked to indicate how much they agreed or disagreed that their counseling experience had contributed to their personal development in eighteen specific areas. Counselors reported gains in all eighteen areas (Sawer & Magaña 2005).

Steps to Create a Culturally Responsive Camp

The following is a list of suggestions for designing an effective camp, one that will meet the needs and interests of Latino youth.

Personalize the Camp Program
Step 1. Plan and design a culturally appropriate agenda for the camp’s program. An educational component should be the number one priority on the agenda. This component will attract parental support. The camp director, staff, and counselors must relate and understand the language and culture to be able to answer critical questions posed by parents when they have concerns about their children’s safety. Keeping in mind that the camp is for Latino children, provide culturally appropriate and appealing activities with the sole purpose of attracting Latino youth. Sports such as soccer, swimming, canoeing, and archery are sports that attract Latino youth. Fun activities such as dance, treasure hunting, water balloons, campfire, etc., are also appealing.

Step 2. All messages delivered to Latino audiences must be culturally attuned (Segal & Sosa 1983). Insufficient attention to cultural considerations will have adverse affects on the positive aspects of camp. A native Spanish speaking editor should write, or at least proofread, all informal resources, print ads, and flyers for language and cultural considerations. The camp’s flyer, agenda, and program have to show its purpose and relate to the target audiences. For example, help parents understand the goals of the camp and the responsibilities of the participating youth. Develop a camp promotional flyer showing a child playing soccer, the most popular Latino sport.

Step 3. Camp staff need to be culturally sensitive and where possible, bicultural and bilingual. Not all staff will be required to be bicultural and bilingual, but especially in the early years of developing a program that reaches out to Latino youth, staff reflective of the community will help build a strong base of support. Latino volunteers who can help are not too difficult to find if you have created some trust in the community. The best way to recruit volunteers is by extending personal invitations either in face-to-face meetings or by calling them by phone. For those who use e-mail, an e-mail message may also work. Sharing the camp information in meetings, churches, organizations, agencies, and schools will also help to recruit youth and adult volunteers.

Plan and Train
Step 4. Create a local Latino Camp Council with other professionals who have camp experience. Invite people from the community with experience or interest in helping to provide educational camp experiences for Latino youth. Make sure that everyone who is invited plays at least one role in the camp’s planning.

Step 5. Training Latino adult and youth volunteers is very important. It prepares the volunteers for unexpected events, so they will be ready to handle the problems or look for the proper help as needed. Offer at least one or two trainings on site so that camp counselors, volunteers, and staff will have knowledge of the trails, roads, and facilities. It should be noted that some adult Latino volunteers may need to have the training delivered in Spanish. Relying on demonstrations and oral presentation as teaching methods as opposed to written materials will accommodate volunteers with limited formal education. Also, include information in the training about the organization and how volunteers contribute.

Identify Funding Sources
Step 6. Funding is the most critical factor in delivering a summer camp for Latino youth, since many youth cannot afford the cost of camp. As previously mentioned, it will be necessary to provide camp scholarships for many potential campers. Latino businesses, government agencies, and public agencies are good sources of financial and transportation support. It will be important to prove that you have staff to implement the program and Latino family support in order to convince donors to contribute money for a summer camp. Look for people who already have established strong relationships with potential grantees to advocate for you. Many businesses and organizations will donate if they can collaborate with other agencies and organizations that have the same vision. The Latino Camp Council may also be able to suggest funding sources or even secure those funding sources.

Communicate Your Message
Step 7. Though the Internet may be a good way to promote camp to traditional audiences, promoting a Latino camp is most effective when it’s done through schools, churches, and other youth organizations. Be sure to contact other professionals working with youth. Radio and television are major forces in marketing educational programs because they reach large segments of the target audience at different times of the day in a variety of places. In particular, radio is a proven medium for distributing information in Latino cultures, and those camp providers who want to have Latinos as part of their target audience should utilize this medium (Cudaback, Marshall, & Knox 1994). The best and most economical way to do this is by writing creative public service announcements and airing those on Spanish and English language radio and television stations. If a contact phone number is provided, be sure that someone from the camp staff who speaks Spanish is available for in-coming calls from Latino families.

A Broader Audience
It is clear when camps are culturally responsive, Latino youth will participate; however, mainstream camps do not always need to create a new camp solely for Latino youth. By incorporating the suggested practices outlined in this article, mainstream camps can become more attractive to Latino youth and families.

As our society becomes more culturally diverse and as the Latino population continues to rapidly expand, camp staff need to explore and adapt to new ways of designing and delivering camp. Camps that reach Latino youth may need to look different and be conducted differently, and sometimes even separately, if camp organizations are truly interested in expanding the audiences they serve. It is important to understand that this does not mean that Latino camps are less of a part of the total camp program. It simply means that camp organizations are becoming more able to provide the camp experience to a broader audience.

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Mario Magaña is an assistant professor and 4-H Extension faculty member for Latino Outreach at Oregon State University. He arrived in America as a migrant worker as a young man who did not speak English. Through perserverance and support, he learned English and went on to complete a bachelor’s degree and then a master’s degree. Today he is the camp director for the successful Oregon Latino Olympic Summer Camp that reaches over one hundred Latino youth each year. He also is working with Oregon Extension faculty to find new ways to reach out to Latino youth and families.

Maureen Hosty is a professor in the department of 4-H Youth Development Education at Oregon State University. She has been a 4-H Extension faculty member for seventeen years both in Oregon and Virginia and has directed 4-H camps for sixteen years. She provides leadership to the 4-H Wildlife Stewards statewide project currently funded by the National Science Foundation. Maureen has an M.A. degree in international development education.

Beverly Hobbs, Ph.D. is currently professor and extension specialist in the department of 4-H Youth Development Education at Oregon State University. The focus of her work is the development of non-formal educational experiences that attract and engage the participation of Latino youth. As director of the Oregon 4-H Latino Outreach Project she has provided support to the Oregon 4-H Latino Olympic Summer Camp as well as to other 4-H programs that deliver education through the camp experience.

Originally published in the 2006 November/December issue of Camping Magazine.