“Better Camping for All.” It’s not just a long-time slogan of members of the American Camp Association; it’s a call to action. As we strive to embody this phrase and create excellence in programming, we are inspired by those who take an innovative approach to bring this phrase to life.

Each year, ACA’s Eleanor Eells Award for Program Excellence recognizes camps that develop effective, creative responses to the needs of people and society through the camp experience. The 2012 award winners have created exceptional programming that instills the very best of camp — character development, a sense of belonging, and authentic relationships — in those who might not have ever dreamed of going to camp. In doing so, these programs are helping to achieve ACA’s 20/20 Vision of serving 20 million children through a camp experience annually by the year 2020.

We celebrate the 2012 Eleanor Eells winners as outstanding examples of “Better Camping for All” and teachers of innovation. What can we learn from them as we advance the camp experience through the twenty-first century? How can we find ways to reach even more children, youth, and adults with the tools for success that the camp experience offers?

Camp Agape Vermont

Founded: 2006
Location: Cabot, Vermont
Mission: To offer children an experience of unconditional love and acceptance, allowing them to reconnect with their own unique strength and resiliency.
Participants served yearly: 60–80

According to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, over 7 million children have at least one parent in jail or prison, and 70 percent of these children will go to jail or prison themselves at some point in their lives (Mosely, 2008). After seeing this trend firsthand, four men involved in prison ministry with adults started Camp Agape Vermont.

Beth Ann Maier, Camp Agape director, says, “They thought that the most significant thing we could do was love a child into believing in his or her own strength and worth.” (As defined on Camp Agape Vermont’s Web site, Agape is a Greek word meaning “the kind of love God has for us — freely given, generous, unconditional, no-strings-attached.”)

Camp Agape Vermont is available free of charge to children between the ages of eight and fifteen who have had a parent under the supervision of the Vermont Department of Corrections. Since 2006, over 300 children have participated in the camp program.

Agape allows campers to experience traditional camp activities along with other creative and therapeutic activities. Younger campers participate in carpentry, drumming, making prayer flags, and scrapbooking. Returning campers ages twelve to fifteen participate in an offsite camping and canoe trip, spend a day helping in a soup kitchen, make ceramic masks, and more. Reading is also encouraged for all campers.

Whi le campers enjoy the unique act ivit ies at Agape, it is truly the relationships formed with other kids and staff that mean the most. Many campers find value in having relationships with children that share their life experience. “In the other venues of their lives, parental incarceration is a secret. They can’t talk about it,” says Maier. The relationships formed with staff — especially young adult volunteers — are very influential. “[Campers] are hungry for the affirmation they receive from [staff]; they are role models and mentors.”

Camp Agape allows the campers to be themselves in a supportive, stable environment — something that many of them do not have at home, as they experience frequent moves; changes in caregivers and schools; and lives exposed to chaos, substance abuse, and violence.

Many campers, especially first timers, arrive at camp anxious and apprehensive to let their guard down. But midway through the weeklong camp experience, they begin to feel more comfortable. “By the end of the week, they are silly, having fun, and truly engaged,” says Maier. One camper told Maier, “This camp is the only place in my life where my anger doesn’t blast everyone.”

Returning campers are deeply impacted by their camp experiences. “They articulate that the camp has been the single, consistently supportive element throughout their chaotic childhood. It has been what they can count on to be there for them.”

Organized by a volunteer board, Camp Agape Vermont relies entirely on volunteer recruitment and donations. Says Maier, “As long as people continue to donate their time, their talent, and their money, we will continue to offer Camp Agape.” (Interested volunteers and donors can visit www.campagapevermont.org.)

The Agape experience provides campers with hope, love, and a sense of belonging; it can totally change the direction of their lives. Maier describes a poster one former camper made and hung by her bunk. “It read: ‘The real point of being alive is to evolve into the person you were meant to be.’ She had somehow gotten the message that she was a unique individual with a growing and valued personhood, giving meaning to her life.”

Camp Aranu’tiq

Founded: 2009
Locations: New England and California
Mission: To provide transgender and gender-variant youth with a safe, fun, and unique outdoor camp experience, and to foster leadership skills in a place where campers are able to express gender however they are comfortable and connect with others in similar situations.
Participants served yearly: 100+

For many children, youth, and adults, the greatest benefit of the camp experience is having a place where they can truly be themselves. At Camp Aranu’tiq, transgender and gender-variant children and youth are able to find this special experience.

According to the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), transgender students face incredibly hostile school climates. In Harsh Realities: The Experiences of Transgender Youth in Our Nation’s Schools, GLSEN reports that nearly all transgender students have been “verbally harassed (e.g. called names or threatened) because of their sexual orientation (89 percent) and their gender expression (87 percent)” (Greytak, Kosciw, & Diaz, 2009).

Beyond verbal harassment, more than 50 percent of transgender students have been “physically harassed (e.g. pushed or shoved),” and over a quarter have been “physically assaulted (e.g. punched, kicked, or injured with a weapon) in school” (Greytak, Kosciw, & Diaz, 2009). These findings make clear the need to provide transgender and gender-variant children and youth with the safe, nurturing environment all young people deserve.

One person helping lead the way is Nick Teich, director of Camp Aranu’tiq. When Teich was told he could not volunteer at a particular camp because he is transgender, his thoughts turned to the countless youth that could be feeling the same way. As a former longtime volunteer at that camp, Teich says, “It was personally devastating and utterly confusing for me. I thought, if this can happen to me as an adult, what about kids who are turned away from camps because of their gender identity?”

Using his thirteen years of experience at camp, Teich started Camp Aranu’tiq, the world’s first overnight summer camp for transgender and gender-variant youth. Teich says that, growing up, “Camp was a very formative experience for me.” And now, he makes that experience available to youth that stand to greatly benefit from it.

Camp Aranu’tiq is a place where transgender and gender-variant youth can be themselves and meet others like them. “What is most meaningful to the campers is getting to be surrounded by other kids who are going through the same thing they are, and who understand them so well. It is rare that trans and gender-variant kids get together and have a shared experience,” says Teich.

Most campers hear about Camp Aranu’tiq by word of mouth, Internet search, or from doctors or mental health professionals who work with the trans and gender-variant population. And while Camp Aranu’tiq provides a supportive atmosphere for campers to talk about gender, it’s not a requirement. Teich explains, “The kids love doing the typical ‘camp things’ — like campfire activities, canoeing, challenge course activities, late night talks in bunks — with friends who share a connection on a deep level.”

All of the camp counselors at Camp Aranu’tiq are volunteers, and they jump at the chance to be able to provide a camp experience for the Aranu’tiq campers. “We are lucky in that so many people find us and inquire about volunteering. We have a list of hundreds of people who have shown interest in volunteering for only fifty or so spots, and more than 90 percent of our volunteers return,” says Teich.

Now in its fourth summer, the camp continues to look for ways to reach even more campers. Creating family camp weekends, leadership camps for teens, a Midwestern site for the standard weeklong camp, and an extension of the East Coast camp from one week to two weeks are potential ways that Teich would like to expand Camp Aranu’tiq’s programming.

“Our camp is just a camp and our kids are just kids, like anyone else out there, regardless of what images people have in their minds of transgender children,” says Teich. “The best part about Aranu’tiq is just seeing how happy and carefree the kids are at camp, knowing that, unfortunately, at school and in their home communities, they are often not able to be carefree.”

Frost Valley YMCA

Founded: 1901
Location: Claryville, New York
Mission: To put Judeo/Christian principles into practice through programs that build healthy spirit, mind, and body for all.
Participants served yearly: 35,000+; 4,000 of those in summer camp (overnight and day) programs

According to summer camp director Dan Weir, Frost Valley YMCA believes it has a “responsibility to serve all.” This mission to serve a diverse range of campers and interests is apparent in their unique and innovative programming. Frost Valley’s specialty offerings range from a farm camp to equestrian camps, service-oriented adventure programs to a Tokyo camp (which provides a traditional, residential camp experience to Japanese campers while maintaining a Japanese culture).

In addition to its specialty programming, Frost Valley is committed to “serving all” through several partnerships. These partnerships provide special populations with connections to necessary doctors, nurses, and specialists so that campers can participate in camp activities.

Kidney Camp. Through a partnership with the Ruth Gottscho Dialysis Foundation and the Children’s Hospital at Montefiore, Frost Valley has been able to serve campers facing kidney issues. Frost Valley was the first camp in the nation to serve children with kidney disease, and it has done so since 1975. Because of the nature of the illness, children with kidney disease are often told they will never be able to go away from home, let alone attend summer camp. But Frost Valley is equipped with staff and state-of-the-art facilities to serve children with hemodialysis and continuous ambulatory peritoneal dialysis (CAPD) and post-transplant and pre-dialysis patients. “Our Kidney Camp campers bunk in the same cabins as other campers, which allows for a diverse and enriching camp environment for both sets of campers,” says Weir.

Hearts in the Valley. Also in partnership with the Children’s Hospital at Montefiore, Frost Valley YMCA now accepts campers with heart disease. The Hearts in the Valley program was created in 2011 for campers between the ages of seven and sixteen who are diagnosed with cardiomyopathy or other cardiac conditions or are heart transplant recipients. Like the dialysis program, children in the Hearts in the Valley program are placed in the cabins with other campers.

Mainstreaming at Camp (MAC). Together with the Young Adult Institute, Frost Valley designed a camping experience that serves children with developmental and intellectual disabilities. The MAC program promotes the inclusion of all campers regardless of their abilities into the broader community. Every summer since 1988, children and adults with disabilities ranging from ages seven to twenty-five attend camp. Campers ages seven to eighteen receive the same camp experience as the rest of campers. Adults ages eighteen to twenty-five enter STEP (Supportive Training and Employment Program), designed for people who want the benefits from a job-skills training program within the summer camp environment. Young adults work in areas of camp, allowing them to contribute to the camp community while gaining work experience.

Frost Valley also maintains a vigorous scholarship program. They call their annual giving campaign “Project 332.” “Our goal is to help more than 332 children who would otherwise not be able to experience all that Frost Valley has to offer. Through full and partial scholarships, Project 332 will help ensure that no child’s financial situation prevents them from participating in our programs,” says Weir. In 2012, 543 campers received a form of scholarship to attend summer camp, totaling more than $700,000. Frost Valley relies on the support of organizations and alumni to offer the scholarships.

All of Frost Valley’s programming centers on its eight core values: caring, community, diversity, honesty, inclusiveness, respect, responsibility, and stewardship. “With our eight core values being the focus and driver of all our programming, a diverse, inclusive community is formed,” says Weir. “Campers are surrounded by positive role models (staff) while learning how to make friends, build independence, and practice responsibility. When they leave Frost Valley YMCA at the end of the summer, campers and staff take with them the values they are practicing to change the world.”

Sherman Lake YMCA Outdoor Center

Founded: 1994
Location: Augusta, Michigan
Mission: To build strong, resilient youth and families using the core values of honesty, caring, respect, and responsibility.
Participants served yearly: Nearly 20,000 in all programs; 5,000 students, 200 teachers, and 100 student teacher interns in the Integrated Education (IE) program

For many camps, efforts to restructure public education have brought new questions about their place in summer and out-of-school time learning. With research supporting character development (ACA, 2013) and twenty-first century skills (collaboration, creativity, communication, and critical thinking; P21.org, 2011) as precursors for young people’s success, camp’s voice in the education debate is more crucial than ever.

Camps have always been experiential education settings, and recently, more and more camps have been partnering with schools to complement regular academic calendars with their unique lessons and learning environments. The Sherman Lake YMCA Outdoor Center’s Integrated Education (IE) program is an exemplary model for such camp-school partnerships.

The IE program reaches students and teachers from a diverse range of schools. Importantly, IE program leaders work hard to make sure that tuition does not keep schools from coming to camp — some participating schools have 100 percent of their students enrolled in the National School Lunch Program. According to Sherman Lake YMCA Camping and Education Director Lorrie Syverson, “The administration and Board of Directors of the Sherman Lake YMCA believe strongly that this program is filling a need in our community.” Therefore, the IE program is supplemented by individual donors and foundations in the amount of approximately $100,000 annually to give students the chance to come to camp.

IE programming varies based on the needs of each school. IE program staff meet with teachers and principals from each school to determine specific curriculum. Activities at camp — such as climbing, archery, swimming, kayaking, arts and crafts, outdoor skills, fire building, and team building —are all designed to supplement Sherman Lake YMCA’s “honesty, caring, respect, and responsibility” (HCRR) methodology. Says Syverson, “While the activities help the students learn new skills, the intentional interweaving of HCRR and our focus on critical-thinking skills bring a deeper connection to those skills for students.”

The IE program’s collaborative, positive, and student-centered approach helps kids find success both academically and socially. “When the Sherman Lake YMCA Outdoor Center was built in 1994, a feasibility study showed that all superintendents in the area indicated an overwhelming need to concentrate on building relationships through character programming. The biggest need, as reported by them, was to foster respect in the classroom, support in-classroom management, and build healthy relationships, both student to student and student to teacher,” says Syverson. By merging camp and school, the Sherman Lake YMCA’s IE program has addressed this need, using character development to increase students’ capacity for learning.

After participating in the IE program, students report:

  • They learned something new at camp (97%)
  • They had fun (97%)
  • They made new or better friends (96%)
  • They learned to respect others that might be different (98%)
  • They wanted to treat others better (98%)
  • Their counselors were positive adult role models (97%)
  • The experience helped them to eat healthier (91%)
  • The experience helped them to be more confident (98%)
  • The experience helped them try something new and different (99%)

Teachers surveyed about a week after participating report:

  • The experience will help improve the behavioral management of the classroom (89%)
  • They learned something new (78%)
  • The counselors were positive adult role models (96%)
  • The IE program was a safe place to learn (96%)
  • Students made new or better friends (93%)
  • Students learned to respect each other (100%)
  • Students learned to want to help each other (100%)
  • Students learned to eat healthy (94%)
  • Students were more physically active (98%)
  • Students discovered something new about themselves (98%)
  • Students were more confident (100%)
  • Students tried something new and different (100%)
  • Students behaved better at school (91%)
  • Students wanted to try harder at school (97%)
  • The program caused them to try something new and different (100%)
  • Camp made a positive difference in the lives of their students (100%)
  • They believed all students, regardless of income, gender, race or ethnicity, benefited equally from camp (98%)

The IE program at the Sherman Lake YMCA Outdoor Center is exploring the very fruitful connection that camps and schools can have around education. As even more creative strategies to partner with schools arise, one thing is for sure: As Syverson says, “The lessons and benefits gained are definitely transferable from camp to classroom.”


Greytak, E. A., Kosciw, J. G., and Diaz, E. M. (2009). Harsh realities: The experiences of transgender youth in our nation’s schools. New York: GLSEN.

ACA. (2012). Camp and character: An interview with Paul Tough. Camping Magazine, 86(2)

Partnership for 21 Century Skills. (2011). Framework for 21st century learning. Retrieved from www.p21.org/overview/skills-framework

Mosely, E. (2008). Incarcerated — Children of parents in prison impacted. Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Retrieved from www.tdcj.state.tx.us/gokids/gokids_articles_children_impacted.html

Julie Anderson is the communications editor at ACA.

Originally published in the 2013 July/August Camping Magazine