Each year, ACA’s Eleanor P. Eells Award for Program Excellence recognizes camps that embody the award’s namesake by creating exceptional programming and developing effective, creative responses to the needs of people and society through the camp experience. We celebrate the 2014 winners, as well as the first Eleanor Eells Award-winner for Excellence in Research in Practice. They all represent outstanding examples of programs tailored to unlock the potential of their campers, to empower under-resourced youth to throw new doors of possibility wide open, and to construct a foundation of self-esteem and belief in themselves on which they can build a bright future.

A Broader Way

Mission: Dedicated to offering girls from urban communities an outlet for self-expression and creativity through arts-centered programs.

Founded: 2010

Location: Great Barrington, Massachusetts, and New York City  

Campers perved per year: Currently 60

The A BroaderWay Foundation (ABW) was created in 2010 by actors Idina Menzel and Taye Diggs, both of whom saw the value in using the performing arts to help urban girls who might not otherwise have the resources to find their voices, both on stage and beyond. The emphasis is on building self-esteem, developing leadership quali-ties, and striving for personal and social achievement.

“We are often asked, ‘Do I have to be talented or already be a performer to participate?’ Absolutely not,” said Kristin Quintano, associate director. “If they have an interest or the desire to learn more, they are welcome.”

“Taking a bunch of really beautiful, independent, strong, intelligent urban girls and giving them an opportunity to experience unity, camaraderie, friendship, and sensitivity through the arts is really inspiring,” said Diggs.

Camp BroaderWay itself is a sleep-away program that takes place at Bard College at Simon’s Rock, in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. There the campers experi-ence traditional camp activities including swimming, rock climbing, and campfires, in addition to stage, dance, and voice fundamentals. Exciting elective choices are also on offer to help the girls explore other potential areas of interest, including painting, sign language, storyboard, spoken word, acting, choreography, photography, Playbill, digital scrapbook, and sculpting. All Camp BroaderWay classes are taught by acclaimed Broadway professionals and Simon’s Rock faculty members, who are experts in their fields.

The two-week camp program is for sixth through tenth graders. For those beginning in sixth grade, “We make a four-year com-mitment to our campers; they’re with us for four summers,” Quintano said. “We now also have a counselor-in-training (CIT) program, for which they have to reapply.

“During their time at camp, the girls put together a performance, and on the last day they perform that show in New York City for their friends and families,” said Quintano. The performance is a collabora-tion between campers and staff showcasing choreography, acting scenes, and the girls’ own poetry and essays. “It’s really exciting for the kids.”

The camp family extends beyond the two weeks in the summertime too. ABW staff reunites with its campers at least four times during the school year. During their first reunion they get to watch a recording of their camp finale performance. They generally get to see a Broadway perfor-mance each year, and other reunions center on recreational fun such as bowling. The focus of ABW is to empower its campers to let their inner light shine.

Said Menzel, for whom this has been a longstanding dream come true: “You need to take that thing that you’re most scared of in yourself and realize how beautiful it is and embrace it and explore it, because that unusual thing is probably the thing that will set you apart in this world and make people pay attention to you.”

Crossroads for Kids

Mission: To inspire youth living in at-risk environments to unlock their potential and positively impact the world. 

Founded: 1936

Location: Eastern Massachusetts. 

Campers served per year: 1000

Crossroads for Kids aims to be a consis-tent and reliable support and center of development for a population of youth in Eastern Massachusetts who are used to the instability that so often comes with economic hardship — from moving to new schools to new foster homes and all the ups and downs in between. The Crossroads for Kids model blends the life-changing effects of a summer camp experience with year-round, multiyear, youth development programming that connects participants with caring people in the community who can help open their eyes to a world of possi-bilities as they march toward adulthood.

“We have instructional swim lessons, archery, and all those things [at our summer camp], but we put a lot of emphasis on relationship building and trust,” said Joanne Fay, vice president of programming. “That’s one of our primary goals.”

About 50 percent of Crossroads’ kids come through word of mouth and the other half through partnerships with schools and other organizations. Most of them come from homes that fall below the poverty line. And while some campers are with Crossroads for Kids for only one summer, many return yearly and participate in ac-tivities offered throughout the school year that focus on leadership, social awareness, college/career, and community action. Some of those activities include: 

  • A week-long college tour around New England
  • Trips to law firms, restaurants, etc., to learn about various careers from profes-sionals in the field.
  • A community service road trip to teach the importance of giving back to the community 

“We also want to help the kids take healthy risks,” Fay said, “and to know you have to take those risks in order to change."

“What we have spent a lot of time and focus on is intentional programming and making sure we’re always measuring and not being afraid to look at what the feed-back is telling us,” Fay said. “We always want to make sure we’re doing the best job possible.”

Among Crossroads for Kids’ many success stories is Ludy, who said, “Today, I am college-bound because Crossroads staff members took the time to nurture me. I’m earning good grades, helping out at home, and able to break free from the cycle of pov-erty and violence back home. I am prepared for college and know that I can accomplish anything I put my mind to. I have the confi-dence to define for myself what’s ‘cool’ and what’s important; Crossroads gave me the gift of self-assuredness, and that is what has truly changed my life.

“Because of my Crossroads mentors, today I am ready to change the world — they saw my potential before I did.”

Equipping under-resourced kids to re-alize their potential and to pursue dreams they might not dared dream before is at the heart of Crossroads for Kids programming. At the end of the day, “I hope they feel like the skills we can give them will help them be whatever they want — if that means being a teacher, an astronaut, or running a nail salon — that we’re giving them the skills to see that anything in the world is possible,” said Fay.

The Harold Robinson Foundation — Camp Ubuntu

Mission: To provide funding and resources to end Los Angeles's less-fortunate chuldren to camp in a safe and nurturing environment while working towards building communities through communication and support for schools and families. 

Founded: 2010

Location: Los Angeles

Campers served per year: 2,5000

When the Harold Robinson Foundation was launched five years ago, those involved just wanted to bring as many kids as possible from Los Angeles’s inner city to camp.

“Our model was to go into the inner city and invite a whole school’s fifth grade class of kids up to camp, usually about 100 kids,” said David Moss, Harold Robinson Foundation co-founder and president. “And we included 25 parents, typically 12 males and 12 females, if possible, and 12 staff members from the school.”

In effect, they were bringing a slice of that community to sleep-away camp, the first time for many of the participants, including the adults, to leave their com-munity at all.

“We realized we were doing much more than just bringing kids to camp,” Moss said. “We were building community where it was really broken and lacking — bringing parents together who don’t otherwise talk to each other. It breaks down barriers and causes people to step out of their comfort zone and talk to each other and go home with another perspective.

“Now we use camp as a tool for bigger and better things — to break down the barriers of rival gangs, to show youth the love and compassion they may not get at home,” said Moss.

And they expanded their program with Camp Ubuntu. Ubuntu, a South African philosophy that translates to “I am be-cause we are” seemed the perfect word to embody the core of the Harold Robinson Foundation and its desire to give hope and encourage dreams, respect, and unity. “Through Camp Ubuntu children learn that we must rely on and support each other in order to ensure success as an individual, as a family, and as a community.”

Now in its second year, Camp Ubuntu is a day camp located at a middle school in the heart of Watts (one of the most underprivileged areas in Los Angeles), and the center point between four housing projects — four separate neighborhoods — each home to a rival gang. The camp at-tracts kids from all four neighborhoods and has become a tool to teach healthy communication, team building, and other unifying skills.

Programming also includes parenting workshops, a partnership with the Los Angeles Police Department, which sends officers to interact with campers, and working with former professional athletes, musicians, and Los Angeles Film School to provide enrichment opportunities for the kids, among other activities.

“We’re developing relationships with the kids that they just don’t get to develop otherwise because they don’t have good leaders, role models, and mentors to guide them. The staff is really great about show-ing the campers a lot of love,” said Moss.

Ramapo for Children

Mission: To create environments where the broadest range of children, including those who are affected by social, emotional, or learning challenges, can experi-ence success.
Founded: 1922
Location: New York
Campers served per year: 550 (total participants: 27,000 across all programs
“We live in a world where too often, people who are different or faces challenges, we give up on them. Ramapo for Children creates environments where a broad range of children can experience success, and where children and adults can learn to better align their behaviors with their aspirations,” said Ramapo’s Chief Executive Officer Adam Weiss. 
Ramapo for Children’s approach to providing young people with opportuni-ties for success is manifest in a range of programs, including: 
  • A residential transition-to-independence program for young adults with special needs
  • Hosting nearly 12,000 participants in year- round community-building retreats
  • Training and professional development to over 15,000 educators and families throughout the Northeast, providing a tool-box of skills and strategies for supporting children who face a gamut of challenges
Also in its arsenal of life-changing pro-grams is Camp Ramapo. This 93-year-old summer camp is carefully structured to help children with a variety of special needs — those affected by social, emotional, or learning challenges, including children affected by autism spectrum dis-orders — to learn how to live within a group, form healthy friendships, make good choices, develop self-esteem, and experience success.
Ramapo’s programming is built on the belief that challenging behavior is the language in which children express unmet needs. “The kids who come to camp each summer are learning skills that they themselves may feel they lack,” Camp Director Mike Kunin said. “If you can address difficult behavior through the lens of unmet needs and lagging skills, you can go a long way towards giving them the boost they need to point them on a path toward success.
“We have lot of goals for our campers in terms of addressing building skills,” said Kunin. The staff are able to engage their campers in coming up with one or two individual goals that each can strive to achieve. Goals, such as tying one’s shoes, for example, may focus on motor skills, language skills, communication, etc.
“If you take a look at people whose challenges are greater, they are as much a population of strivers toward their goals as anybody, if you meet them at their level,” he said.
The bottom line is this: “Whether some-one has special needs or not, all kids want the same things: success, to feel valued, and to feel competent,” said Kunin. “We don’t see camp as a set of cabins or buildings or ball fields; it’s an approach to working with kids.
"Our goal is for the benefits of having been in this environment to last well beyond the duration of the experience itself.”

Camp Sherwood Forest  Book Club

First Recipient of the Award for Excellence in Research in Practice
Mission: To provide reading opportunities for children that give them the chance to develop more positive attitudes about reading. 
Founded: 2010 (Book Club only)
Location: St. Louis, Missouri 
Campers served per year: 300
Sherwood Forest is a year-round youth development program with 80 percent of participating children coming from low-income families. In 2010 it began a summer book club program — recog-nizing that children of lower incomes are disproportionately affected by summer learning loss — and set out to ignite a joy of reading in kids for whom their reading experience to that point had been only in school and, more often than not, wasn’t positive.
Honing the program each year, now every summer third-grade program par-ticipants meet for book club 19 days out of a 26-day session under the direction of two reading teachers. Together — sometimes with the teachers reading out loud to the kids, sometimes the kids reading out loud to each other — they read the book Hatchet, by Gary Paulsen.
“The book f it s n icely i nto ou r third-graders’ camp experience,” Rogers said. “It’s in this month-long program that our young people are going to learn their basic outdoor living skills — hiking, backpacking, outdoor camping — so they learn fire building, tool craft, cooking, tarp shelter building, etc.
“The young protagonist in Hatchet has to learn those same skills. So the skills the kids learn correlate with the skill’s Brian, the character in the book, learns. t’s a very experiential way of reading,” she said.
And it turns out the kids really like it.
By comparison, kids who never partic-ipated in the book club have less positive attitudes about reading, “and those atti-tudinal differences are statistically signifi-cant,” said Rogers.
“The kids specifically identify ways in which the book club is different/better than school in terms of reading.” Among the positive outcomes of the Sherwood Forest Book Club, children describe their camp reading experience as more positive, more fun. “There is more time. The kids don’t feel pushed or pressured.”
As a result of partnering with St. Louis University, and with five years of measur-able data under their belts, they’ve been able to show some evidence of the effectiveness of the book club program.
“We are really honored to have this award because it is a recognition of a camp that is doing the practice of research that has applications beyond our own camp. This is an encouragement for other camp directors who might have questions,” Rogers said.
Photo courtesy of Ramapo for Children, New York.