Decade after decade since the mid-1800s, summer residential and day camps have been a barometer for social change, often acting as catalysts for change themselves. What started out as a retreat from city life for white, urban children would become an experiential learning opportunity for “boys and girls, recent immigrants and the native-born; the children of union activists, socialists, and progressive educators; Protestants, Jews, and Catholics; and children of all races and classes,” wrote Leslie Paris in her book Children’s Nature — The Rise of the American Summer Camp (2008, p. 7). Perhaps nowhere more than in camps affiliated with nonprofit organizations, children of many and diverse backgrounds have been the beneficiaries of programs consciously designed to shape their lives with outdoor experiences that educate, inspire, and empower. From the earliest days of camp to the present, organizations such as the Boy Scouts of America, Girls Scouts of the USA, the Jewish Community Center (JCC), the YMCA and YWCA, and Camp Fire USA, among others, have made it their collective mission that children and youth, regardless of wealth or status, would go to camp. In doing so, these nonprofits have made camp a rite of passage for millions; a breeding ground for community, political, and business leaders; and an indispensable ingredient of the moral fiber of this country.

Paris wrote, “Late-nineteenth and early twentieth-century camps were among the most visible expressions of the rising idea that childhood should be a time apart, protected from adult culture” — a daunting task in those early years with children caught in the high tide of rapid urbanization and lack of adequate child labor laws (p. 4).


Eleanor Eells wrote in History of Organized Camping: The First 100 Years that “As early as the 1850s, the YMCA developed resources and programs for teenage boys and young men who were alone in the big city where they experienced temp¬tations, loneliness, unbelievably long working hours, and a lack of recreation” (1986, p. 48).

In 1885, this dedication to the devel¬opment of boys and young men led to the founding of the first YMCA camp. According to YMCA Senior Camping Specialist John Duntley, “At the request of the general secretary of the Newburgh, New York, YMCA, a volunteer leader at the Orange YMCA in Orange, New Jersey, Sumner Dudley, led the first group of boys on a summer week campout that focused on ‘acquaintance and relationship with the boys without the relaxation of Christian study and work.’”

Duntley said, “As the YMCA grew in the US, so too did camping as a boys’ work program, and many Ys across the nation had camps on small parcels or on magnificent properties.”

YMCA day camp, which started in 1932 and incorporated programs for younger children, opened the benefits of the camp experience to hundreds of thousands of America’s kids.

Early camps, as the camps of today, often focused on sports, including baseball, football, swimming, hiking, and boating, with a healthy dose of character-building activities thrown in for good measure.

YMCA camps were instrumental during the war years. As scores of young men were heading to the military, the Y played a steady role in creating leadership training programs that turned a generation of junior high boys into future leaders.

Along the way, the Y and its camps also took an active role in important social movements, including banning racial discrimination in 1967 and instituting a national Healthy Kids Day in 1992 to “emphasize the importance of play in keeping kids healthy and happy, and enhancing their problem-solving abilities, creativity, and motor and social skills,” according to the official YMCA Web site (2011). Additionally, in 2002, the Y created the National Diversity Initiative to further support and value the diversity of the communities it serves.

Eells wrote the YWCA’s efforts in the camp environment were “directly related to the swiftly changing social scene” of the later 1800s (p. 47). Like its male counterpart, the YWCA “was organized to minister to the needs of girls and young women em¬ployed in increasing numbers in city com¬merce and as factory workers” (p. 47–48).

Jewish Community Center Association

The day and resident camps affiliated with the Jewish Community Center (JCC) Association came to represent the largest network of Jewish camps in North America, according to the official JCC Web site, sharing “a commitment to provide the highest quality camping experience within unique Jewish environments” (2011).

The JCC movement was born in 1854 when the first Young Men’s Hebrew Association (YMHA) opened in Baltimore “to provide support for Jewish immigrants, help ensure Jewish continuity, and to provide a place for celebration” (JCC, 2011).

JCC camps cropped up in the early 1900s as an extension of an important addition to the Jewish community and a temporary escape from often grueling conditions. Jerome Hyman, a camp director for two years starting in 1927, “alluded to these urban conditions,” wrote Paris, “when he characterized his campers, most of whom came from low-income immigrant families, as having been ‘rescued from the rough thoroughfares of city life and tucked away in the haven of rest,’” which was Camp Lehman, established by the YMHA in 1916 (p. 5).

Surprise Lake, one of the oldest nonprofit camps, was founded in 1902 with a mission of providing a summer getaway for Jewish boys from the tenements of Manhattan’s Lower East Side in New York City.

In more than a century of operation, Surprise Lake, like other JCC camps, has evolved with the nation’s Jewish commu-nity, and through the years has dedicated itself to:

  • Feeding undernourished boys.
  • Operating as a year-round camp with formal education during winter months.
  • Childhood development following a social group work model.
  • Providing a coed summer camp experience, placing special emphasis on scholarships.

Paris wrote, “American Jews were particularly enthusiastic consumers of camps,” and “the range of camps that American Jews supported reflected the complexity . . . of a single ethnic community” (p. 93).

Allan Finkel stein, current JCC Association president, said the camps were not a religious institution but a cultural one. He called JCC camps “a huge builder of people’s careers.” He, himself, attended camp as a child and went on to take his first JCC job as a youth services and camp director in 1974.

Camp Fire USA

Camp Fire USA has been a camping program since its inception on the East Coast in 1910. Founded by Luther Gulick, M.D., and his wife, Charlotte, “at that time it was providing young women and girls the opportunity to be independent,” said Connie Coutellier, director of training for Camp Fire USA, “and to be comfort¬able in an outdoor setting. Early on, it was very much about empowering women,” Coutellier said.

According to Camp Fire USA’s official Web site, Dr. Gulick named the organization Camp Fire “because campfires were the origin of the first communities and domestic life” (2011).

“Camp Fire’s earliest activities began by opening new doors for twentieth-century girls,” wrote Eells, “leading them into a future where they could remove their bus¬tles, don bloomers, and head outdoors to paddle canoes, explore hiking trails, build campfires” (p. 72).

Eells went on to write, “From those small beginnings in Vermont and Maine, Camp Fire programs spread, pioneering in many fields including child development, outdoor programs, and social action. Camp Fire was viewed in many national magazines as innovative, leading the way, even to the shifting outlook and changing status of womankind” (p. 73).

In truth, “although the Camp Fire program furthered the notion that outdoor adventure benefited girls, it did not represent a radical shift in gender expectations,” wrote Paris. “It explicitly tied participation in outdoor life to older ideologies of maternal devotion and domestic inclination, justifying female vigor as a means to enrich childbearing and nurturing capabilities, and camping as a means to buttress traditional female skills” (p. 50). Camp Fire activities wouldn’t stretch beyond the confines of traditional gender roles until the war years when manpower was scarce.

“It spread from East Coast to West Coast in record time because the need was so great,” said Coutellier.

“By December 1913, it boasted an es¬timated 60,000 members, thousands of whom began to attend affordable local camps,” wrote Paris (p. 50).

By 1917, during the First World War, Camp Fire girls represented a veritable army of helpers, and indeed, war efforts were built into the camp programs. Camp Fire attendees “pledged to save on food consumption, eliminate waste, and become physically fit,” wrote Eells (p. 74). During both world wars, campers helped harvest and can fruit that otherwise would have rotted on orchard branches and stepped in to weed and cultivate unattended fields of farms near their camps. Camp Fire also gave daughters of defense workers and refugee children the opportunity to experience camp.

The 1950s saw Camp Fire calling for a more conscious effort to be inclusive of all groups of girls within its member-ship. The mid-1960s launched a national effort to reach urban girls from economically depressed backgrounds. And in 1975, Camp Fire addressed the narrowing divide between the genders head on by welcoming boys to participate in all Camp Fire activities.

Boy Scouts of America

“Camping has always been an essential part of the Boy Scouts program,” said Renée Fairrer, manager of public rela¬tions in the national office of the Boy Scouts of America, “getting the kids out of the city into an outdoors environment where they have to depend on themselves for entertainment.”

Incorporated in 1910, the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) was patterned after Engl ishman General Robert Baden- Powell’s scouting program.

“The first official BSA camp was held at Silver Bay, Lake George, New York, in August 1910,” wrote Eells. “Scouting has functioned as a program resource for youth activities of churches, schools, civic, frater¬nal, and other community groups” (p. 72).

Paris wrote, “By 1910, the first American troops were promising, in the American version of the Scout pledge, to remain ‘physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight.’ Within a year, camps for Boy Scouts from across the cities and suburbs of the Northeast and Midwest were founded, many of them less expensive than YMCA camps” (p. 44). Within a decade the number of Boy Scouts had expanded expo¬nentially, and more than 160,000 of them had spent at least a week at a Boy Scout-led summer camp.

Boy Scout camps were early adopters of environmental programs, going well beyond a mere hike in the woods. “From the very youngest Scout who entered the program, Scouting emphasized the im¬portance of knowing and understanding the outdoors — knowing what plants not to touch, what animals, what insects could hurt you,” said Fairrer.

In addition, she said the Scouts have always been told, “Take out what you brought in and leave it better than you found it,” or, “leave no trace.” This tenet of being good stewards of the land had far-reaching national influence in the con¬servation movement.
With the Boy Scouts on its way to putting more youth and adults into the country’s natural environment than any other organization, Eells reported that “Conservation education was formally adopted as an integral part of Scouting in 1914,” including an organized tree planting project (p. 72).

“Cooperation with federal and state agencies has resulted in active participation in Project Save Our American Resources (SOAR), Keep America Beautiful (KAB) and thousands of local conservation and ecological projects,” wrote Eells (p. 72).

The Boy Scouts encouraged a sense of civic duty, as well, and over the years, campers engaged in civic activities through many of the nation’s challenging times and celebrations alike, including:

  • Serving as crowd control at President Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration in 1913, starting a tradition of serving in some way at presidential inaugurations that remains today.
  • Selling more than $352 million in war bonds during WWI.
  • Assisting relief agencies during the Great Depression.
  • Serving as ushers, guides, and honor guards at the 1939 New York World’s Fair.

Later years brought program changes to BSA to adjust to the changing face of participants. The Cub Scouts were added in 1930 to include younger boys in the outdoors experience. But, “the Cub Scouts were not necessarily comfortable being away from their families for long periods of time,” said Fairrer, so both day and family camps were added to the offerings.
In 1998, BSA introduced the Venturing program, which is a high adventure expe¬rience for coed campers ages thirteen to twenty-one.

Girl Scouts of the USA

In many ways, Girl Scouts of the USA camps and activities mirrored those of the Boy Scouts, although the two groups were affiliated in no way with each other. The first Girl Scout troop was founded in 1912 in Savannah, Georgia, by Juliette Gordon Low, and the troop experienced their first camping trip that same year.

Paris wrote, “The first Savannah Girl Scout troop left on a camping vacation decorously dressed in skirts. Once out of the public eye, they stripped down to long bloomers, swam, cooked for themselves along the Savannah River, and slept on the sand” (p. 52).

Eells wrote that from the beginning, “the philosophy of the Girl Scout organization has been basically the same. Camping is part of the program, not an addition to it” (p. 69). Girl Scout leaders believed camp provided learning opportunities about community and working together that couldn’t be replicated in a troop meeting setting in town.

The Girl Scout organization was quite progressive for its time, recounts Paris, quoting a 1917 article in the Girl Scout publication, the Rally: “The old-time education of girls kept them too much undercover, too much confined to books, too little free to engage in sports that might soil their clothes. All healthy, normal girls have resented this violently, and endured the title of ‘tomboy,’ if only they could have the chance of the tomboy’s free movements and fresh air” (p. 52).

Paris concluded that Girl Scout camps “gave girls opportunities to acquire the same athletic skills as their broth¬ers, helping to create a shared leisure culture across gender lines and to challenge the assumptions undergirding the turn-of-the-century-child-study movement” (p. 52).

The first permanent Girl Scout camp opened in Massachuset ts under the Springfield Council in 1919, and the first day camps were established in 1921 in Chicago and New York City, the latter held on a rooftop. That same year marked the opening of the first nationally owned and operated Girl Scout camp, Camp Andree Clark in New York. By the end of the 1920s, more than 200,000 girls belonged to the Scouts and were encouraged to attend camp.

Girl Scouts have been as civic minded as the Boy Scouts. According to the Girl Scout’s official Web site, “Girl Scouts led community relief efforts during the Great Depression by collecting clothing, making qui lts, carving wood toys, gathering food for the poor, assisting in hospitals, participating in food drives and canning programs, and providing meals to undernourished children” (2011a).

In the 1950s Girl Scout camps were involved with a special effort “to include the daughters of migrant agricultural work-ers, military personnel, Native Americans, Alaskan Eskimos, and the physically challenged,” according to the Web site (2011b).

Later, official and unofficial initiatives included:

  • Helping to break down racial taboos and overcome prejudice.
  • Helping Vietnamese refugee children adapt to their new circumstances.
  • A Global Understanding project that focused on health care, hunger, literacy, natural resources and cultural heritage.

The Indelible Role of Camp

Early camps and those that followed “were important adult-run institutions of social instruction, ideology, and indoctrination designed to reinforce the values of the communities that sponsored them,” wrote Paris. But, “camps were so important not simply because adults designed them, but because children delighted in them, helped to shape them, and felt transformed by them” (p. 2).

Camps have played an indelible role in helping to raise generations of successful leaders and innovators, and there is absolutely no doubt that the nonprofit organizations mentioned here, and those that aren’t, were indispensable in opening up the camp experience to a large and diverse population of America’s youth.

In addition to offering more affordable camp options, nonprofits, including the American Camp Association, founded in 1910, have also been vigilant about creating camper scholarship programs. A number of organizations have credos and philosophies like that of the Boy Scouts, which Fairrer relayed: “Never let money keep a kid out of camp.”

Nonprofit organizations have aggressively campaigned for donations from private citizens and worked with government agencies as well as companies and foundations to secure scholarship monies to further, still, the opportunity for children — regardless of financial condition — to go to camp.

“Whereas private camps served only a small number of boys,” wrote Paris, “organizational camps made the camp movement far more affordable, mainstream, and national” (p. 46).

Nonprofit organizations had a sense of what was right and needed among America’s youth. They weathered social and economic storms and overcame the growing pains of a nation to ensure millions of children would benefit from camp.

Eells wrote, “Every time a social trend occurred, someone unhappy with the situation suggested the solution might lie in summer camp” (p. 138).

And, often, they were right.


Camp Fire USA. (2011). History. Retrieved from

Eells, E. (1986). History of organized camping: The first 100 years. Martinsville, IN: American Camp Association.

Girl Scouts. (2011a). Girl Scouts timeline: 1930s. Retrieved from

Girl Scouts. (2011b). Girl Scouts timeline: 1950s. Retrieved from

JCC. (2011). About us. Retrieved from 

Paris, L. (2008). Children’s nature — The rise of the American summer camp. New York, NY: New York University Press.

YMCA. (2011). History: 1960–1990s. Retrieved from  

Marcia Ellett is a freelance writer for a number of national and regional publications. She attended camp herself as a child. Contact the author at

Originally published in the 2011 November/December Camping Magazine.