We celebrate the 2023 recipients. They are all prime examples of the right camp program’s capacity to equip campers of all abilities and backgrounds with the determination, desire, and belief to build brighter futures for themselves and their communities.

Camp Aldersgate — Kota Camps

Group of campers

Kota Camps, run by Camp Aldersgate in partnership with MedCamps, Inc. of Arkansas, allow children with special needs to bring a friend or sibling to accompany them to camp.

Camp Aldersgate began offering medical camps in 1971 when physician Kelsy Caplinger organized the camp’s first summer program for children with asthma. Since then, the program has grown to serve a variety of medical needs including muscular dystrophy, spina bifida, diabetes, cardiac conditions, kidney conditions, arthritis, bleeding disorders, and cancer.

The Kota Camps program was born from the dream of two determined mothers who saw a need and worked with Camp Aldersgate to fulfill it, according to Luke Nip­per, director of programs at Camp Aldersgate. Today, the Kota Camps program is their most popular camp.

“Kota Camps are special because they allow a sibling or friend to accompany a child with special needs to camp,” Nipper said. “This allows the siblings or friends to have a shared experience. In turn, this also creates more op­portunities for advocacy as the sibling or friend who does not have a disability or medical condition is able to learn more about what other peers experience who do have these day-to-day challenges.”

Camp Aldersgate hopes to further expand Kota Camps in the future.

“Our goal is to continue to increase the number of campers we serve through our Kota Camps,” Nipper said. “Right now, we are able to serve up to 56 campers during a single Kota Camp session. We continue to evaluate ways to increase our capacity such as adding more cab­ins or even more weeks or weekend camps. Every child deserves to attend camp.”


Roundup River Ranch — Joy, Delivered

Roundup River Ranch in Colorado provides free, medically supported camp experiences and year-round programs to children with serious illnesses and their families. Roundup River Ranch supports children with diagnoses including gastrointestinal conditions, kidney conditions, heart conditions, heart transplants, cancer, blood disorders, neurological conditions, and other illnesses.

camper doing at-home activity kit

Roundup River Ranch offers in-person programming to kids from across Colorado and a 10-state region, and they provide additional outreach programs for kids who cannot attend in-person programs.

According to Camp Director Kendra Perkins, Roundup River Ranch’s Joy, Delivered program is “an out-of-the-box camp experience that supports and engages children in fun activities that inspire creativity, compassion, resilience, teamwork, and are screen-free. The magic and joy of camp is delivered to campers’ doorsteps with all the supplies, instructions, and activities necessary to experience the joy of camp individually or collaboratively.”

These programs, which kids can participate in from the comfort of their own homes or hospital rooms, focus on creating oppor­tunities for campers to give joy to others — a proven support for positive mental health — and are free of charge.

According to Perkins, activities in each box are never repeated and include hands-on projects that focus on social-emotional learning and mental wellness, ranging in topic from STEM, art, fine arts, nature, and community connections.

In the future, Roundup River Ranch hopes to be able to continue to reach more children.

“Our hope is for Joy, Delivered to continue to provide camp experiences to campers and their families who are unable to attend in-person camp programs,” Perkins said.


Hometown Heroes, Inc. — Camp Hometown Heroes and Camp Reunite

campers and staff group photo

Hometown Heroes, Inc. offers camp programs for children who are facing extreme trauma.

Their Camp Hometown Heroes program is open to children ages 7–17 who have lost a loved one, usually a parent, who served in the armed forces. They run two sessions per sum­mer, each one week long.

The Camp Reunite program is for children who have a parent who is currently incarcerated. They offer a one-week pro­gram to children with an incarcerated mother and another one-week program to children with an incarcerated father.

“The unique thing about both Camp Hometown Heroes and Camp Reunite is that our camps are not just recreationally focused,” said Liz Braatz, director of development. “We pro­vide trauma-informed care opportunities for children during their weeklong stay. We specifically have created training programs for counselors so they are fully enveloped in trau­ma-informed care and know how to properly work with kids, care for kids, and move the needle forward in healing.”

Camp Hometown Heroes combines traditional camp recre­ation with healing activities, healing art, meditation, thera­peutic talk, memorial activities, and a dedication ceremony to their loved ones.

Camp Reunite focuses on using calm communication styles and mitigating trauma.

“The really unique part [of Camp Reunite] is traveling to the prison to reunite with mom or dad,” Braatz said. “They offer healing programming with mom or dad at the prison site. The overarching focus is really recreational healing — having fun, but we want the kids to also leave after five days feeling refreshed, feeling better, and feeling like the weight on their shoulders from dealing with trauma is lightened.”

Camp Hometown Heroes welcomes children from all over the United States, including Hawaii and Alaska, and the programs are free. Camp Hometown Heroes even pays for participants’ travel.

Because Camp Reunite ends with a trip to reunite the chil­dren and their parents at the prison, it is more localized to children from Wisconsin.

In the future, Hometown Heroes hopes to be able to extend their programming to help even more kids.

“We have a strong and wonderful model for trauma-informed care in the wilderness,” Braatz said. “We’d love to see this model expand to other areas and ways in which we can help children who experience trauma . . . So many kids experi­ence trauma via traumatic divorces, social media bullying, and increased amounts of mental health anxiety and de­pression. Given that our counselors are trained, and we are offering four weeks of camp and other weeks we rent out our space, we really have an opportunity [in the future] to rent less and offer more with the counselors we have. The sky is the limit; it’s a growth opportunity.”


DC Department of Parks and Recreation Boost Camps

campers engaged in activity

The DC Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR) Boost Camps launched in 2021 as part of a citywide effort to accel­erate learning in response to the learning loss experienced throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. DPR Boost Camps were developed from another DPR program, DPR Enrichment Camps, which operated in school facilities and provided at-risk youth with summer camp experiences in a safe and positive environment. These experiences provided recreation­al activities and programs and discouraged negative social behaviors.

Boost Camps reimagined that program by partnering with public and charter schools to develop school-based programs with a substantial learning component.

“The key innovation within Boost Camps is the local school partnership,” said Marcus Allen, program manager. “Much of our staff are school employees, and our funding supple­ments the hiring for the school’s summer staffing as well. Thus, we have a great amount of overlap and integration of our programs, which creates a nurturing environment for the enrichment of our campers.”

Camp sessions last for one or two weeks over a period of six weeks total. Each day combines academic instruction and social-emotional learning with other activities such as swimming, dancing, group fitness, arts and crafts, games, puzzles, and free play. These programs focus on balanced child development and relationship-building with peers in a fun and challenging learning environment.

In 2022, Boost Camps expanded to include specialty enrich­ment for youth ages 10–13, including rocket camp, robotics camp, esports camp, journalism camp, and improv camp.

“The goal and hope is that Boost Camp will expand to year-round programs and support the youth in the District of Columbia,” Allen said. “We also hope to find new ways to collaborate with schools.”


MedCamps of Louisiana, Inc.

camper petting horse

MedCamps of Louisiana, Inc. is a nonprofit organization founded in 1987 that provides free residential sum­mer camps, family camps, retreats, and day camps to children and their families living with chronic illnesses, physical disabilities, cognitive disabilities, and other special needs.

MedCamps of Louisiana was born of the belief that all people deserve to experience life to the fullest — regard­less of any special medical, cognitive, or physical needs — and that participating in camp experiences creates a sense of well-being, belonging, accomplishment, and self-worth. Their mission is to improve the health and wellness of participants through recreational and educa­tional camp experiences that support growth by building confidence, community, and fostering independence.

Each session is designed for children with particular needs, and campers are medically supervised by health care professionals.

“Camping is an American tradition that all children should be able to experience at some point in their lives,” said Kacie Whipple, camp director. “At MedCamps we can help our campers set goals for themselves and eventu­ally reach those goals. We are creative and think outside the box when needed, but we make every activity we do at MedCamps safe and accessible for all.”

Whipple hopes that MedCamps will be able to continue to provide camp experiences free of charge to those living with special needs, as well as expand their pro­gramming.

“My main hope for MedCamps is that we can continue to serve people living with chronic illnesses and other disabilities for years to come,” Whipple said. “I hope that any child living with a disability will be able to benefit from MedCamps in some form or fashion. A goal I have for MedCamps is that we can expand our programs so that we are able to serve more and more children who have chronic illness and disabilities.


St. Vincent de Paul Detroit’s Camp Ozanam

group of campers holding hands

St. Vincent de Paul Detroit’s Camp Ozanam offers a physically and emotionally safe environment for children to engage in faith- and nature-based experiential learning at no cost to their families. For 100 years, Camp Ozanam has provided experiences to over 128,000 children throughout southeast Michigan, allowing them to foster a greater sense of confidence, independence, and leadership skills.

“We firmly believe that families who are struggling deserve more than just having their basic needs met and that all children should have the opportunity to learn, grow, relax, and thrive in a high-quality summer camp setting,” said Julia Hohner, director of camp services. “Our 100-year history proves that quality and accessibility are not mutually exclusive.”

Camp Ozanam allows kids 8–12 to participate in their traditional camp program and offers an adventure camp program for chil­dren ages 13–14. They also have a staff-in-training program for teens ages 15–16.

Camp Ozanam provides completely free camp experiences and aims to remove as many barriers to access as possible. Accord­ing to Hohner, camp also covers round-trip transportation, bedding, a camp T-shirt, a water bottle, a camp duffel bag, vouchers to purchase clothing and toiletries, and access to a free health physical from a licensed medical professional.

“As our camp program turns 100 this year, we’re laying the groundwork for the next century of free camp for children in southeast Michigan,” Hohner said. “Our hope is to continue expanding our reach, to increase wrap-around supports to families year-round, and to continue responding to the ever-changing needs of the children we serve.”


Eleanor P. Eells Award for Excellence in Research in Practice

Also given each year since 2015, The Eleanor P. Eells Award for Excellence in Research in Practice honors camp programs that:

  • Develop and implement or apply an exemplary research or evaluation project.
  • Use research or evaluation findings to improve program practice.
  • Develop model research or an evaluation project that can be adapted or replicated.
  • Share research or evaluation findings with others.

We salute this year’s winner.

Tim Hortons Foundation Camps

camper kneeboarding

Tim Hortons Foundation Camps (THFC), established in 1974, has seven camp locations across the US and Canada and serves youth from low-income backgrounds through three different programs — summer, school, and part­nerships — intentionally designed to assist youth in building social-emotional life skills. All programs are offered at no cost to the participant and their family.

After participating in the Camp Program Quality Initiative with the American Camp Association in 2020 and 2021, THFC rolled out a comprehensive program quality assessment initiative in 2022.

“Grounded in continuous improvement, research is at the center of what we do,” said Victoria Povilaitis, director of program innovation for Tim Hortons Foundation Camps. “TIMpact365 is our comprehensive measurement strategy. Through TIMpact365 we continually measure program quality, camper outcomes, and impact. This information guides our program development and updates, as well as staff training each year. We have learned about staff prac­tices we need to focus on to provide campers with a high-quality experi­ence, the specific social and emotional outcomes we need to better support our youth, and which activity blocks we can refine to more intentionally target short- and long-term impact. We have even asked campers what they want to learn at camp and used this information to inform our level-specific programs and outcomes.”

According to Povilaitis, at THFC, re­search informs practice and practice informs research. Their Program Innova­tion team works directly with the camp-based teams in ongoing collaboration, and they are responsive to what goes on at camp and incorporate research related to current needs.

“In summer 2022 we saw increased well-being challenges, so a new focus this year is on understanding camper and staff well-being and what we can do to support those needs. This learn­ing will inform future programs, staff training, and camp operations,” Povilai­tis said.

An important aspect of improving pro­grams is collaboration.

“We strive to continually improve in everything we do to provide youth with a positive and impactful experience,” Povilaitis said. “We began measuring program quality during our eCamp COVID-19 programming and continued to prioritize quality programs as we returned to camp in person. During this experience we learned the value of engaging everyone in learning about program quality and completing assess­ments — from campers and staff to chaperones and guests. We know that with a greater diversity of voices we are better able to understand the camp experience holistically and identify op­portunities for improvement. Campers, counselors, activity facilitators, program coordinators, program directors, camp directors, and network-level staff were all involved in assessing program quali­ty. Providing high-quality experiences is truly a team effort!”

Looking toward the future, THFC hopes to continue to build upon its program to help more youth.

“Our campers are from low-income backgrounds, and with recent events and rising inflation, it’s clear that the need for our programs is greater than ever,” Povilaitis said. “In the future, we hope to continue serving these youth during the summer, but also in year-round program partnerships with schools and community organizations. Expanding to work with other margin­alized groups, including Indigenous and racialized youth, in culturally sustaining ways is a focus. With generous dona­tions and support from Tim Hortons restaurant owners and guests, we can introduce the camp experience and all it has to offer to many more young people.”

Kaley Amonett is the American Camp Association’s editorial communications manager.