MARTINSVILLE, IN — The US Department of State and the American Camp Association (ACA) are providing young Ukrainian exchange students and campers a sense of normalcy and childhood through summer camp experiences and extended schooling programs.
In early March of this year — and in the early days of the Russian invasion of Ukraine — summer camp directors began working with the State Department’s BridgeUSA and Future Leaders Exchange (FLEX) programs to give a hand in helping Ukrainian families who had fled their home country.
“As a ‘camp mom’ of three, I know first-hand how camps challenge children by expanding their horizons and developing their creativity and social and emotional skills,” said Nicole Elkon, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs. “Matching Ukrainian high school students from the BridgeUSA and Future Leaders Exchange programs as counselors-in-training with these Ukrainian children was a creative solution demonstrating how far Americans will go to support those in need.”
Usually, high school exchange students return to their home countries when the school year ends; however, for this year’s Ukrainian students, their home environments were not safe for return. As a result, the State Department worked with ACA and summer camps to extend students’ stay, providing them with scholarships to attend or work at summer camps. Additionally, the students have the option to continue in the US for another school year.
Out of around 240 Ukrainian students in total, roughly 130 expressed an interest in going to summer camps. They then went through a match process to connect with summer camps and programs across the country.
Scott Brody, owner and director of Camps Kenwood & Evergreen in New Hampshire and ACA’s point person on this project, explained that students had the opportunity to enroll as campers or junior counselors at different camps across the country. At Kenwood & Evergreen, six FLEX students chose to join the camps as junior counselors, seeking a full summer experience while helping serve Ukrainian campers.
Brody shared that, initially, they had connected with a Ukrainian family with two sons for whom they provided full scholarships to attend summer camp as campers. That number quickly grew to 20 campers after the FLEX students joined their camp community, as it significantly increased the camp’s resources to serve more refugee children from Ukraine. The 20 Ukrainian campers were each placed with a bilingual FLEX student who could help serve as translator and unlock the potential for the camp to help more people.
“It’s been enormously successful, and our Ukrainian kids are thriving,” Brody said. “It is an incredible experience for both Ukrainians and Americans at camp. Our US kids are understanding that they can be part of the solution — even the eight-year-olds. This will be a summer that none of us will ever forget.”
Elkon visited Camps Kenwood & Evergreen on Monday, August 1, spending the day meeting with Ukrainian campers and counselors and learning about their experiences.
The Ukrainian campers and young staff members are receiving all the benefits of a typical American summer camp experience — playing and being kids, trying new things, making friends, building resilience, spending time in nature, increasing social-emotional skills, and developing life skills that are appropriate for their age and developmental stages.
To show their love and support, as well to help the Ukrainians feel more at home, the camps raise the Ukrainian flag along with US flag every morning. In a recent camp music program, one American boy learned how to play the Ukrainian national anthem on the trumpet, playing it alongside the US anthem. And in a recent art contest, campers submitted Ukrainian-inspired art to include in the camp’s annual calendar.
The Ukrainian high school exchange students and campers are in touch with their families, who are excited about the support their children are receiving at camp. Many of these campers and counselors are hoping to return to their new summer camp communities next year, if circumstances allow.
According to Brody, the Ukrainians at camp feel incredibly loved and supported. “It is a joy,” he said. “I think this is the single greatest thing we have ever participated in as a camp community.”
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About the American Camp Association
The American Camp Association® (ACA) is a national organization serving the more than 15,000 year-round and summer camps in the US who annually serve 26 million campers. ACA is committed to collaborating with those who believe in quality camp and outdoor experiences for children, youth, and adults. ACA provides advocacy, evidence-based education, and professional development, and is the only independent national accrediting body for the organized camp experience. ACA accreditation provides public evidence of a camp's voluntary commitment to the health, safety, risk management, and overall well-being of campers and staff. For more information, visit ACAcamps.org or call 800-428-2267.
BridgeUSA is led by the US Department of State in partnership with the private sector and academia. It brings together the next generation of current and emerging young leaders through unmatched cultural and professional exchange programs. With 13 categories to explore, participants can select a program focused on education, research, or professional development. Throughout their exchange, participants will hone existing skills and develop new ones, unlocking new personal and professional opportunities. BridgeUSA equips participants with the knowledge, tools and networks needed to thrive as leaders and to create lasting impact locally and globally.
About the Future Leaders Exchange Program
The Future Leaders Exchange Program (FLEX) is a highly competitive, merit-based scholarship program funded by the US Department of State that operates in Armenia, Azerbaijan, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Georgia, Greece, Hungary, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Mongolia, Montenegro, Poland, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan. Over 35,000 students compete annually in multiple rounds of testing to earn a FLEX scholarship, which provides for them to spend an academic year in the United States living with a volunteer host family and attending a US high school.