Building Community through Camp

Samantha Clark
September 2018

For children and families who feel isolated or misunderstood, camp can offer the connectivity and support needed to finally feel like part of a community.

It takes a village.

No man is an island.

Better together.

There is no shortage of sentiments about the power of community — and there is no place where that is more evident than at camp. Around the world, camps are creating communities of support for children and young adults who feel sidelined or isolated because of a personal condition, challenge, or circumstance.

Whether it’s through intentional programming, inclusive activities, or other purposeful practices, camp helps children and families work through their feelings of fear and discomfort to build confidence and connectivity, and know they are not alone. As camp professionals, we are believers in the power of community because we have seen the impact it can have, not only for a session or season, but long after the camp experience ends.

Community not only plays an important role for campers and families, but the camp community at large is one of dedicated experts and volunteers from all over the globe who exchange learning and teaching to help others provide the highest quality camp experiences. With that in mind, we have gathered insights from four camp organizations that explain just how camps build a sense of community and the impact it can have.

SeriousFun Children’s Network

SeriousFun Children’s Network started with a simple idea. Actor and philanthropist Paul Newman wanted to create a place where children with serious illnesses could escape the pain and fear of their illness and “just be kids.” Now, 30 years later, that idea has become a global community of 30 camps and programs serving children living with over 50 medical conditions and building communities of support throughout the United States, Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean. Here’s how we do it.

How do SeriousFun camps positively impact the lives of children living with illness and their families?

SeriousFun helps children with serious illnesses and their families reclaim confidence, rediscover joy, and reimagine their future. That’s because at camp they are not defined by their illness. From medical centers that blend into camp to adaptive boat launches and person-first language, camp is all-inclusive and welcoming so the focus is on the fun. We know that kids, parents, and siblings leave camp feeling newly empowered and connected — with the confidence to break down the perceived barriers of their medical condition.

Why is it important to offer camp experiences to these children and families?

Children living with serious illness often face stigma, isolation, fear, and stress. Even in moments of better health, the fear of relapse or regression can become a constant worry. It can also feel like they are not in control of their own decisions. Medically, doctors and parents are making choices to keep their children healthy and safe, while the children may have little in the way of input. And it affects the whole family. Long hospital stays replace school and work, social outings become infrequent, and families spend more time apart.

Camp is uniquely positioned to offer therapeutic recreation and psychosocial support designed to normalize the experience of living with a serious illness without focusing on the diagnosis. SeriousFun camps and programs transform the usual “no, you can’t” into “yes, you can.” Think of what it means for a child who’s never swum to glide into a pool for the first time because it’s adapted to their needs; or how it feels to fly sky-high in a wheelchair on a ropes course; or the freedom gained when a child learns how to self-infuse medication on their own. They may go back to school and audition for a play, volunteer to be on a student committee, or voice concerns to their healthcare provider because of the confidence and independence they gained at camp.

How do SeriousFun camps create community?

Battling a serious illness can be isolating, and camp intentionally brings children and families together. Moments like the evening campfire or cabin chat provide the structure and space for everyone to share and be heard. It is where kids find other kids with transplant scars, medications, and pain symptoms like theirs, and where they realize — sometimes for the first time — that they’re not alone. Healthy siblings, who often face guilt and shifting parental attention, leave with new friendships rooted in understanding. Parents find others who share their struggles and offer helpful perspectives.

Even the doctors and nurses who come to camp say that it changes how they practice medicine when they go back home. Camp brings children and medical staff together on a human level, where they can build empathy and understanding — shifting the ways both patient and doctor interact outside of camps’ gates.

Camp Homeward Bound

Camp Homeward Bound is a youth program provided by the Coalition for the Homeless serving the five boroughs of New York City. Coalition for the Homeless works tirelessly every day to end mass homelessness, and while they are working to serve adults, their camp program serves the needs and builds up the spirits of the youth involved. Launched in 1984, the first camp of its kind, designed specifically for homeless children, Camp Homeward Bound has blended programming in education and nature activities to create an environment where campers feel safe to grow, learn, and play.

We talked with Camp Director Beverly McEntarfer, who leads the charge in serving over 300 campers a summer. She helped us better understand the intentional way Camp Homeward Bound creates community for campers.

What is the purpose of your camp and what is the population of children and young adults you serve?

Camp Homeward Bound serves youth ages seven to 15 from New York City who are currently or formerly residing in homeless or domestic violence shelters. Our mission is to provide them with respite from the challenges of living in shelters; to create a safe and nurturing learning environment that embraces and celebrates each camper’s talents and helps build self-esteem and a feeling of belonging.

Why is it important to offer the camp experience to this population?

Children living in shelters regularly take on adult roles at a young age. They are often responsible for caring for their siblings, and in some cases, their parent. Losing their childhood, or having it interrupted, can be detrimental to a child’s overall growth. These children feel isolated, often without a sense of community. Many must move from one shelter and school to another. They can’t invite friends over or have play dates. At school, many are embarrassed and afraid that they will be bullied because they are homeless. Many of our campers also suffer from low self-esteem and some PTSD from being abused or witnessing abuse.

What would you like others to know about the needs of this population that they may not already? How does camp help fulfill that need?

Typically, our campers have little control in their lives. Here they get to choose their activities and have opportunities to voice their opinions and thoughts. Many of our campers coming from domestic violence shelters have difficulty expressing their emotions. At camp, we have a one to two staff–camper ratio where staff are trained to be present when talking with each child, to identify campers’ triggers, and to look beyond any “behaviors” to the root cause.

How does your program intentionally and unintentionally create community?

We intentionally build community starting with hiring staff who embrace diversity and can model compassion and inclusivity. Additionally, each bunk has their own family meeting each day to share thoughts and concerns of the day. We also have alumni come to camp to lead songs with the campers, which shows they are all part of our larger community.

Camp Good Grief

At Camp Good Grief, on the East End of Long Island, New York, the team from East End Hospice aims to bring grieving children and teens together in a caring and supportive environment. They say death causes confusion and can shatter a child’s belief in their world as a safe and orderly place. Through the support and activities at camp, they’re not only hoping to reinforce a child’s sense of security and safety, but help them see that they’re not alone.

We talked to Angela Byrns, social worker and director of Camp Good Grief at East End Hospice, about the unique needs of children suffering with grief and how creating a sense of belonging and community can make a big difference just when they need it most.

What is the purpose of your camp and what is the population you serve?

Camp Good Grief is a weeklong therapeutic day camp where children can safely share thoughts, feelings, and stories of loved ones who have died. Campers participate in group music, art, and pet therapy. Amongst the group, there is give and take, and relationships build quickly due to the sensitive nature of the conversations that happen. No one wants to have to come to camp because that means someone they were close to has died. But once campers are there, they are glad they came as they become part of the camp family and community where their voices are heard and understood.

What are the biggest challenges facing this population?

Grieving children and families often feel isolated and unheard. Children and teens don’t want to be seen as different, yet they know they are in some way. They have a hard time understanding why their friends aren’t supportive or helpful. Adults, facing their own grief, often have difficulty assisting children who are grieving. It is an isolating, confusing, and overwhelming time for families.

Why is building or finding a community important to this population?

Building a community for people who are grieving helps lessen feelings of isolation. It also validates and normalizes people’s experiences, gives them a chance to share their stories and learn from others going through similar situations, in a safe and therapeutic setting. Everyone there has experienced something similar, and it is a place where other kids, and adults, won’t shy away from conversations centered around death. Inviting adults on the last day of camp strengthens that sense of community, as they get to see 100 families that are like their own.

Camp Aranu’tiq

Building community among transgender and gender-variant youth and their families is the cornerstone of Camp Aranu’tiq in New Hampshire. The camp brings together youth from across the country who are navigating an often-difficult journey to experience the fun and friendships they sometimes miss out on. They share and create bonds, and they make friends they can lean on for life. We talked to Nick Teich, founder and camp director, to understand why community building is such a key element of their camp experience.

Why is it important to offer the camp experience to these campers?

At a time in our country when transgender youth appear to be losing rights, and sometimes losing hope, our camps are ever more important. We provide a haven for kids and families to be among friends who understand — entirely — what each other are going through. Our programs foster relationship-building, confidence, and strength in numbers.

What would you like others to know about the needs of this population that they may not already?

Discrimination and social exclusion are among the biggest challenges facing transgender youth; this can create anxiety and depression, which are extremely common in the trans population. Additionally, many people think that being transgender is a choice and that young kids cannot possibly know that they are trans. In creating a space where we normalize being transgender, campers can have fun, feel like any other kids, and know that they are respected and loved for who they are. They also create lifelong bonds with others who understand them.

Why is building or finding a community important to this population?

Most places are not ones where our campers can be their authentic selves, and that is, first and foremost, the space we create. We are purposefully not a therapeutic program, so we do not formally discuss gender, but instead we intentionally create group activities so that campers can get to know each other and share, in a casual way, what is important for them to share. Having others who understand what one is going through is a godsend in times of feeling “othered” and suffering due to the cruelty of people who don’t understand.

A Community of Support

There are certainly a great number and variety of positive outcomes of camp — mental, physical, and emotional — but helping a child, or an entire family, find a community of support is one that spans the continuum of benefits. Children and families living with challenges, especially those not common among peers, need to see they are not defined or limited by these trials. As camp leaders, building community within the populations we serve is no longer, and shouldn’t be, a happy byproduct of our efforts, but a critical outcome of the experiences we create for children and families who need them most.

Photo courtesy of SeriousFun Children’s Network

Samantha Clark has held many roles in the camping community since 2006. She currently works on the program team at SeriousFun Children’s Network, supporting the 30 camps and programs around the world in their pursuit to provide life-changing experiences for kids and families living with serious illnesses. Please reach her at samantha.clark@seriousfunnetwork.org.