Camp Shines as a Beacon of Social Progress
LEAF RIVER, IL – Acts of hate and racism, whether online or in person, are painfully visible these days,” said Phillip Martin, a senior investigative reporter at WGBH, a contributing reporter to PRI’s “The World.” The US Department of Justice has noted a sharp increase in hate crimes. One summer camp has a proactive approach to celebrating and appreciating diversity. This summer, Camp Kupugani, a multicultural camp for children ages 7 to 15, celebrates its thirteenth summer of creating positive change by empowering campers in an intentionally diverse environment to value and appreciate the difference.
Directed by Kevin Gordon and his wife Natasha Jackson, Kupugani is the only private, residential summer camp facility in the United States with black owners. Their multicultural program allows children of different cultures and backgrounds to come together for fun and to learn empowerment and social intelligence skills. Youth who have essential, interactive experiences with a diverse population can foster an understanding of the perspectives of children from different backgrounds and learn to function in a multicultural, multi-ethnic environment. This is especially critical when the adult experience sometimes reflects a polarization. Says Gordon, “If we want to change, it’s essential to keep bringing kids together to really learn from each other. This past summer we added a specific social justice program that helps our campers better understand how they can take what is learned at camp and apply it beyond”.
Kupugani fulfills a need for an interactive, multicultural program fostering diversity. A scarcity of overnight camps does that. An American Camp Association survey shows that, at independent, for-profit residential camps, 89% of the campers are white, less than 4% black or African-American, less than 4% Hispanic/Latino(a), just over 2% Asian, and just over 1% biracial. Contrast that with Kupugani’s campers, who are roughly 40% White/Caucasian, 35% Black/African-American, 10% biracial, 10% Hispanic, and 5% Asian. Its staff is also diverse. Staff member Chloe Besser has spent eleven years at Kupugani; according to her, “It is one of the only places that truly and effectively teach compassion–and strong enough to transcend barriers that can be divisive in other environments.”
During Kupugani’s first twelve summers, children of varied backgrounds have lived, played, and worked together, instilling bonds of friendship and trust. “It’s great to see campers coming together from a variety of backgrounds, different states, and different countries. Bringing kids together at camp helps further understanding in circumstances that they may face outside of camp,” says Jackson, a school teacher, and kitchen manager at Camp Kupugani. The camp’s parents speak to the program’s effectiveness; in camp surveys, overwhelming majorities noted their child’s improvement in acknowledgment and appreciating diversity, conflict resolution skills, and personal growth/self-confidence.
Dwight White, the father of two campers, expresses the importance of early exposure to people of differing cultures: “We come from a fairly small town, and our children don’t have much opportunity to meet a diverse group of people. To be able to spend time with people from different backgrounds and other countries is exactly what we want for our children. Typically, this wouldn’t be until they start college, but we are blessed enough to incorporate this at an earlier age. It truly does take a village.” Multi-year parent Kim McLean emphasizes: “[Camp Kupugani] combines summer camp fun with an intentional focus to help kids grow themselves as human beings. I view Camp K as having a vital purpose for this world, helping kids’ development in meaningful ways. Especially at this particular time when there’s so much hate in the world, I love that there’s a place that teaches kids about themselves and what the world can be, and does it through fun, challenge, laughter, and self-discovery.”
Camp Kupugani is accredited by the American Camp Association (ACA), which verifies that the camp has complied with about 300 standards for health, safety, and program quality. The camp offers a two-week session for boys from June 16 – 29, 2019, a blended (intentionally co-ed) session from June 30 – 13, two- and four-week sessions for girls, from July 14 to August 10, a Mother-Daughter Weekend from August 16 – 18, and a Parent-Child Weekend from August 23 – 25.
 Extensive research of the major camp associations-American Camp Association, Association of Independent Camps, Midwest Association of Independent Camps, and Western Association of Independent Camps-has revealed no private residential camp majority-owned and directed by persons of color. For a person of color to even direct-much less own-a residential camp is rare: a 2007 ACA nationwide study reveals that, of over 500 respondent accredited camps, less than 1% of directors are black, and 95% are Caucasian.
 Statistic provided by the US Department of Justice 2017 Hate Crime Statistic Report. https://www.justice.gov/hatecrimes/hate-crime-statistics