Summer 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
How We Celebrate and Appreciate Identity at Camp Kupugani
At Camp Kupugani, our Midwest summer camp not far from Madison, Wisconsin (and also convenient to Chicago, Illinois), we strive to help campers celebrate and appreciate themselves and others in all aspects of identity. We intentionally move beyond “clumping” (hanging out only with those who we perceived to be exactly like us) to interact with a variety of people in our cabins, teams, tables, and camp activities.
Research shows that early exposure to people that are different than you helps you to become more understanding/welcoming as an adult. We pride ourselves in drawing a diverse range of campers, including but not limited to campers from almost a dozen different countries and almost a dozen American states.
We are not a camp affiliated with a particular religion or belief system. To support identity and empowerment, before each meal, we observe ten seconds of silence, so that folks who want to recognize the meal individually in any non-intrusive manner can do so.
Christians, Muslims, Non-religious, Hindus, Buddhists…All have felt welcomed and supported at Kupugani. Many camps restrict such conversation; at Kupugani, to create a greater level of understanding, people are empowered to speak openly and respectfully about their belief system and those of others.
Cisgender or gender non-conforming, we strive to maintain a community where children and adults should feel safe and free. Complected of various shades and hues, our campers and staff are given a safe space where they can share and celebrate their identity–one chosen by themselves and not necessarily thrust upon them by others. (For example, as a Canadian-born child of Jamaican immigrants, many classify me as “African-American” or “Black”–which are fine, but I can also choose to identify as “brown”, “Jamaican-Canadian”, “hockey player”, “Papa”, “husband”, “camp director”, or whatever…it’s not on others to label me…)
At Kupugani, we strive to make sure that everybody involved in camp is supported, uplifted, and feels at home.
Empowering Children to Minimize the Potential of Abuse
Unfortunately, child abuse occurs with unnecessary frequency in the U.S. A video recently aired reporting sexual abuse at American summer camps. We are concerned to hear of child abuse and appreciate courageous children who report abusive treatment. Indeed, as stated in the video, “parents need to do the work, have the conversation with your children, and be aware.” Our number one priority at camp is the safety of each child. Below are just a few ways we protect your children while at camp and some family resources to minimize the potential of abuse.
Minimizing the potential of child abuse is a responsibility shared among caregivers, children, and child-serving institutions.
For parents and caregivers, we recommend The Safe Child Book: A Commonsense Approach to Protecting Children and Teaching Children to Protect Themselves. This book offers positive, concrete guidance about personal safety tools families can use and teach to children; it also helps caregivers practice safety skills with their children by using a variety of “what if” questions. It has chapters on abuse, bullying, staying safe online, and choosing childcare providers.
In “The Summer Camp Handbook,” first published in 2000 and revised in 2015, Dr. Jon Malinowski and Dr. Chris Thurber included a section about how parents should talk with kids about safe and unsafe touch, how to thwart inappropriate advances, and how to seek the help of a trusted adult. See the link below and share it widely: https://drchristhurber.com/…/family-discussions-about-safe…/
Specifically for children, we recommend “Inoculating Your Children Against Sexual Abuse.” A free tip sheet based on this book can be viewed on the Stop It Now! website here: https://www.stopitnow.org/ohc-content/tip-sheet-8
Institutions that serve children (i.e. schools, religious organizations, camps, youth sports teams, etc.) have important obligations, including: (1) employing methods to minimize the potential of potential child abusers entering the organization, (2) having processes in place to minimize the potential access to abuse opportunities, and (3) empowering the children they serve via educational and other measures so the kiddos can avoid and/or report instances of abuse. Be sure to know the procedures in place where your child frequents.
Places that work with children hold a responsibility to ensure people that have intentions of harming children are not employed. These should include speaking with references pre-hire, and training employed staff on child abuse prevention techniques and the signs of an abuser. The institutional culture should be such that it is both against the rules and counter to the institutional culture for an adult to be alone with a child; thereby, people who might be past or future abusers do not gain individual access to a child. This ongoing abuse minimization fosters a culture where all employees are involved in the safety of others.
Institutions can also help to keep children safe by making sure they know what constitutes safe touch, how to report an incident, and reminding them they should not be alone with an adult who is not their parent/guardian. Each child should have someone they can speak to about any issue or feelings. Each person at a child-serving organization has a responsibility to ensure each child is safe and cared for.
Kupugani minimizes the potential of abuse via camp procedures before, during, and after camp. As an American Camp Association (ACA) accredited camp, we adhere to over 300 best practices standards, including how to hire/interview staff, and training on abuse recognition and prevention. (Some of those resources can be found at this link: https://www.acacamps.org/sites/default/files/resource_library/accreditation/ACA-Standards-staff-screening-supervision-training.pdf.)
Our hiring/vetting process at camp maximizes the potential of our staff providing a safe learning environment for our campers. Only after their applications are reviewed, the most qualified applicants undergo a video screening interview. The best of those screenings are interviewed in-person, followed by camp’s speaking with at least three professional and personal references. Staff also undergo criminal and sex offense background checks by a third party company. (International cultural exchange staff meet the same standards through each of the three longstanding placement agencies that we consider.)
Staff are trained on abuse prevention and recognition remotely before they arrive at camp, in-person during our two-week training time, and throughout the summer during daily staff meetings on abuse prevention and recognition (along with other child-centered topics). One of the required pre-arrival remote courses is entitled “Safe Touch & Safe Talk,” facilitated by renowned child psychologist and industry veteran Dr. Chris Thurber.
During camp, we focus on empowering our campers so that we have a culture where children can feel safe. From camp’s inception in 2006, we have had a strict “rule of 3” policy, of which we regularly remind our campers and staff. (The American Camp Association officially adopted this standard a few years ago). Via the “rule of three,” it is never okay for a child to be alone with an adult (who is not their parent/guardian).
We also emphasize our open-office communication policy, whereby everyone has the leeway to talk to anyone in the organizational structure. Because individuals connect differently with a range of others, each child has a variety of adults to whom they can speak, including camp owners and directors). Additionally, because even “open doors” sometime need a beneficial urging to come through, we daily emphasize our check-in policy. Furthermore, halfway through the session, we administer an anonymous camper survey, so that administration can get another look into camp life and address any problems that might have come up.
On the last day of the session, campers are given another anonymous survey that helps us to ensure that campers felt safe and supported while at camp. Additionally, we call each family after the summer sessions have wrapped up.
We will not allow fear to limit the growth and potential of our children; instead, education, transparency, and diligence help ensure that our rules and standards are followed by all staff and campers. Each camper is empowered to have a voice and use it.
20 Myths About Summer Camp
Myth #1: Camp isn’t for everyone.
Myth #2: Summer camp isn’t educational.
Myth #3 – You have to sleep in tents.
Myth #4 – You will not survive without electronics!
Myth #5 – Camp is just for kids.
Myth #6- You can catch poison ivy from someone who has it.
Myth #7- Camp food tastes bad.
Myth #8- You can’t make a campfire when it’s raining.
Myth #9- There’s no electricity or running water.
Myth #10- Crate stacking is easy.
Myth #11- Rainy days ruin outdoor camptivities.
Myth #12- 9 hours of sleep is enough.
Myth #13- Camp songs are boring.
Myth #14- A work day is 9-5.
Myth #15- Screaming at mice makes them run away.
Myth #16- You’ll never meet anyone new.
Myth #17- You’ll always smell like rainbows and flowers.
Myth #18- There will always be air conditioning.
Myth #19- The counselors will let you win gaga.
Myth #20- Arrows never get lost in archery.
Being thankful for the rain
The recent rains at camp have brought out some new creatures to explore. Campers have spotted catfish, dragonflies, and turtles, but the favorite by far the tiny frogs found abundantly by the water. These tiny creatures are no bigger than the size of a camper’s thumb. Campers have been practicing zoological skills: catching, observing, and learning about these little animals!
Impact of Camp Experiences on Social Skills & Happiness
With depression, anxiety, and addiction rates high among adolescents, and many youth engaged in relational aggression and other damaging social practices like bullying, there is clearly a need to find effective interventions to improve social skills, relationships, and overall well-being in our young people. Camp professionals know from experience that camp can serve as a positive, often life-changing, psychological intervention for youth, but for the “noncamp” world to understand the potential benefits of summer camp, rigorous research needs to be conducted and disseminated. Many in the fields of psychology and youth development have not considered summer camp as an intervention or preventative alternative to more traditional approaches such as individual or group therapy. Therefore, many parents do not understand the potential benefits a camp experience may have for their child.
Impact of Camp Experiences on Social Skills and Well-being
To become happy, successful adults, children need certain social skills to develop positive relationships with others. Over the past 15 years, the field of positive psychology has looked into what makes people thrive rather than what causes psychological distress (e.g., depression, anxiety). Several studies have concluded that positive relationships are a key predictor of overall well-being. Good social skills, in turn, predict positive relationships. Youth who lack social competencies, just as much as youth who lack academic competencies, require coaching from adult teachers and mentors. In addition, all youth — even those with good social skills — benefit from practicing and honing those skills. Many summer camp programs specifically focus on teaching, modeling, and practicing the social skills that most schools — because of lack of time and resources — cannot teach.
Camp Mentors Set Children Up for Success
At our Midwest summer camp outside of Chicago, we recognize that camp counselors’ impact on campers is a strong example of positive mentoring. Recent research shows that middle and high school students reporting a high level of mentoring are significantly more likely to avoid risky behaviors. And, for folks considering sending children to camp, youth who have attended summer camp are 28% less likely to drink, 56% less likely to use illicit drugs, and 28% less likely to engage in sexual behavior than are their non-camper peers.
Of course, this may be due to good parenting overall. After all, folks who send their kids to camp are already likely engaged and thoughtful parents, but the benefits of the positive camp mentoring relationship shouldn’t be overlooked.
There’s other good stuff too. Young folks with mentors are 84% more likely to have a high sense of self, and 36% more likely to say they take positive risks, such as starting a business, taking advanced placement courses, trying out for a sports team, or performing charitable work. This is especially important, because sense of self and positive risk-taking are in turn linked to lower incidences of potentially destructive behaviors and to overall positive mental health. It’s good to know that, in considering sending your child to camp, you’re putting them on a constructive path to success!
8 Reasons Your Kid is Ready for Camp, Even If You Aren’t
As a camp director, I sometimes encounter parents of younger children who insist their child is “not ready” for sleepaway camp. But after discussing a bit more, it becomes apparent that the child is actually good to go and that it’s really just the parent(s) who is not ready to have their baby leave the nest.
Now, it’s definitely our job as parents to seek the best for our children. But, it doesn’t mean that a parent needs to be the sole, direct controller of that growth. Think back to their first day of school. For some of us as parents, it was challenging to drop them off at the schoolhouse door or put them on the bus that first time, but we knew that we had to, because it was critical for their academic development.
Regarding their further character and personal growth, letting them have that first-time camp experience is arguably even more important. We don’t want to rob them of valuable developmental opportunities just because they’re little.
Biologically and emotionally, it’s generally easier for a 7-10 year-old to have a first-time camp experience than it is for a 10-13 year-old. But often parents wait until their child is 10-13 because the parents feel more comfortable then; however, they’re actually confusing their own (lack of) readiness with that of their child. Sometimes it’s because the parent worries that their child might miss them or miss home. Sometimes it’s because the parent worries that their child won’t take care of themselves properly– that they’re somehow incapable or can’t do things on their own. Sometimes it’s because the parent worries that the parent will be worried!
Yes, missing home happens…but it’s not only normal, it’s part of the positive character development engendered by a camp experience; the child learns that s/he can work through a challenge and emerge stronger for it. Yes, when we’re not around, our children may do things differently–like maybe not brush their teeth specifically how we like it, or make their beds with military precision; however, having parental eyes on a child at all times isn’t necessarily good for them. Yes, we might worry when they’re not at home, but the job of a good camp with good counselors is to care for kids when parents aren’t there; counselors are trained to foster independence and growth; 24-7, the staff live and play and work with kids; they get to know the fantastic little human beings entrusted to them.
We have to avoid projecting our own fears onto our children, and get out of their way so as not to limit their potential. If a child is ready for camp but we’re not (yet), we might have to get over ourselves (with support) and do what’s best for them. Most will agree that the first time for a significant away-from-home experience shouldn’t be at age 18 or older; but why pick 10-13 or 14-15, when we can make it easier for them at 7-10?
Below are eight important reasons why it’s ideal to allow your 7-10 year-old to go off to camp “on their own.”
- The middle childhood years are an ideal learning window to internalize strong positive character traits.
- Independence: Without parents in a direct, managerial role, kids are able to build confidence in their capabilities through daily opportunities to be self-sufficient, i.e. choosing clothes, self-care, showering, etc.
- Responsibility: They foster their sense of responsibility along with their growing independence.
- Autonomy: They achieve perceived freedom from control (yet are guided in physically and emotionally safe ways).
- The empowerment gained by attending Kupugani early on strengthens them against harmful societal pressures during preteen years.
- They can explore and develop their identity before societal pressures are able to negatively impact them. Children who feel good about themselves are more able to resist negative pressure and make better choices.
- Earlier experiences with guided activities and conversations helps combat negative gender (and other) stereotypes.
- Controlled opportunities for safe, managed risk leads kids to be more confident when future challenges arise.
- Missing home (aka “homesickness”) is easier to redirect with younger children.
- Young children are more easily distracted so as not to focus on missing home for an extended amount of time; staff are skilled at redirecting homesick children to interesting activities.
- Young campers can be easily kept engaged in the busy schedule of camp.
- How can you miss home when you’re climbing a limestone rock wall, enjoying a lively game of gaga, or singing fun songs with your friends?
- There is greater opportunity for them to form friendships with children of varied backgrounds, because their social attachments are largely based on proximity, not identity.
- When identity is more fluid, kids can make friends with nearly anyone.
- Camp kids are not limited by home community or geography in their friendships.
- They can renew and deepen friendships over years with camp friends.
- Transitioning from electronic media is easier for younger children.
- Giving up phones can be initially stressful for many preteens and teens.
- Younger children do not have the same attachment to social media.
- Children in this age group tend to prefer face-to-face interaction, so camp is perfect for them.
- Younger campers can embrace new older role models more easily.
- Kids in the middle childhood stage are more likely to look to perceived authority figures for help and guidance than are pre-teens.
- They spend each day interacting with staff of various backgrounds, serving as positive role models for strong, confident adults.
- This age group can be led to gain independence without rejecting older leadership.
- Younger campers are biologically more adaptable to to camp life.
- Young children generally adjust more easily to new surroundings.
- They usually have more energy and enthusiasm for the active camp lifestyle.
- Youthful curiosity gives them an enhanced appreciation for nature.
- Children have only one chance to be 7 (or 8 or 9); let’s make it the best for them!
- The ability to return for many years provides the opportunity for creating a second home at Kupugani, becoming family and carrying on camp traditions and culture.
- They can emulate multiple-year returners–some were young campers returning each camper summer, and eventually becoming staff members.
- Multiple-year returners enjoy perks like trips and free camp swag!
Especially in Challenging Times, Camp Does a World of Good
Smart parents know that summer camp can be a vital part of a child’s growth and development, giving healthy opportunities to discover, explore, grow and have fun; the camp experience helps build character and enhance life-development skills, allowing children to connect with nature, themselves and others.
In these difficult times, camp also provides your child with a delightful respite from the inevitable pressures that surround our homes and communities. Especially since children have a limited window of opportunity in their lives to benefit from camp, the decision to begin a new camp experience should not be put off.
But we don’t need to tell you how good camp is for kids, or how camp attendance helps campers with a whole range of personal characteristics. Our camper parents have been telling us how their girls are staying in touch with their camp friends, using the communication skills learned at camp, and still talking daily about their fun camp experience months after their time at Camp Kupugani. Especially since so few programs have campers and staff from such a nice range of ethnic and cultural backgrounds,
we’re excited that we could play a part in such exciting developments! For next summer, Camp Kupugani will continue to exemplify mixing it up so that ALL children can see different models in fellow campers, staff, and ownership. All of our campers will have fun changing their world!
5 Reasons to Avoid Sending Your Child to Camp Kupugani
(1) Your child will probably engage in gleeful repetitive renditions of camp songs for up to 4-6 weeks after camp. You may be tempted to sing along, stomping hands and feet, and potentially violate social norms of your work, home, or other community.
(2) Your child might repeatedly admonish you on how and why to use “I statements” to resolve conflicts.
(3) Your child might publicly admonish you for leaving food waste on your plate or littering.
(4) Your child might be overzealous about their newfound independence after camp.
(5) While celebrating birthdays in your household, candles may melt before your child finishes singing all the camp birthday songs.