Summer camps take time for the community, teaching their charges about the new spirit of service.

Summer camps offer a world of experiences for their campers: the opportunity to try new things, meet new people, and improve existing skills.  Lately, though, summer camps are also serving their greater community.  Better yet, kids are often given the chance to help.

One of the largest community service efforts based at an ACA Accredited summer camp in New England is the Harvest Community Farm Project at Camp Metacomet, a YMCA summer camp in Dartmouth, MA.  In 2008, twenty thousand pounds of produce was harvested from the on-site garden and donated to local food banks across the Southcoast of Massachusetts.  The food – organically grown by campers, staff, and volunteers – is distributed through the Hunger Coalition of Southeastern Massachusetts, a project of the United Way of Greater New Bedford.  It is the only YMCA in the country with a program like it.

A farm is a great project for campers to undertake. 

  • There’s a need: according to a Project Bread study, the prevalence of hunger in low-income communities in the state increased by more than 50% in 2007 alone, and New Bedford and Fall River were among the cities with the biggest problem.
  • Teachable moments abound: kids learn about agriculture, nutrition, where food comes from, and how prevalent hunger is. 
  • Kids become invested in and connected to healthy choices.

The Project, started in 2005, has proved wildly popular at Metacomet.  In 2009, they introduced a Young Farmers specialty summer camp.  According to Dartmouth YMCA Executive Director Derek Heim, it was “a direct result of our prior summer and the excitement and development of campers who participated in daily farm programming throughout their summercamp day.”  Over the course of the summer, these campers prepare a bed for planting, sow seeds, tend crops, and help with the harvest.  

Metacomet also hired a dedicated Garden Counselor last summer; she relayed the following powerful story from her experience:

“There was a group of Coyote Boys (ages nine through twelve) and we were harvesting strawberries.  When asked where all the food that we grow goes, most of the campers did not know, or they said we got to eat it.  They were astounded when I told them it went to the needy.  We proceeded to pick buckets of strawberries, and as an incentive, I told them whoever picked the biggest one got to keep it to eat himself.  At the end of the period, the boys all showed me their biggest strawberry.  Chris, who had the biggest, was a quiet boy who had not been having fun at camp so far in the summer.  I told him that he could keep the strawberry, but he refused.  He told me that if he kept it then the hungry would not be able to eat it.  All the other boys ate a smaller strawberry as a reward, but Chris had been so unselfish and was only concerned with helping other people in need.  I gave him a ribbon for his nobility.  His counselors told me after the farm that day that Chris totally changed his attitude about summer camp and had a great summer knowing that he got to help someone else in need.”

Instead of merely reaching out to the community, Camp O-AT-KA in Sebago, ME, simply expands its summer camp community to give alumni and underserved children the chance to experience summer camp again and for the first time, respectively.  Their executive director, Ron Hall, wrote, “We started Dennen Week about eleven years ago, originally to honor the summer camp’s founder by providing a summer camp experience for boys in Maine who could not afford to attend summer camp.  Reverend Dennen founded O-AT-KA in 1906 as a summer camp for boys from his parish whose parents worked in the mills of Lawrence.  [Dennen Week was also] in response to many of our former staff who now have full-time jobs after college and no longer could spend their summers as counselors.  Way too often, I heard, ‘I wish I could still be a counselor,’ so by creating Dennen Week, it was possible for these folks to donate a week to summer camp and still have the opportunity to have a positive impact on the lives of kids.”

The program has grown from thirty boys to 110 this summer – with a waiting list – and 35 volunteer staff, who flew from as far away as Missouri and California for the week.  The same chef has volunteered every year.  Campers are all nominated by their teachers and guidance counselors, and there is no charge for them to attend Dennen Week. 

One consequence of this service is that it increases the alumni connection with summer camp, and the spirit of giving that comes with doing good works.  Hall wrote, “Recently, we have had a couple of regular summer camp families set up scholarships for a few of the Dennen Week campers to attend regular summer camp for three or four weeks.  And last month, a family came forward to pay full tuition for one of the Dennen Week campers to be a CIT next summer.”

Camp Pemigewassett, in Wentworth, NH, allows its campers to man one of eight rest stops on the 100-mile route of the Prouty, an annual bike ride that raises money for cancer research and care.  Staff helps by gathering supplies, waking campers early, and coordinating the van transportation up the road to where the bikers would pass by.  The kids quickly become invested in their work, especially when the ride participants show up requesting all manner of things: water, Gatorade, snacks, a word of encouragement (as in, ‘it’s downhill from here – and they just paved the road last month!’).  Nearly five thousand people participated in the event in 2009, and over two million dollars was raised.  From the summer camp perspective, campers got to feel involved in a huge charity event by taking responsibility for the well-being of thousands of bicyclists, while also learning about the dedication of these riders towards a goal or cause. 

Summer camps can reach out to communities as a consequence of reaching out to other nearby summer camps, too. Since the early 1950s, the six Farm & Wilderness camps have come together to put on an annual Fair at the end of the summer. Executive Director Pieter Bohen explained, "It began as a means for campers to experience a 'small country Fair,' and was meant primarily to be 'by campers, for campers.' It has since evolved to become more of an alumni event, and one for parents to experience Farm & Wilderness before they pick up their campers the next day." Counting campers and staff, about 1500 people attend the Fair; nearby half are friends, family, or other visitors. "A handful are local residents, though probably not more than fifty," said Bohen. The Fair gives all the camps a chance to present programming: skits, activities, songs, dancing, hand-powered rides, and waterfront activities. It's a way for summer camps to share the identities they've adopted over the summer, and for the few locals who attend to find out more about the value of summer camp for those who spend their summer in the neighborhood.

Summer camps are fascinating communities in and of themselves – dozens (or hundreds) of children and counselors come together for a few weeks during the summer and establish relationships, structure, and camaraderie.  It’s not difficult to imagine why summer camps are so willing to share those kinds of bonds with their neighbors.  Building bridges, especially with those less fortunate, can give campers the opportunity to lead, learn, and take pride in something larger than themselves. 

Lots of summer camps offer service and community experiences and teachable moments. Request a free summer camp guide to learn more about them.