A Match Made At Camp

By Laura Latzko, September 2015 Issue.

Although Camp OUTdoors! has a strict no-dating policy, some sparks transcend the campfire and turn into real-life flames that burn well beyond that weekend in the woods.

It’s been a year since Stella Kowalczyk, a first-year camp counselor and Kellie Cohen, a second-year camp counselor, met at Camp OUTdoors. (Read more about this year's Camp OUTdoors here).

After sharing personal stories during counselor training, which takes place prior to the start of camp, the women discovered that they had a lot in common.

“[During counselor training] you are emotionally stripped naked and built up so you know how the campers feel,” Kowalczyk said. “The youth need us, and we need to support and hold each other up.”

According to Kowalcyzk, hearing Cohen speak at camp last year really moved her.

“When I listened to her tell her story, I thought, ‘I need to get to know this person,’” Kowalczyk said. “I am painfully shy and watched from afar. The last day of camp, I came up and talked with her for a few minutes. I watched her, and she has a smile that is infectious …”

It didn’t take long for the two to connect after camp. Kowalczyk and Cohen explained that, because many of the counselors stay in contact and meet up regularly, the women found themselves in the same social circle.

After a night out with a close group of friends, the pair felt a deeper mutual connection, and by December they were officially dating.

Stella Kowalczyk (left) and Kellie Cohen. Photo by Randy’s Vision Photography.

“The more I got to know her, the more I saw that she is the most dynamic and interesting person I know,” Kowalczyk said. “I fall more in love with her every day.”

Cohen describes Kowalcyzk as one of the most generous people she knows.

“Stella is gorgeous. She is amazing, inside and out, so caring and giving, intelligent, honest,” Cohen said. “When people ask me about Stella, I say she is a good person. No matter what her needs are, she puts everyone else before herself.”

Camp not only introduced the couple to one another, but it also fueled their interest in working with one n ten.

In February, Kowalczyk became the program coordinator for the Youth Education and Success (Y.E.S.) Program. She scaled back her career in real estate to part time in order to devote more of her time to working with one n ten.

“The youth changed my life and made me change my priorities,” Kowalczyk said.

Kowalczyk has also volunteered as a deaf interpreter and accessibility co-manager for Phoenix Pride and in several capacities for the Special Olympics.

Cohen serves as a mentor in the Y.E.S. Program and volunteers for other one n ten events, such as the annual Fall Feast. She also volunteered for Phoenix Pride for the first time this year.

Despite their busy schedules, the two make time for each other and for giving back and, in many cases, both at the same time. In fact, they spent their first Christmas day together at one n ten’s Queermas celebration, and one of their most memorable dates was attending one n ten’s Fresh Brunch.

The couple sees volunteering, especially with camp, as opportunity to be a part of something they didn’t have growing up.

As a teen, Cohen said she didn’t know what “gay” was and lacked mentors or resources.

“For me, to help [the youth] at this age is a blessing, even if I am just an ear to talk to,” Cohen said. “I think being in [the cabin counselor] role, you spend four days with them and have the greatest ability to be available to them and help them.”

As Cohen and Kowalcyzk prepare to return to camp, this year as a couple, the women said they plan to lead by example.

“Camp is for the youth,” Cohen said. “We are not putting it out there that we are a couple. We wouldn’t keep it a secret or hide it, but it’s a safe place, not a hookup place. We need to emulate that.”

Making camp a special experience for the youth is what brought them together, and it continues to be their top priority.

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