Out of the Closet, Into the Woods
By Laura Latzko, September 2015 Issue.
No summer is complete without a camping experience. Better yet, a life-changing camping experience. For eight consecutive years, that’s what Camp OUTdoors! has offered to youth and volunteers alike.
Whether it’s sharing your coming out story, feeling the adrenaline pump through your veins while navigating a ropes course or a zip line, digging deeper during discussions about your sources of strength, expressing your true colors while decorating your cabin or any of the countless other activities that occur at camp each year, some aspect of camp will ensure you do not come home the same.
This year, 175 LGBT youth and allies, ages 11 to 24, and 60 volunteers, who will serve as cabin counselors, rangers, entertainment troupe members, and workshop leaders, will converge in Prescott from Sept. 4 to 7 for a life-changing experience fondly referred to as “Gay Camp.”
Leading By Example
According to Kado Stewart, one n ten programs manager and Camp OUTdoors! founder and director, camp facilitates the development of a stronger sense of self and important leadership and teamwork skills youth can take home with them and use in their everyday lives.
The purpose of camp, Stewart added, is to empower youth to make a difference in their home communities, while providing an inclusive environment for connecting and learning.
“As a community, we’ve been excluded in a lot of ways. That’s one thing we don’t want to do to each other. It’s very important to teach that to our youth,” Stewart said. “It’s something that we find important and that goes with the sense of family and the sense of community we try to instill as our main core value.”
As a result, Stewart said she’s heard many testimonials of camp attendees heading back home and back to school to take on roles in their student governments, 4-H clubs, church groups, gay-straight alliances and communities at large after going to camp.
The youth aren’t the only ones transformed by camp, Stewart added.
Each year, volunteers and staff, who come from a wide variety of backgrounds, also get to know one another on a deeper level. For example, volunteers and staff arrive at camp a day and a half ahead of the campers for training, which includes a story-sharing portion.
“We all cram, all 60 of us, into one little cabin, and talk about our coming out stories,” Stewart said. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be coming out as LGBT, it could be coming out as undocumented. It’s really profound because it’s a level of sharing that I don’t think the adults in our community are used to.”
A Home Away From Home
Because so much of the bonding at Camp OUTdoors! takes place inside cabins, youth are grouped in cabins based on age. Each cabin comprises campers of different gender identities/expression and sexualities, as well as two counselors and a counselor-in-training. A CIT is usually someone between 20 and 24 years old who is committed to taking on such leadership roles as assisting counselors and planning activities.
When making the cabin arrangements, Stewart said it is important to combine youth and volunteers with different backgrounds – from cisgender to transgender youth and from GSA leaders to campers with little or no access to LGBT agencies – so each cabin has the opportunity to experience full representation of the diversity that makes up the LGBT community.
This year, one n ten received applications from more than 300 youth and 100 volunteers – a far cry from the 42 youth that attended the first Camp OUTdoors! in 2008.
“When I started Camp OUTdoors!, I could never have predicted the level of community and youth engagement that would help camp grow so rapidly,” Stewart said, adding that the youth have played a major role in shaping what camp has become over the years.
According to Stewart, sponsoring organizations, such as third-year sponsor PetSmart, have also played an important role in the camp’s growth.
It Takes A Community
While life-changing moments at camp aren’t guaranteed and can’t be predicted, the chances are good that they’ll take place during a workshop.
This year, campers can choose from a wide variety of workshops, including LGBT in comics and anime, Phoenix Pride history, advocacy 101, LGBT in politics, LGBT history and various religion-themed workshops.
Many of the workshops feature interactive activities such as journaling, question-and-answer panels and storytelling. And, in response to youth feedback, camp will offer more sexual health education and job skill related workshops this year.
Wilderness and survival skills workshops will again be led by OUTscouts, an adventure-based group of 15 dedicated youth from Phoenix, Tucson, Flagstaff and Yuma. In addition to having their own wilderness adventures throughout the year, the OUTscouts help plan camp each year and get involved in leadership roles. (For more information, see “QU Scholar,” page 35.)
For the first year, CJ Minott, director of events at Aunt Rita’s Foundation, and will serve as a workshop coordinator. In the past, Minott served as a cabin counselor, ranger and workshop leader.
Minott said camp workshops help to facilitate growth and leadership development in youth.
“Here we have the current generation of our LGBT community. It’s a chance to pass down that knowledge and help them to be the best generation they can be,” Minott said. “Workshops are a way to learn about and have shared experiences, and that helps to strengthen our community as a whole.”
Beyond the cabin atmosphere and workshops, youth and volunteers also have the opportunity to participate in a variety of activities that facilitate skill-building, personal growth and getting to get to know each other on a more personal level during activities.
Unplug and Tune In
Like many other summer camps, Camp OUTdoors! offers high and low ropes courses, zip lines, horseback riding, teambuilding exercises and music- and arts-related activities, including drag shows and a 250-person drum circle.
This year, youth will be encouraged to bring their musical instruments and creative sides for special camp activities.
According to the Camp OUTdoors! website, good old-fashion face-to-face communication replaces smartphones and tablets at camp.
The lack of technology helps to facilitate a more genuine and deeper bonding during activities, according to Caryn Bird, a Phoenix-area educator who has volunteered as a camp counselor and also led workshops on queer literature and storytelling.
“It’s so nice to see what they are like when they are not on their screens,” Bird said. “The first day, they go through withdrawals. By the last day, they are glad they didn’t have it because they are so focused on their experience.”
Year after year, the word of Camp OUTdoors! continues to spread. While the majority of the youth will travel to camp from within Arizona, some campers will travel from North Carolina, Alaska, Georgia, Texas and Wisconsin for this year’s experience.
No matter where you’re from or what capacity you attend Camp OUTdoors! in, it’s highly likely you’ll have an experience that’s worth writing (not texting or tweeting) home about.
For more information on Camp OUTdoors!, visit outdoorsgaycamp.com.