By Tamara Juarez, September 2017 Issue.

When Kado Stewart set out to complete her senior project at Prescott College 10 years ago, she never imagined a single idea would evolve into the largest LGBTQ camp in the country.

At the time, her only goal had been to provide LGBTQ youth with the opportunity to make friends and learn leadership skills while enjoying mother nature.

“I wanted to bridge the gap between outdoor education and LGBTQ+ programming to create quality outdoor safe spaces,” said Stewart, one•n•ten’s program director and Camp OUTdoors! director. “When we first started, I did not expect the level of engagement and support we received from the community.”

As a social justice major, Stewart noticed a severe lack of recreational activities for LGBTQ+ youth and decided to focus her research project on identifying solutions that could better support minority groups.

“It was clear after the first year of camp that the magic all of the volunteers and campers created had really sparked something beautiful that would grow quickly,” she said.

This year, Camp OUTdoors! will be celebrating its 10th anniversary from Sept. 2 to 5 in Prescott as it continues its mission of helping youth develop a strong sense of self, learn about the LGBTQ community and connect with a diverse cast of their peers.

The first year, camp was called The 2008 LGBTQ outdoors youth leadership conference.

From Humble Beginnings

Being one of only a few camps created specifically for LGBTQ youth, Camp OUTdoors! has garnered attention all over the world, including coverage on the National Geographic documentary Gender Revolution: A Journey with Katie Couric, which aired earlier this year. However, the camp began as a much smaller adventure.

During the first year of camp in 2008, only 42 campers and approximately 20 volunteers attended camp, Stewart recalled, adding that this was a feat of its own.

“I drove my pickup truck around the state to meet interested groups of youth and families at coffee shops to tell them what the camp was going to be about,” she said. “I was 22 when the first camp took place. Some of the campers were actually older than me.”

With the help of several professors and students from Prescott College, as well as other community leaders and organizations, such as one•n•ten, Camp OUTdoors! turned out to be a huge success.

“It was clear after the first year of camp that the magic all of the volunteers and campers created had really sparked something beautiful that would grow quickly,” Stewart said.

Fast forward to this year, which marks the 10th anniversary of Camp OUTdoors!

“We are really excited to be celebrating 10 years of camp,” Steward said. “The 10-year milestone really showcases our community’s commitment to working alongside one another to create safe and celebratory spaces for LGBTQ youth.”

Since that inaugural summer, Camp OUTdoors! has become a popular retreat among LGBTQ youth, ages 11 to 24. Each year, more than 500 youth and from across the country apply for camp with the hope of being one of 150 to 175 lucky campers selected to attend.

Additionally, 150 to 200 volunteer applications have to be narrowed down to 50 to 60 volunteers who will join the one•n•ten staff at camp and up to 50 workshop leaders who attend for partial days.

In 2016, camp drew approximately 150-175 campers, 50-60 volunteers and 30-40 workshop leaders.

The Camp Community

“The Camp OUTdoors! community has helped create and empower hundreds of leaders, allies and community organizers in Arizona and beyond,” Stewart said. “Camp is one of the one•n•ten programs that our youth really look forward to every year, because the experience exemplifies our mission. In only four days, youth receive jam-packed empowering programing that promotes self-expression, develops leaders and encourages youth to make healthy life choices.”

Throughout the four-day experience, campers are encouraged to participate in a variety of activities and workshops that promote self-discovery and nurture a strong sense of community.

One of the camp’s main goals, Stewart explained, is to equip youth with effective communication skills necessary to face some of the challenges they may encounter.

“Many of our youth have barriers in everyday life, including lack of support from family, religious and spiritual institutions, being bullied, etc. And others have more supportive families and systems in their life,” she said. “The beautiful thing about camp is that everyone is there to support and help each other through their challenges and celebrate their successes.”

At camp, attendees are offered the opportunity to share their stories and build life-long friendships with other members of the LGBTQ community in a safe, inclusive environment that is free of any form of prejudice or judgement.

Unlike other summer programs, Camp OUTdoors! includes a wide range of workshops and activities especially designed for LGBTQ youth. Some of the workshops include LGBTQ history, politics and policies, advocacy, religion and representation in media.

The camp also provides job skill related workshops that teach campers how to create a resume and prepare for job interviews, and a workshop on sex and health education. This, of course, is all in addition to such traditional summer camp activities as storytelling, zip lining, journaling, navigating rope courses, question-and-answer panels and more.

Creating Leadership Opportunities

It takes 50 volunteers and 15 trained OUTscouts, who act as facilitators and role models while attending camp among the rest of the youth, to lead the workshops, team challenge courses and activities,

“The OUTscouts are an extremely important element to camp,” Stewart explained. “Having a dedicated youth leadership committee assist in choosing volunteers, workshops and help plan the theme is important because we always want camp to be a manifestation of many minds and reflect the current youth population.”

This year, the OUTscouts will lead an environmental ecology workshop, an outdoor skills workshop and an advanced outdoor survival workshop.

According to Tonantzi Ordonoez, who is one of 11 current OUTscouts, getting to learn so much about the LGBTQ community during the retreat has helped her become more outspoken about social issues and more eager to share her new-found knowledge and skills with younger members of the community.

“There are so many tools you learn as an OUTscout and camper,” she said. “Since I started camp, being a leader and teaching about wilderness helped me learn how to speak in a group or in front of a crowd. There are many skills I can pass on to other campers.”

“It’s just so nice to be acknowledged and feel important,” Ordonoez said. “It’s just such a huge community, and we have campers all over the country. It’s like we’re planting little seeds, and when we go home, we can grow into a tree. It’s so beautiful.”

Welcome Home

According to Dani Logan, assistant camp director, Camp OUTdoors! prides itself in being diverse and inclusive. In order to create a fun and safe space for all LGBTQ youth, camp staff emphasize respect, support and unity among its campers regardless of age, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity and race.

Logan, who served as a camp volunteer for three years, was recently hired as one•n•ten’s youth center program coordinator.

“As a one•n•ten volunteer, for more than just Camp OUTdoors!, I gave my time, resources and skills to the organization because I passionately believe in their mission and I see the work being done to fulfill that mission,” she said. “When I was given the opportunity, I jumped at the chance to officially become part of a team that already felt like home.”

So far, this has involved everything from overseeing the Camp OUTdoors! 10th anniversary logo design contest to reviewing applications for Logan.

“Camp OUTdoors! is magic. one•n•ten has done an incredible job with their volunteer training Modules and team building exercises,” she said. “Even as a volunteer, the amount of professional development and growth I experienced, was priceless. Aside from the training, the youth are incredible teachers. They are resilient, joyful, brilliant, and witty beyond belief. After being surround by amazing youth and volunteers, I’ve always taken away a feeling of lightness and confidence when leaving Camp OUTdoors.”

Important elements of creating the “magic” of camp each year are diversity and inclusion. And, when selecting youth and volunteers, Logan and Stewart aim to be as inclusive as possible by approving volunteers that represent the youth populations so that campers can relate to the people in charge of workshops and activities.

“It’s important for our youth to hear and see a variety of stories from both youth and volunteers,” Stewart said, “and to understand that our community is richly diverse, and that’s what makes us thrive.”

When LGBTQ youth find role models they can relate to at camp, she explained, they are often more inclined to open up and build the courage to explore who they are and help others who may be in need of support once they return to their own community.

The camp experience, Steward said, benefits the volunteers as well.

“Like many of our youth, our volunteers often say that camp gives them the spark to get more involved in the community, expand their networks and feel connected to the cause,” Stewart said. “We all create camp together, and the ability to do something so profound for four days really reminds people of what a committed group of folks can create if they work together … camp is truly a treasure of Arizona because of the hundreds of youth and adult hearts and minds that continue to shape and grow it.”

For more information on Camp OUTdoors!, visit outdoorsgaycamp.com.

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