There are summer camps—and then there are summer experiences. Is your kid ready for a skill-expanding adventure?
By Erika Rasmusson Janes
Mention the word “camp” and most parents have images of canoe rides and singing “Kumbaya” around the campfire. Those traditional and much loved forays are certainly easy to find: There are more than 12,000 overnight and day-camp programs in the United States, according to the American Camp Association (ACA).
But when it comes to summer adventure, kids looking to do more than play capture the flag and roast marshmallows have got some intriguing options. “Specialty summer programs and camps are a growing part of the camping industry,” says Jill Tipograph, director of Everything Summer, a New Jersey and New York based private summer program and camp consultancy. They offer teens and tweens many of the benefits of a traditional camp—like increasing confidence and making new friends—while also cultivating specialized skills in a stimulating, developmental environment.
Such programs are geared for kids who are already camp savvy and who have enough emotional maturity to handle a little challenge. “Specialty summer experiences and camps tend to focus more on personal skills growth,” says Tipograph.
Choosing the right camp experience for your child can be daunting, so we’ve researched a few that offer life-expanding experiences in three areas that many kids would find both enticing and educational: outdoor adventure, health and fitness, and community service.
COMMUNITY SERVICE: VISIONS Service Adventures
If your teen is volunteer-oriented, he or she can partake in a mini-Peace-Corps-type experience with VISIONS Service Adventures. The program blends social awareness, cross-cultural learning and outdoor exploration for teens ages 14 to 18 through construction-based community service in villages and towns in the United States, South America, the Caribbean, the West Indies and Australia. Its mission is to create dynamic learning opportunities for teens while working for, with and in communities that lack financial and development resources.
What sets VISIONS apart from other community-service-oriented programs is its ongoing commitment to the people it assists, says VISIONS director Teena Beutel. “We return to the same communities year after year,” she explains. “As a result, we forge deep ties to the host community. And the cultural component is deeper because we’re in one place all summer—we feel like locals, not tourists.”
Within VISIONS Service programs, teens have a choice of working on several different service projects on a particular day—from constructing a clinic or a playground to running a day camp for local kids or doing trail work. They also participate in formal cross-cultural activities, like listening to local story-telling and history sessions and participating in traditional Native American sweat-lodge ceremonies. Leisure activities vary by the location: In Peru, for example, a favorite activity is hiking to the top of Machu Picchu. In Alaska, teens go ice climbing and backpacking, while in the Caribbean they choose from whale-watching and snorkeling excursions.
Sarah Wolfson, a 16-year-old New Yorker, spent July 2004 in Montana on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation. “I wanted to experience a new landscape and new culture, and travel to a place I’d never been before,” she says. “It was one of the best experiences of my life. It taught me to appreciate who I was and where I came from, and I’ve gained a newfound respect for Native American culture. I got to see it, experience it and hear about it from native people, directly. We were staying on tribal property and living with this community every day.”
A TYPICAL DAY:
After a 7:30 a.m. breakfast, teens choose a service project or work site for the day. After the evening meal, teens and staff gather for a Circle meeting in a field overlooking the scenery and discuss their day’s activities, what they learned and what their experience has been like so far. At day’s end, everyone moves on to leisure activity or outing.
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