Many kids come home from summer camp toting a glazed pot or watercolor painting, but increasingly, children and teens are getting something different out of the camp experience: a greater sense of empathy.
Service-oriented summer camps, where kids participate in activities like rebuilding homes or working at community gardens over their summer break, are thriving.
The American Camp Association says that in 2017, 41 percent of their accredited camps offered community service as an activity – a 5 percent increase from three years earlier. Half of all ACA-accredited camps said civic engagement and service learning was “an intentional focus at their camps.”
The service activities are so popular, ACA even has a handy tool on its website that allows parents to search specifically for community and service learning experiences at camps. According to the tool, there are 17 ACA-accredited camps across Michigan that offer service-oriented programs.
Why are these experiences so popular?
Three summer camp and summer experience organizations that offer community-oriented programming say it’s a natural fit for their shared missions: to encourage youth to grow into empathetic, social-minded people, while benefiting those around them.
“We offer it because we want to empower young people so that they can create change no matter how small – and to develop into full human beings who understand the value of giving back,” says Jim Stein, who co-owns The Road Less Traveled with his Detroit-native wife, Donna; the couple has three grown kids.
The Chicago-based nonprofit sends tweens and teens ages 11-17 on summer trips from Tunisia to Colorado, often with a service component.
Of course, Stein adds, for-profit camps are businesses, and if parents want more community service programs – whether to bolster a future college application or fulfill a high school graduation requirement – camps will add them to keep customers.
While that may be true, Ben Falik, the co-founder of Summer in the City, a volunteer-driven summer program for metro Detroit kids and teens, says he thinks the popularity is “largely organic.”
“There’s a lot of need, and along with that, there’s a lot of energy and compassion and motivation to serve,” Falik says.
How does it work?
The Road Less Traveled offers dozens of different service experiences. Some, like training their youth participants to dive in order to plant baby coral on dying reefs or working with wolf conservationists in Colorado, are environmental.
Others – like rebuilding homes for families still affected by the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, building schools in Ecuador or volunteering at a home for survivors of Agent Orange in Vietnam – focus more on social issues.
At Summer in the City, those older than 14 can volunteer to paint murals to beautify neighborhoods or work in urban gardens.
Junior volunteers, who are typically middle school-aged, lead standard summer camps for young kids and do “age-appropriate” service work, like neighborhood cleanups or packing boxes at a food pantry.
“It’s important to make sure the work you’re doing is aligned with the community need,” Falik says. “Volunteers are getting context – it’s not just working at a food pantry and saying, ‘Food for hungry people!’ It’s got to be multidimensional, impactful and sustainable.”
At the Matrix Theatre Company, based in Detroit, participants have created plays about the community around them and performed them directly in the neighborhoods since 1991, and, in 2016, they added direct community service to their programs.
The project for this summer hasn’t yet been decided, but Amy Thomas, the director of education, says youth participants will definitely be putting on plays related to local issues.
“Our programming is connected to our philosophy – social justice, community improvement and growth,” Thomas says. “Last summer’s theme was ‘building bridges,’ and many of the plays had to do with the border wall.”
At Matrix, participants are between 5 and 18 years old. Kids write performances that “speak to the environment we’re in,” Thomas says, “then we bring the pieces they write directly into the community of the issue they’re talking about.”
How to sign up
Signing up for programs like these typically happens online or over the phone. The Road Less Traveled, however, requires two teacher references, followed by a brief phone interview. Those interested in The Road Less Traveled don’t need to be located in Chicago – youth from around the country are encouraged to apply.
Stein emphasizes that it’s important to find a service experience that puts the needs of the community before the wants of the campers.
“We partner with communities; we don’t do things for communities,” Stein says. “A lot of companies out there say you can create your own service program, or something like ‘Let’s build a playground!’ That’s not what we’re about. If you build a school and don’t have teachers or pencils, who is that serving?”
How does it help kids and the community?
Participating in meaningful service work is “life changing,” Stein says. “Students come back and their whole friend group changes. They become re-centered on what’s most important in life: compassion for other people and how they live.”
He adds, “One young man is now working in Uganda and Sudan to help refugees. He based his life on what he did with us.”
Sometimes the service work will come full circle for the junior volunteers at Summer in the City, Falik says. One junior volunteer was painting a mural at her local recreation center where she learned to swim. Falik says the girl described it as a “big experience.”
“The junior volunteers feel a real sense of pride and ownership,” he says.
Not every service-oriented summer program is pure community service. Some, like the Matrix Theatre, focus on civic engagement and social issues in ways that ultimately impact the larger community.
“We’ll show the community the performance, and the response will be surprise that the children felt so strongly about an issue,” Thomas says. “Often youth voices are silenced – it’s important to give them the space to be heard.”
Illustration by Lainey Yehl