It is the first night of camp, most of the campers and staff have found their way back to their cabins and are settling in for the night. Laura is walking around with her flashlight and walkie talkie checking on the villages. As she heads into the youngest boys village, there is commotion and noise coming from one cabin. She opens the door to find one young camper holding all of the fake money from a monopoly game. He catches Laura’s eye and gives a knowing smirk before yelling, “JACKPOT” and throwing all of the colorful pieces of paper in the air. The other staff look at her obviously frustrated and concerned that the commotion will disrupt their intention to settle down for bed. Maddy, a brilliant 18 year old staff member swoops in and picks Mark up in her arms. His whole body calms down, his edges soften and he relaxes into the familiar place of being held.
Mark is part of the foster care system and his life is in constant flux. Maddy’s instinct to be comforting and nurturing was exactly what Mark needed to feel secure, connected, and like he belonged. We find out lots more about Mark over the next couple weeks and won’t get into the details here, but will say he has a lot of chips stacked against him. BUT at camp he can just be Mark. He can just be a kid.
We met Mark years ago working at a different camp, but Mark is why we started Stomping Ground. Mark and each camper that come to camp have a story, have a history, and a future. The best part about working at Stomping Ground is getting to be a place that values each individual for who they are in each moment.
CAMPING COAST TO COAST
I went to school for Industrial Engineering, the study of processes, at the University of Pittsburgh and Laura for Painting and Drawing at SUNY Purchase. After graduating we had no idea what to do or how to “spend the rest of our lives”, so we ran away. In classic millennial fashion, we packed up Laura’s 2000 Honda Civic and hit the road. We wanted to see the country, find ourselves, have an adventure… I think mostly we wanted to be together and didn’t know how. I had never been west of the Mississippi and we thought let’s take three months and have a road trip.
So there we were, a packed up Honda Civic, no money, a hazy trip planned, and we have an idea. All throughout college we had worked at Camp Stella Maris outside of Rochester New York. We loved our time there and had interacted with a few other camps. We thought...
“Summer camps have beds... We need to sleep… How can we make this work?”
We started cold emailing camp directors, offering to volunteer in exchange for a place to crash. Surprisingly camp directors from all over the country not only responded, but took us up on our offer. It was amazing. We documented our journey and shared the best parts of each camp with other directors. It turns out no one had really done this before, and our three month trip turned into a two and half year research project visiting over 200 camps and 47 states. We end up speaking at dozens of summer camp conferences (yes there are conferences for everything) and building a little business doing freelance work for camps.
OUR FOUNDING TEAM
At one of these conferences we met Scott Arizala. Scott is camp famous. He travels the country speaking and working with camps, mostly on meeting kids where they are and being more inclusive. Scott asked us the question we heard all the time, “What are you doing with all this information? Are you going to start a camp?” We laughed. “You can’t start a camp without millions of dollars and we don’t have that, or rich relatives.” “Sure you can. I did.” He responded, “You can rent a camp like you rent a car. Come work for me and I’ll help you start yours.”
When he said work, he meant volunteer, but that’s just what we did. Scott and his business partner Sylvia van Meerten founded Camp Tall Tree, a camp for kids with autism and their siblings, in 2013. We volunteered with them for a week. Then we partnered with James Davis, a director we had worked with and new best friend, to start Stomping Ground.
Quick aside about James. James was the director at the Vanderkamp Center outside of Syracuse, New York, when we met him. More on that visit here. He had previously been a professional poker player, now runs dailyfantasysportsrankings.com, is an unschooling dad, and shares that journey on his podcast with his wife Taylor. Needless to say James was an interesting camp director. We were hooked and spent the summer of 2014 working with him at Vanderkamp.
With James, Syl, and Scott ready to be our initial board, we jumped in. We built a website, found a facility to rent, and started recruiting campers and staff. That first summer, 2015, we ran for one week and had 64 campers. It was awesome, and it was hard. We learned a lot, and the biggest thing we learned was that Stomping Ground will always be about mistakes. Making them, owning them, and working through them.
Mistakes have become a cornerstone of camp. As adults we love to talk about how it’s good for kids to make mistakes and learn from them, but rarely do we let kids see the mistakes we make. That first summer we thought things would be perfect. Quickly we learned otherwise. The food was always late, staff got lost leading kids to activities, we messed up the schedule, made plans we couldn’t keep, and a million other mistakes. It was messy.
It forced us to be honest.
We often had to look our campers in the eye and admit we messed up. At the time this felt like failure.
NOW IT FEELS LIKE FREEDOM.
Stomping Ground isn’t perfect. We have changed the schedule of camp every week that we have existed. Sometimes activities, we spend hours planning, end up flopping. Campers get frustrated, staff get frustrated, I get frustrated. It rains. It thunderstorms. We have to cancel activities. We try new things and sometimes they aren’t perfect. This imperfection has become a cornerstone of who we are as a camp because it is real
It’s hard to admit that we aren’t perfect, but it allows us, campers, staff, parents, board members, directors, all to find new and interesting ways to partner together. Being able to make mistakes in a safe supportive community allows all of us to try new things, learn, and find authentic connection.
Brene Brown, research and author, once said “Vulnerability is the birthplace of connection and the path to the feeling of worthiness. If it doesn't feel vulnerable, the sharing is probably not constructive.” By accepting and owning our mistakes we hope to start the path to the feelings of worthiness within our community. I hope you will consider joining us this summer.