Camp creates supports for students
Friendships, life lessons make transition to high school easier
When Amy Gabriel accepted a job in 2010 as counselor at a brand-new youth camp near her home in Yreka, California, she was both excited and a little apprehensive. The senior-to-be hadn’t done much camping, and now she was going to spend an entire week on a remote section of the Klamath River with a group of incoming ninth-graders.
“There are no cell phones, no television...."
“It was totally out of my comfort zone, out in the middle of nowhere,” she remembers. “But by day 2 or day 3, I basically forgot I had no cell service, and it was really fun. By day 4, there was a real sense of family and we became a close-knit little community.”
And that’s the whole point of Camp L.E.A.D., a week-long outdoor leadership camp for incoming freshmen in Siskiyou County. Facilitated by the Siskiyou Family YMCA, the camp features river rafting, leadership development activities, crafts, volleyball and a host of other outdoor activities.
The camp is operated from 20 acres near Paradise Point, 20 miles north of Happy Camp on Highway 26. A full outdoor kitchen supplies the food, kids and counselors sleep in tents, Adventure Whitewater brings the rafts, and about 60 students bring their energy and enthusiasm for a week every year. The Ford Family Foundation provides financial support.
“There are no cell phones, no television. Part of the plan is to really disconnect kids from that sort of thing so they can connect with each other,” says Scott Eastman, executive director of the Siskiyou County YMCA and a Ford Institute Leadership Program graduate. Eastman was a member of the group that began discussing the need for a youth camp in 2010, as they identified a gap in support for students transitioning from eighth grade to high school.
The camp typically serves about 60 incoming freshmen from eight high schools. “Kids come from a large geographical area,” Eastman explains. “They don’t know each other, and it is a high-stress transition.”
The camp creates a support structure for students that extends into the school year. The friendships made during rafting and leadership activities mean incoming freshman already know people at school — some of them juniors and seniors. Camp L.E.A.D pioneered an innovative tiered counselor program. Junior counselors are always selected from the ranks of camp alumni; some of those are invited back as seniors. They help facilitate the curriculum throughout the week, and two are assigned to each tent of campers. Last year, 26 counselors worked at the camp.
The river metaphor
Rafting is a key component of the curriculum, not just because it’s fun, but because participants learn from it. “It was an element that we considered early on as a niche,” Eastman says. “You can tie rafting to life experiences, discussions around the river as something moving, changing dynamic, something that you have to work with.”
Eastman was chosen to lead the project because he is a local and trusted youth development leader. His expert rafting background was a bonus. A rafting guide in high school and college, he spent four years on the U.S. Whitewater Raft team, winning the national championship in 2000. A native of Yreka, Eastman became the program director at the Y that year, and took on the executive director role in 2009.
One of the camp’s key exercises is “My Life as a River,” where participants in a small group setting are asked to share highlights of how their life has ebbed and flowed.
“This camp is more important now than it was nine years ago,” Eastman says. “The social media element, the Internet, is so pervasive in their lives, there is no time for these kids to unplug. These kids grow up being bombarded. The camp really disconnects them from that, and the parents and the kids — afterwards — realize the importance of that.”
Evaluation: ‘Unpacking the Magic’
Staff and campers alike agree that “magic happens at Camp L.E.A.D.” says a 2018 evaluation by Search Institute. The report, titled “Camp L.E.A.D.: Unpacking the Magic,” found that campers experienced belonging, reflection and a burgeoning sense of ease with stepping beyond their comfort zones.
The report validates the concept for the camp: helping incoming high school students prepare for the transition and learn new life skills.
The report also notes that Camp L.E.A.D. campers are able to become their best selves. Outcomes include heightened academic and career aspirations, taking on leadership roles in a variety of settings, and intentionally living out their values.
One camper shared that camp “helped me challenge myself, taking harder classes…because I want to go to a four-year [college]…” Another reflected on being named captain of the high school volleyball team: “If I didn’t go to Camp L.E.A.D., I don’t think I’d be able to take on the responsibility.”
Amy Gabriel, who was a counselor during the camp’s first year, continued working with the program for several years. Today, she is pursuing a master’s degree at University of Washington in public administration, a career path she says was shaped by her work with the youth camp. “It helped me identify that I want to work with youth and youth development, and community development overall,” she says.