What’s It Like to Run a Summer Camp with Many Transgender and Gender-Expansive Teens?

What’s It Like to Run a Summer Camp with Many Transgender and Gender-Expansive Teens?

Friends at Odyssey Teen Camp

Twenty years ago I was a middle-aged guy with a corporate job that never felt like a good fit for me. Today, I run an unconventional summer camp where up to one in four teens identifies as transgender or gender non-conforming. The journey has been an unexpected one.

An idea of a camp for teens

In 2002, I started Odyssey Teen Camp as kind of a hippie camp for teens. At first, maybe it was more the staff that were hippies and the campers were typical creative, insecure, sensitive, confused, and wonderful teenagers. I knew nothing about gender pronouns and, if you were to ask me then, I’d probably have said that I thought there were boys or girls and that it was biological.

Shortly before I started camp I was floating around searching for something that would give my life purpose. I was in a men’s support group and, one day, I asked the members, when did they first became so stuck in their anger and sadness? Most of them replied that it started when they were teenagers. I was suddenly struck with an idea: I should spend my time starting a camp for teenage boys. I thought perhaps I could create a place where they could feel safe, free, and encouraged to show their best self. I came up with a catchy tagline, “A great place to be exactly who you are,” rented a space, and we were off.

Watching camp grow

I was plenty naive, knew very little about teenagers and even less about running a camp (you know, Board of Health type stuff). But the kids came and kept coming, and now, nearly two decades later, it’s been a wonderful ride. Naturally, since the day we opened, my original vision of a camp for boys has been replaced with a camp that is 65% girls. I’m not sure what made me think all these boys would be flocking to a camp that featured yoga, dance, and art.

Our staff has always been made up of plenty of people who identify as genderqueer and, within the last few years, more and more teenagers who are coming to camp are uncomfortable and unwilling to be put in a gender box. They are determined to come up with the gender that feels best to them: their true gender self.

At camp, these young people have been able to create a safe new world for themselves, where the judgment and bias they often experience in the real world doesn’t exist, at least for a few weeks. While we offer typical camp activities like art, dance, sports, music, nature, swimming, and boating, there are also many unique Odyssey activities like firewalking, trance dances, sacred geometry, political discussion groups, tarot, henna, and hip-hop appreciation classes.

Creating space for gender-questioning kids

Over time, things at camp have changed. One weekend each summer used to feature a boys and girls day, where we would separate by gender. That stopped making sense for us a few years ago, and now we have a third group for teens who are more comfortable with a gender-expansive group.

I’m not exactly sure what made our camp attractive to so many transgender or gender-questioning teens, but I think it has been a great thing and that they add so much fun, kindness, creativity, vulnerability, and leadership to our community. I am continuously learning how we can best support the LGBTQ+ teen at camp. I am learning that gender stuff is complicated and that a person’s gender is a weaving together of nature, nurture, and culture. I am learning that an individual’s true gender identity has nothing to do with biology and everything to do with what is between their ears.

I’m happy we can create a space for everyone at Odyssey, particularly gender-expansive teenagers. Housing can sometimes feel a little tricky but we work hard to put everyone in a cabin that feels right to them, and despite the fact that we are living in close quarters we are conscious of the needs for privacy when changing, showering, etc.

Showing teens that they are not alone

I think a big source of healing for gender creative teens at camp comes from being with slightly older counselors, many of whom themselves are transgender or identify as genderqueer, and who have lived through a lot of the same feelings these teenagers have. They are kind, loving, empathetic role models who show the younger campers they can live full, rich, and exciting lives as whichever gender feels true to them. It is also helpful for these teenagers to be with other kids their own age who may be sharing similar thoughts, feelings, and experiences. Campers recognize they are not alone, and teenagers in particular benefit from connection and friendship with their peers.

Ultimately, supporting all the transgender and gender creative teenagers who come to camp is no different from what we’ve tried to do for every teenager for the past eighteen years: give them a place where they can feel seen, loved, accepted, respected, and honored for exactly who they are.

Find out about Odyssey Teen Camp

A great place for teens to be exactly who they are in a community that celebrates diversity. 

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Connection, Belonging and the Importance of Having Anchors in Teenagers’ Lives

Connection, Belonging and the Importance of Having Anchors in Teenagers’ Lives

 

The positive impact of even one adult in a teens world can be life changing.

In video 6 of 8, Amy talks about our need for connection and the importance for teens to have at least one person in their life who sees and “gets” them. Amy calls these people anchors.

I know all parents want to be anchors in their children’s lives, but  teenagers also need other people to recognize them and to help them to see their strengths.

How an anchor changed a life

I have a friend named Travis Allison. Travis lives in Canada and for many years was a Camp Director, and now works as a consultant helping summer camps succeed.

Travis tells a story about when he was a boy at camp. He says he was not the best athlete or the most popular kid and I’m sure he often doubted himself as we all do.

Travis said, one day at camp his counselor, who he really admired, called him over to speak with him for a minute. The counselor said a few words to him that would change his life forever.

He said, “Travis you would make a great camp counselor one day.” Travis was stunned. He did not see that potential in himself at all.

This counselor went on to tell Travis that he was a lot like him when he was his age and he mentioned some of the qualities he saw in him that would make him a great counselor. He saw what the analyst Robert Johnson calls “the gold” in Travis.

That one sentence set the course for Travis’s professional and even personal life. I hope every teenager can find those kind of great anchors in their lives and I also hope that I can be that  anchor for more campers.

“Consciously Parenting Teens” Video Series

I do hope you get a chance to watch the video above and opt-in for the whole series. I think there are some some good takeaways sprinkled throughout. If you missed the opt-in form at the end of the video, here it is again.

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Thoughts about anchors?

What do you think about this idea of Anchors? I would love to hear your thoughts and stories in the comments below. I will respond.

-Adam

Do Cell Phones Belong at Camp?

Do Cell Phones Belong at Camp?

Do cell phones belong at camp?

The trauma of taking away kids’ “magic phones” at camp

I know that’s a little dramatic, but that’s how it feels watching kids hand their cell phones over to their parents when they are dropped off at camp. I think I got that “magic phone” term from the comedian Norm McDonald, (one of my favorites).

A chat with a colleague

I was talking last week with the Director of another summer camp for teenagers. They allow cell phones at camp and they advertise it. The Director was very honest in telling me that allowing phones makes it easier to get teens to come to camp.

They have restrictions around usage, and he doesn’t feel that having cell phones hurts their campers’ experience. He knows his camp and campers well and for his camp he is probably right.

I imagine that if we changed our cell phone policy it would make it a little easier to help some teens find the courage to give camp a try. We have plenty of campers who live with social anxiety and general shyness.

A therapist who specializes in social anxiety and teens recently told me that attending a sleepaway camp for a teen with social anxiety can feel like trying to climb a ladder that’s missing the bottom rungs. He said it may be too difficult for some.

While I’m sure he’s right, I also know that plenty of teens have come to camp with social anxiety and in a short time were able to relax, find their tribe and have a lot of fun.

The hero’s journey

I’m sure we could change our policy on cell phones and still have a good camp. We would set guidelines and boundaries and help campers practice using their phones responsibly. However, ultimately, I would be doing it to get more campers, and not because I think teenagers would have a better experience at camp. That’s probably not a good enough reason to change our policy.

I believe having teens let go of their phones for a few weeks at camp is really good for them. Within a few days most every camper is able to relax and connect with others in a way that is powerful and healing. I think not having their phone makes it easier for these connections to happen.

I also believe that this concept known as FOMO, (fear of missing out), is a very real thing and that even teens with plenty of self esteem and a lot of friends can come away from fifteen minutes on Instagram feeling as if their life does not quite measure up to others. I think it’s the nature of social media to make us feel that way.

So, we’ll keep our current cell phone policy and hope enough teens find the courage to take the hero’s journey, leave their cell phones with their parents, and come to camp. They will be surprised how little they miss that phone. In a short time, they will recognize that there is more magic to be found in being present, laughing and spending time with new friends than there is in staring at their phone.

Why Wait? Enrolling Early for Camp Has BIG Benefits

Why Wait? Enrolling Early for Camp Has BIG Benefits

Enrolling early has BIG benefits.

They say “good things come to those who wait,” but when it comes to a summer at Odyssey Teen Camp, we believe that enrolling early is the best way to set you and your teen up for success! Check out the top reasons why you should stop waiting and enroll today:

 

The early bird gets the best bunk (and deals)

Families that enroll early save more on their camp tuition with the Early Enrollment discounts we offer in the Fall! Flying into camp? Enrolling early also gives you more flexibility to find great deals on flights.

 

You can get what you need

Have any special requests for financial aid or bunk assignments? Enrolling early will guarantee your teen’s spot at camp and give our team time to meet your requests.

 

Flexibility with your summer fun

Not quite sure which session dates will work best for your family yet? You can still enroll now and switch sessions as needed once the summer gets closer. And if your plans change, there’s no need to worry – your deposit is fully-refundable through April 1st.

 

Early admission into the OTC family

Enrolling early also means you score invitations to exciting OTC events like the reunion! If your teen is nervous about going to camp for the first time, attending a camp reunion is a great way to ease their fears. They’ll witness the warm embraces and hearty laughs between best friends who first met at camp – proof that we mean it when we say you’ll leave OTC with lifelong friends. In fact, they will probably leave the reunion already having made a new friend or two!

 

If your teen is looking forward to the summer of a lifetime, don’t wait – start your application today!
The Dark Tunnel of Adolescent Evolution (Part 1): Why Parents Need to Stay in The Game

The Dark Tunnel of Adolescent Evolution (Part 1): Why Parents Need to Stay in The Game

 

Introducing an 8 part series to help parents

This is the first of an eight part interview series I conducted with Amy Frisch, a wonderful therapist who has been leading teenage girls’ groups for over twenty years.

In this segment we discuss the challenges teenagers face as they begin to leave their childhood behind.

The dark tunnel

The call of adolescence is to leave your childhood behind. That evolution, from childhood into adulthood, is like a dark tunnel. - Amy FrischClick To Tweet

Amy calls it a “dark tunnel” and I know that sounds dramatic, but you are leaving behind what you’ve always known and you don’t know exactly who you will be as a young adult, or how people will receive you.

It’s a reminder that adolescence is not easy, and maybe that’s why when I talk with most adults and tell them that I run a summer camp for teens they often say, “I don’t think I would want to have to relive those years again.”

Amy offers parents some great advice that I know will help your teenager on this journey through “the dark tunnel.”

And just maybe your child will look back on his or her teenage years some day and be reminded of how supportive you were as a parent.

“Consciously Parenting Teens” Video Series

I hope you enjoyed watching the interview above and you got some great takeaways. If you have not yet opted-in for the entire 8 part series, here’s the form again below.

Enter your email to see the entire 8 part video series with Amy Frisch

One short segment will be delivered to your inbox each day for 8 days. Occasional notifications for new videos will follow. Your info is sacred and will never be shared.

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An invitation

And please do feel free to leave your comments below. I would love to continue this discussion with you.

Adam.

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