Growing up, my favorite place in the world was Camp Reed. I used to say it was the “happiest place on earth” and that I’d rather go to Camp Reed than Disneyland. That goes to show how summer camps can have such a positive impact on children. I had the pleasure of meeting with Steve Jurich and Poppy White, executive director and director of camping and program services at Campfire Inland Northwest. WHWF has helped fund Campfire’s programs by increasing access to summer camps for underserved youth. My conversation with Steve and Poppy made me reminisce on the good times I had at camp as a kid, and realize how important a camp experience can be for kids.
Steve Jurich came to Campfire 4.5 years ago as the executive director following a 30 year career at the YMCA. Poppy White used to be a Campfire camper herself, and now serves as the director of camping and program services to hundreds of campers each year. Their passion for this organization was clear. They are working towards providing fun and developmental activities for kids with one main purpose at the heart of what they do: inclusion.
It all started with some United Way funding to work with the Martin Luther King Jr Center to bring kids from the center to Camp Dart-Lo for a day camp experience. The first year there were 30 kids from the Martin Luther King Jr Center. It was a huge success, so United Way encouraged Campfire to expand. Steve said he contacted youth centers all around Spokane, including Northeast Youth Center, West Central Community Center, Southwest Spokane Community Center, and more. They started bringing kids from all of these community centers out to camp. Now, 4 years later, there are more than 150 kids from community centers around Spokane who have the opportunity to spend time at camp.
A typical day at camp starts around 9:00 AM at the flag pole for a morning ceremony and announcements. Camper groups break off from there to do a wide range of activities that can include: Crafts, archery, sewing, yoga, energy conservation, knots, tarp shelters, fire building, swimming, hiking, and more. At the end of the day, there is an “all camp experience” which is usually a big activity like capture the flag that they all enjoy together. They have award ceremonies and “jubilee”, skits and dances that the campers have prepared throughout their stay.
I asked Steve and Poppy, “What differentiates Campfire?”, and like I mentioned above, they both said “inclusion”. Poppy, a Campfire member growing up, mentioned, “The one thing I can say is that Campfire was always inclusive. We accepted boys and girls as early as 1974. That to me, boys and girls learning alongside each other, was a novel concept at the time. Campfire has embraced kids from all backgrounds, all races, all religions, all genders, all socioeconomic backgrounds, all of it. No discrimination.”
Steve added, “We make a very conscious effort to be inclusive. We are bringing on staff specific to working with children with disabilities, and we even have other camps refer kids to us that they don’t think they can serve, because we provide buddies, a one-on-one person to guide kids through camp for the entire week so that they can enjoy camp just as other kids when they may have otherwise not been able to do so.”
Campfire uses the Thrive-ology curriculum, a research-based program framework founded on the pillars of Social Emotional Learning (SEL), and it works. Through this non-traditional educational curriculum, children are encouraged to discover their spark, gain self-confidence, and learn life-changing skills to thrive now.
Campfire provides what they call “adult campions” who are volunteers at camp. Many of these “adult champion” volunteers are university students who are focused on pursuing a career working with kids in a non-traditional educational setting. Adult champions help kids find their passion, or what Campfire calls their ‘spark’. “We know from extensive research that kids with at least 3-5 adult champions in their corner are more likely to succeed than those who don’t have an adult champion”, said Poppy.
“We are helping kids develop a growth mindset, focus on goal management rather than goal setting, and reflection. We always stop at the end of a process and see what they can work on and what was successful. Adult champions guide kids through all of these things”, Poppy added.
Steve and Poppy gave me an inspiring example of a kid who grew leaps and bounds during his week at camp. Zack has some special needs and arrived very apprehensive about spending a week at camp. He was very tentative and shy, worried he would have a hard time fitting in. He was placed with a group of 8 other boys in his camper group.
When asked what his passion was, or his ‘spark’, Zack confidently said, “I like to rap.” He was always writing down new lines and verses in his notebook. Eventually, he started rapping to his camper group. They were extremely supportive of Zack, rapping alongside him and adding verses to his songs. “He got so comfortable because everyone was accepting him, and on the last day he got up and rapped in front of the entire camp”, said Poppy.
“It was amazing to see a kid overcome being so tentative the first day, and get up and do that on the last day. School is really hard for him, that environment is just not his safe space, but being able to move through camp with such growth and acceptance is why we do what we do.” -Poppy
Steve and Poppy provided me with a quote from a thankful mom after her son returned home from camp. She said, “Camp provides my son with the opportunity to channel his energy from his ADHD in healthy and fun ways. He has the opportunity to make friends, grow, and learn. The memories my son makes at camp will be with him for years to come. I will never forget the smile on his face the day he passed his swim test or the first letter he received from Pluto, the talking tree. I appreciate the scholarship program and donors immensely. Without the help of donors, I would not have been able to afford to send my son to camp while I myself am attending college. Donations make it possible. Thank you.” -Nicole
Moving forward, Campfire is taking what they do with these kids during the summer months and extending it throughout the year. They are finishing up lodge renovations at Dart-Lo so that they can use the facility during the winter months starting next year. They are always actively recruiting donors. The more donors that support Campfire, the more campers can attend camp that might otherwise not have been able to. If you want to be a part of sending a kid to camp, sign up to provide a scholarship here: https://campfire.org/donate/