Summer camps help kids build their Unitarian Universalist identity.
Helena Esparza gets an archery lesson from “Merlin” at KentHogwarts, a Harry Potter-themed summer camp run by the Unitarian Universalist Church of Kent, Ohio. (© Brad Bolton)
Thousands of young people every year flock to vacation Bible camps, but where do you go when you’re a young Unitarian Universalist? A scientific voyage to the world of Charles Darwin, an Ohio version of Harry Potter’s Hogwarts, and an island-bound retreat in northern Minnesota are just some of the summer camp options with a unique, UU twist.
Why does a UU summer camp experience matter?
“It builds a UU identity for children who may not have a UU community around them or in their school, the same way the Christian churches do,” says Dayna Edwards, director of religious exploration for the UU Church of Annapolis, Maryland.
Four years ago, attendees of a new-member class at Annapolis pitched the idea of a Darwin-themed church camp.
“That was kind of the beginning,” says Edwards, “this belief that science and reason are just as much a part of our spirituality as wonder and mysticism and all those things.”
And thus Camp Beagle—an homage to the ship in which Darwin made his historic visit to the Galápagos Islands—was born.
The weeklong day camp for children ages 4–14 celebrates nature, science, and evolution, and the church’s seven acres of wooded land give campers plenty to explore. The camp has grown every year, and organizers expect seventy children this July.
Camp activities emphasize the scientific process, and each day is organized around one virtue, one skill, and one ecological topic. An overarching nautical theme adds to the fun, as the young “sailors” rotate through “harbors” known as Port Wonder, Port Evo (for evolution), Port Science, Port Adventure, and Port Caveman.
In Port Caveman, campers learn about the basic needs and evolution of humans. “That’s very popular because they get to run around the woods, building shelters and pretending to hunt and gather,” explains Edwards, the “admiral” of Camp Beagle.
Volunteers from the church play a key role, and many take the full week off of work to participate. One former science teacher brings in his extensive fossil collection and sends each camper home with a fossil to keep. Another church member, who works for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, has brought in squid for the aspiring scientists to dissect. A musical church member uses her ukulele to teach nature-based songs.
“It’s been a real opportunity for the members of the congregation to shine and to just bring joy to the children,” Edwards says. “It’s a really powerful week for everyone involved.”
But the camp has led to more than just a week of fun. “We’ve had a lot of people who’ve been on the fence about membership, and they’ve joined after Camp Beagle,” Edwards says.
The opportunity for young people to spend five full days bonding together at church is also valuable, Edwards says. “For them to explore in depth for a week is something we don’t get to do on a Sunday for an hour,” she says. “They’re in the church all week, so the church becomes even more of a safe space for them.”
J.K. Rowling’s best-selling series might be complete, but Harry Potter lovers continue to clamor for a seat at the KentHogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry—otherwise known as the semiannual camp of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Kent, Ohio.
KentHogwarts headmaster Joe Kuemerle—please, call him Professor FizzBOOM!—says the camp serves more than just the congregation. Since launching in 2002, the camp has become so popular that the majority of participants are not members of the church, and campers come from as far away as Maryland and Pennsylvania with their black robes and wands at the ready.
“It’s always been open to everyone,” Kuemerle says. “It’s definitely community outreach for us.”
The three-day winter and four-day summer sessions each serve around one hundred kids under 18, with the older teens helping out as “prefects.” Kindergarteners through 12-year-olds are the camp’s main audience, and they love romping around the campsite at the local Masonic temple, which “looks like Hogwarts on the inside,” Kuemerle says.
Camp offerings will be familiar to fans of the books and movies: Potions, Herbology, Care of Magical Creatures, and Defense Against the Dark Arts are all on the schedule. In Potions class, students cook up chemistry experiments. In Defense Against the Dark Arts classes, they might learn anti-bullying techniques. In Divination, they learn about different cultures and religious systems.
“It’s very important to teach our kids to be able to think independently, to be compassionate, and to be tolerant and accepting,” Kuemerle says. “I think the fun of the lessons really helps them to pick that up.”
The summer session also includes a day of outdoor activities with guest speakers. Past events have included a Renaissance Faire with the Society for Creative Anachronism and a Native American powwow and drum circle.
Hogwarts works as a terrific camp theme, Kuemerle says. “The magic of the world, the tolerance, the acceptance, the values that are in Harry Potter really resonate with UU values,” he says. “And modeling an education program after a school, even if it’s wizarding school, is just a natural fit.”
“The only place I can really be me is at camp.” That’s the sentiment shared by many teens who have attended Camp UniStar, which for decades has been an island refuge in Cass Lake, about four hours north of the Twin Cities in Minnesota.
The camp is owned by the Prairie Star District. It takes a half-hour boat ride to reach the camp on Star Island, where there are no cars, no roads, and no Wi-Fi signal.
Throughout most of the summer, Camp UniStar offers family programs. Two weeks every year are set aside as Youth Weeks, and each of the sessions serves about sixty 7th- through 12th-graders. The sessions are entirely youth-led.
“This is a camp that really is an opportunity for spiritual growth as well as fun, but there’s no adult-directed expectation except having to live through the UU Principles throughout the week,” says Sara Stake, who attended the camp throughout her childhood and now makes an annual trek from Seattle to serve as a Youth Week counselor.
During Youth Week, the mornings kick off with a service project in which teens work on everything from meal prep to painting cabins to fixing leaky faucets.
Campers have the afternoons to themselves, and many play volleyball, sail, swim, or hike. In the evenings, each cabin hosts activities organized by the teens, including talent shows and ping-pong tournaments. “When you have kids directing things themselves, you just don’t know what they’ll come up with,” Stake says.
And then, of course, there are the mainstays of any sleepaway camp: stargazing at the end of a dock and sing-alongs around a campfire.
Stake says the camp has a counselor-camper ratio of about one to five, which allows the counselors to give the kids more freedom than you might see at a typical camp. “If you look at it from the outside you might think it looks like chaos,” she says. “If you’re in the middle of it, it looks like kids growing and nurturing and celebrating who they are and who they are becoming in a safe environment.”
Although planning any kind of summer camp takes a lot of work, organizers say it’s worth it to nurture UU youth and serve a wider community of families. Edwards, from Camp Beagle, says camps can energize a congregation. “It’s something that people get a lot of spiritual fulfillment out of.”
This article appeared in the Summer 2013 issue of UU World (pages 6–8).
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Nicole Sweeney Etter, a member of First Unitarian Society of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, is a freelance writer and editor.
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