Gift of camping spans 25 years and counting

At Camp Whitcomb/Mason, Jadelyn Guzman is known as Rubix. It’s a nickname she’s grown into since attending her first camp experience at age 12 as a shy and quiet newcomer.

“It was my parents who suggested going to camp, but it’s probably one of the best decisions they’ve made for me,” Guzman said. “I’ve kept coming back after that because I really enjoy it.”

It’s a journey first begun through a scholarship program housed at the Greater Milwaukee Foundation called Camps for Kids, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. Established in 1994 by a coalition of youth serving agencies, individuals, and dedicated funders to give children from families with limited financial resources a first-time resident camp experience, Camps for Kids turned into much more than the founders ever expected.

For 25 years, the unique community collaboration has been dedicated to improving the quality of life for children in economically disadvantaged situations. Since its creation, the collaboration has provided one-time scholarships to over 5,200 children (8-15 years old) to attend an overnight, residential camp in Wisconsin.

Guzman is just one of thousands of campers who have received a scholarship to attend Camp Whitcomb/Mason, near Hartland, Wis. Now 16, Guzman is working on becoming a camp counselor and says she’s excited to have more responsibility and make a difference in the lives of other campers.

“My mindset has changed a lot since coming to camp,” she explained. “I have goals, and I know what I want to do. I’m a lot more outgoing, and I take more initiative.”

Guzman’s experience is what Camps for Kids Steering Committee and Grants Allocation Committee member, Mary Beth Malm, describes as her proudest moments. “When I get to talk to someone who started as a Camps for Kids camper, and they tell me how it changed their life, that’s when I feel really proud,” she said.

Behind the dreams

There are currently two funds at the Foundation supporting Camps for Kids. The Camps for Kids Fund is supported by an annual fundraising campaign, gifts from Foundation donors and the general public. It provides the annual funds for camp scholarships. The Camps for Kids Forever Fund was established in 2000 with an initial matching gift to create an endowed fund designed to complement the annual fund drive.

“Every child needs camping,” said Foundation donor, Joan Robertson. “Camping taught me the joys of a healthy lifestyle, the joys and discoveries of the natural world and the peace, nonconfrontational sharing and compassion toward all living creatures.”

Camps for Kids has a bedrock tradition of sending between 225 and 250 children to camp per year. In 2018, over $75,600 in scholarships was disbursed to support 250 first-time campers at 10 different camps.

A subcommittee of the Camps for Kids Steering Committee developed a plan to reach the approximately $2 million needed to permanently endow Camps for Kids. Today, the Camps for Kids Forever Fund is at $1.8 million, and organizers hope it reaches the $2 million mark before the end of the year.

“The idea for the $2 million mark is that it would generate enough scholarship dollars to send kids to camp in perpetuity,” said Karen Peck Katz, who is also a member of the Steering and Grants Allocation committees.

Lifelong benefits

As part of the Camps for Kids program, an emphasis is placed on building relationships, discovering new interests and nurturing leadership skills. Campers also claim their independence by making choices regarding activities and relationships.

At YMCA Camp Minikani in Hubertus, Wis., campers gather around what is known as “Downtown Camp,” an area with views of the lake where they can choose from a variety of activities including adventure challenge, wilderness skills, crafts, waterfront and corral. Further down the land is a barn with horses, goats and chickens where campers learn how to care for the animals.

One Camps for Kids scholarship recipient said, “I really like adventure camp! It’s where we go on the high dive, high ropes and rock climbing.” Another recipient shared, “I made new friends in my cabin, and I learned to trust in others and others will trust in you.”

In addition to thoughtful cabin placements, YMCA Camp Minikani’s community offers wellness coordinators who help campers navigate new experiences that might not always be comfortable.

“Sometimes camp can feel overwhelming and overstimulating, so it feels really special to know that I’m someone that they can come to,” explained Rachel Kornetsky, wellness coordinator at YMCA Camp Minikani.

Being in a safe and supportive environment allows campers to work with their counselors to improve their ability to be self-reflective. At Camp Whitcomb/Mason, campers go through deep breathing exercises before bed and share “Popsicle, Poopsicle, and Dreamsicle,” an exercise that gives campers the opportunity to reflect on something good that happened that day (Popsicle), something they didn’t like that day (Poopsicle), and something they want to happen the next day (Dreamsicle).

But no one organization could do this alone.

“I think in today’s age where partnerships mean so much, this is one of the partnerships that Camp Minikani holds near and dear because it’s this really cool model where Camps for Kids started grassroots, the Foundation stepped in to help build it, and the referral agencies have some of their kids they can provide additional activities for,” said senior director of operations at YMCA Camp Minikani, Elijah Fyksen. “It’s a wonderful marriage of different organizations providing this experience for kids.”

Just as it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a city to provide that child with rewarding experiences like summer camp. And thanks to the founding organizations of Camps for Kids (Faye McBeth Foundation, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Milwaukee, COA Youth & Family Centers, Girl Scouts of Wisconsin Southeast, Holiday Home, YMCA of Metropolitan Milwaukee, American Camp Association Wisconsin, Milwaukee Public Schools Division of Community Recreation and the Greater Milwaukee Foundation), more kids now have the opportunity to experience home away from home.