Supporting Queer Youth at Camp - An Interview with Jessica Weissbuch
The Summer Camp Society Interviews. This interview is the latest in a series from Sarah and Jack interviewing change making camp professionals and sharing their advice because great leaders make great camps.
Jess is the executive Director, Camp Brave Trails in Southern California. To me she and Kayla, her camp director and wife, are the best resources for anyone looking to be more inclusive of LGBTQ+ youth at camp. She and Kayla started Brave Trails in 2015 and have grown now to three year round staff and three weeks of camp. They are an inspiration for everyone they come in contact with. THANK YOU JESS!
What’s your camp story?
It’s an interesting story because I don’t have the traditional story of how I grew up in camp—I went to day camp for a few years when I was in elementary school—it was not my thing because I didn’t love the people that were there. However, I have been working with queer youth almost my whole adult life. I’m a licensed marriage and family therapist—my day job is working with queer youth at a Los Angeles non-profit. (UPDATE!!! Jess just starting working for Brave Trails full time!)
My wife, Kayla, grew up in camp and has that traditional story of walking by the director’s cabin and saying “that’s what I want to do in life”—that was her childhood dream. One night we were driving home from the movies and talking about what we want to do with our lives. What if we create an LGBTQ leadership summer camp? That would be amazing, because we could combines the queer leadership that I’m so passionate about and the camp aspect that Kayla’s so passionate about.
We talked with our community and everybody was so excited about it. The more people we talked to, the more we decided to see what it would take to do this. It really exploded from there. We had no clue how to run a camp! We had Kayla’s experience as a camp counselor when she was younger but that was it. We researched it and we fell in with ACA, which has been a game changer for us.
There was the regional ACA conference in Palm Springs and we said “let’s just go to this! There’s a new director’s training”. We were completely overwhelmed by the training, but we also met some incredible people who are some of our really good friends and mentors to this day. They have allowed us to call them at any time of the day to ask questions. We’ve received a lot of support from our friends and ACA. They loved what we’re doing—increasingly they were getting questions about trans campers and this or that, so they needed someone to turn to. It was the right time for us as well.
That’s basically how we started—we were like, let’s do it! And we did it…we got the idea, we started running with it, and a year and half later we had our 501c3 status and our first summer done. All of us had Full Time jobs at the time too, it was intense. We worked on camp from 7 o’clock to midnight each night to plan camp.
Let’s talk about that first summer on site. What was the hardest thing for you as a new camp director?
Because I didn’t have the camp experience—I didn’t know what to expect. It was just a new experience for me in general. That was a challenge I would say. I do have to say having Laura and Jack at our first summer was a lifesaver because we knew queer activism and queer leadership and they knew camp. I don’t know if they realize how instrumental they were!
They always talk about how much they learned that summer!
We would have been totally lost without them! We could have muddled through it, but they were so amazing. A lot of people say, what does this camp have to look like? That was a beautiful thing about having so many folks who were not camp people doing it—we just did what made sense for us. It didn’t look necessarily like a traditional camp. To give yourself the freedom to explore and change things that don’t make sense in today’s age. To have that freedom to do things that are a little bit off the beaten path.
Other challenging things were the typical—it’s just hard to be on 24/7 because you have to be. To be the person that people look to for answers. That’s challenging—it’s wonderful but it’s challenging too.
I can tell you about what was challenging about our second year. It’s much more challenging than our first year. It was less challenging in actually running camp but more challenging in the respect that our numbers grew. For us, we’re working with queer youth that by default unfortunately have higher levels of anxiety, depression. They are 40% more likely to experience suicide, depression or anxiety than their straight peers. It showed up much more last summer. I’m a licensed therapist but I’m the only one…so a lot of that fell on my shoulders. It’s hard to be a therapist 24/7. We had a lot of panic attacks, we had a lot of people who weren’t used to being away from home.
That was just a really big awakening…We’re not a therapy camp, but we also want to make sure we have the right support for our campers, so we are increasing our support for mental help without making it all about mental health. It was a great learning curve.
What about you makes you successful at your job?
At camp, I am one of the directors on site and I do camp stuff, but I am also the executive director of the organization. We have what we call circle leadership, so we all do a little bit of everything and make final decisions together. But I’m super organized and I think that that helps because I am working with Kayla, my wife, —she’s in charge of all the creative stuff, and I don’t necessary have that skill in me. I balance it out with being organized and making sure everything is getting done. I’m pretty good at building relationships with parents and donors as well as staying organized with the logistics.
I feel like another part of your role in the camping world isn’t just running Camp Brave Trails but also being a resource to other camp directors when we have questions about how to best serve LGBTQ campers and families.
That’s a huge part of what Brave Trails does—we love to consult and we love to train other camps and staff. We’ve been doing more of this in the last year. We would love to build that aspect of Brave Trails more, like doing staff trainings. We look at ourselves as a resource for the whole community.
I know this is a big question, but what advice do you have for the camp community of how we can better serve LGBTQ youth?
I think two major things I would say is to ask for support when you don’t know –you want to do it right, so when you don’t know how to do that, reach for the support that can help you.
The other thing is just being open and transparent. Having conversations with the campers and the campers’ families about everything instead of just doing what you think they would want. Like if you have a trans camper or someone who is gender non-conforming, instead of assuming what dorm they would want to be in, actually have a conversation with them…have those conversations and listen to what the campers say.
And! One last thing—realize that not all camps are equipped to deal with everything…I encourage folks to really look at their policy and what they want to see if they are going to make the choice to be LGBTQ inclusive or queer inclusive to know what that really means. Maybe your camp has public showers without private stalls, and there’s just no safety for an LGBTQ kid….be realistic and don’t set someone up for failure.
How has camp changed you as a person?
Oh geez! I mean I feel like I probably learn more from those kids than they learn from me. It just totally changed the way I show up in this world—I’m so inspired by the work. We’re a leadership camp, so to see what those campers and those kids do when they’re in middle school and high school and to imagine what they’re going to do in their lives when they’re older is so inspiring. It gives me hope for the future!
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