As they prepared for summer 2022, the American Youth Foundation team was determined to provide a strong network of support for campers struggling with emotional health. Director of Community Life, Diversity, and Inclusion Ambrean Ford said summer 2021 showed the lasting mental and emotional effects of isolation and worry brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“During summer 2021, staff at Miniwanca and Merrowvista observed the highest number of campers experiencing homesickness we’ve seen in recent years,” Ford said. “In 2022, we wanted to dedicate resources to camper mental and emotional health, just as we have a Health Team on site to care for campers’ physical health.”
To address these needs, the AYF created Care Teams comprised of individuals with experience in education, social services, or other related fields. The Care Team members circulated throughout camp and checked in with staff each day, working with campers who were struggling with homesickness, conflict with campers, or other emotional needs. They also supported campers who are part of marginalized communities, including youth of color and LGBTQ+ youth.
“The idea for the Care Team existed before the COVID-19 pandemic,” Ford said. “However, the impacts of youth being isolated at home without in-person socialization has amplified the need for this team.”
Moiya Toliver served on the Miniwanca Care Team as a Community Life Coordinator this summer. She said the team’s presence allowed other camp staff to better focus on their primary responsibilities.
All summer, I heard comments from different individuals about how much smoother things went compared to previous summers. The Care Team took a lot of responsibilities and stress off the shoulders of Directors and Coordinators, and we provided assistance beyond what was expected from us.”
When an issue surfaced, the Care Team took the camper aside to discuss and, if necessary, worked with them to create a support plan with choices that best met their needs. Toliver recalled helping two campers whose parents were also camp staff work through a difficult time and communicate their needs to their on-site family members.
“This moment stuck with me because it can be hard for children to have a heart-to-heart conversation with a parent and have it actually go well. I know this from personal experience,” Toliver said. “Seeing them work out the problem and come to a meaningful resolution unknowingly healed my inner child.”
Ford said the Care Team was successful because its members meet campers on their level. “We hear them, connect with them where they are, and validate their experiences,” she said. “When children feel supported and safe, they can thrive in a camp setting.”