Meet AYF board chair DD Danforth-Burlin

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The American Youth Foundation has played a pivotal role in DD Danforth-Burlin’s life. The four-fold way of living has steered her through her youth as a Miniwanca camper and leader, a National Leadership Conference participant, a successful lawyer and activist, a Merrowvista camper parent, and a 25-year member of the AYF board of directors.

Today, that same foundational philosophy guides her as chair of the board, a role she assumed in August. Here, Danforth-Burlin shares fond Miniwanca and Merrowvista memories, her thoughts on this generation of campers, and her hopes for the future of the AYF.

What do you remember about your first camp experience?
“My very first year at Miniwanca, I sent a letter to my parents in which I said, ‘I love camp. This is so much fun. I’m a member of the Draws tribe. We have a cheer that goes like this.’ And I wrote out the entirety of this nonsense cheer, and it was complete gibberish to them! Then I wrote, ‘And we have a camp clap, and it goes like this: clap, clap, clap, clap…’ Everything was so meaningful to me as a 9-year-old, and I wanted them to feel my joy in that letter.”

What was your favorite tradition as a camper?
“I loved Night’s Doings. I have a very funny memory of the camper-leader hunt. At the time, campers hid from leaders. My friends and I had a well-hidden place in the woods, completely covered in leaves. We were totally invisible, and no one found us. And then we spent the next week going to the health center dealing with chiggers, mosquitos, poison ivy… It was worth the price though – we won!”

What is one of your favorite memories as a camper parent?
“Nearly every year, I went to the Closing Circle at Merrowvista, and I watched my boys start as the youngest campers and rise through the age groups. Every year, we’d watch the oldest kids pass a candle flame from kid to kid as they’d sing Follow the Gleam. They’ve gone through their whole program, and now they’re passing their torch to the campers below them. It’s a moment of such pride and gratitude – it makes you a complete mess when you watch your kids pass that flame.”

How has your legal career benefited you in the nonprofit space?
“When you’ve been through law school, the way you think about problems changes. It’s very process- and logic-oriented. I will always be a lawyer. I can retire but I will always have legal thinking as the way I address a problem.”

What value do youth development programs provide?
“It’s so important for kids to have the freedom and space to take a deep dive into who they are away from their families and structures. The most meaningful part of AYF programs is getting the kids out of their day-to-day routines and putting them in a thoughtful, caring environment where they have the power to decide for themselves who they want to be.”

What are the needs of youth today?
“This generation is a different kind of kid. They care deeply about what’s going on in the world, and they’re pretty well informed. Young people really see themselves as change agents, so how can the AYF give them the skills they need to learn leadership? How do we give them the internal strength to get them where they want to go? That’s the mission of the AYF. We can give these kids the tools to make the world a better place.”

Which tools are most important for youth today?
“A million young people working in concert with one another to better our country and our globe is great. A million isolated people not working together doesn’t do very much. Getting people to understand community, what it is to work together – that’s the setting the AYF can provide. I want to make sure we as an organization can be resilient and in turn help them build their resilience.”

The AYF centennial in 2025 will be a significant part of your tenure as board chair. What opportunities does this milestone present?
“My great-grandfather always said, ‘What’s next?’ Let’s celebrate what we’ve done, and let’s focus on the future. The centennial gives us an opportunity to make sure we as an organization are doing our own four-fold introspection. Are we meeting our own goals of best self? Are we doing the best we can to share our mission and serve as many people as we can, as best we can? The centennial lets us reach into the past and celebrate, and it also lets us look ahead and ask how we make sure thousands of people are served going forward.”

Where will the AYF be in the decades to come?
“I can’t tell you what the needs of kids decades from now will be or what the world will look like then. What I do know is that our mission and the four-fold way of living worked for my great-grandfather 100 years ago. It worked for my kids three years ago. We’ve spanned a century with a philosophy that is timeless.”

This article originally appeared in the 2021 Founder Fire.