Ambrean Ford had never heard of the American Youth Foundation or Miniwanca when she accepted a job as a Girls Camp cabin leader in 2016. She joined the seasonal staff on a “leap of faith” and plunged headfirst into her first summer camp experience. She returned to seasonal staff for the next several years, expanding her role to work with the Community and School Programs team at Merrowvista and becoming a member of the inaugural class of Mulcahy Fellows.
After earning her master’s in social work, Ambrean returned to the AYF to serve as the Director of Community Life, Diversity, and Inclusion, a new position that helps the AYF make its communities welcoming, inclusive spaces for all people. Here, she shares her experience as a first-time seasonal staff member, her hopes for growth and change within the AYF, and the best gift she received as a cabin leader.
What was your first year as seasonal staff like?
The first summer was a whirlwind of feelings. I was not an outdoorsy type prior to that summer. Beyond learning the basics of existing with nature, there were many things about the AYF I was not prepared for: the excitement for Dishland, wearing bolos, walking into Community Circle, moments of gratitude, so many songs, and seeing Lake Michigan every day. I remember when I first learned we all had to be in a flash mob – I could not understand why. By the end of summer, I could not wait for the song of 2016 to play so I could dance with my campers and friends.
There was so much singing and dancing that sometimes it felt like “High School Musical: Camp Edition.” My favorite part was “challenge by choice” and how camp leaders encouraged me to start new things. Despite some not great moments, overall I felt comfortable existing at camp, and I learned so much about the impact of intentionality behind actions.
How did the Mulcahy Fellowship shape your relationship with the AYF?
Joining the Fellowship introduced me to a more intimate side of the AYF. I never thought the camps were perfect, and it allowed me to have a space to express that. The connections I made with the other Fellows were sincere, and we often took moments to validate each other’s experiences. I appreciated being recognized as a leader at camp.
What is one of your most meaningful experiences with the AYF?
My most meaningful experience is when I traveled to Merrowvista from Miniwanca to help with their Community and School Program in 2019. As a visibly Brown woman, I was scared to go to New Hampshire and be around people I didn’t know well. It was uncomfortable not seeing people who looked like me anywhere. I was afraid of encountering someone ignorant and not being around true allies. Thankfully, this was not my experience at all. The interns at Merrowvista were so helpful, understanding, and supportive. They heard my concerns, validated my feelings, and made sure I was not in a situation where I was alone in town. This was when I truly felt a part of the AYF family and knew this community had my back.
What was one of your greatest challenges with the AYF and how did you meet it?
One of my greatest challenges was learning about some former and current traditions that didn’t sit well with me. As a new staffer who did not attend as a camper, it was hard to feel comfortable speaking up. My first summer I felt I observed, and I was unsure how to address it. The next summer I was more confident, and I did speak up about cultural appropriation. I found out I was not the only one who felt this way, and a lot of behind-the-scenes work was happening to address it. Some changes were made that summer, and I have noticed improvements every year since. I am so happy I had the power to say something, and it helped me learn more about the AYF.
Why did you decide to pursue a career in social work?
Social work came to me randomly, as all good things in my life tend to do. I love the person this path has allowed me to grow into. I take what I do very seriously because people’s lives are nothing to play with. It is an honor to hold this title, and I highly respect everyone who does for their commitment to serving others.
Your role as Director of Community Life, Diversity, and Inclusion is new to the AYF. What do you hope to accomplish in your first year?
I’m so excited to really dive in and get started! My biggest goal is to have the AYF’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Strategic Plan ready to share and implement in 2023. This is one major projects we’re working on with outside consulting agency, Strength Perspective. The facilitators are experts in implementing DEI initiatives at nonprofits and camps. We’ll begin creating this plan in the upcoming months, once the AYF’s new DEI Committee is fully formed.
The AYF works to make intentionally inclusive communities where all feel welcome. What are some of the next steps the organization can take in the next few years to improve that community?
This is the big question. I wish I could give a simple answer, but it’s more complex when it comes to creating spaces where very different humans all feel included. My hope is the formation of the DEI Committee will help wrestle the tough questions around a wide range of perspectives. The most important thing is that the next steps consider all groups involved with the AYF.
What are some of your favorite things to do outside of work?
Recently I got a sweet puppy, and he keeps my hands full for sure. I try to spend a lot of time with my partner and my sister. I love being an auntie, so seeing her two kids gives me joy and fills my cup. Now that I am out of school and have time on my hands, I would like to try to let out my creative side in some way.
What is a little-known fact about yourself?
I am super in love with pink and rainbow silver glitter, so much so that in 2017, my cabin gave me a stick they painted hot pink and rolled in glitter. I cried laughing at how “me” that gift was.