Staff Spotlight: Miniwanca’s Bethany Wise

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Miniwanca Girls Camp Director Bethany Wise is new to the American Youth Foundation, but not to the world of youth development and outdoor education. Bethany spend her childhood summers as a camper and seasonal staff member, which led her to degrees in education and communication disorders.

After working at summer camps in Hawai’i and Ohio, she recently relocated to west Michigan to take on the Girls Camp Director role, following in the footsteps of Emily Knuth. Here, Bethany shares how camp experiences shaped her adult life, what she’s looking forward to in summer 2023, and her favorite part about the AYF so far.

Meet Bethany and new Miniwanca Boys Camp Director Paul Kerchberger at a Miniwanca Virtual Townhall Wednesday, Jan. 11 at 8 p.m. ET! Learn more and join on Zoom.

What drew you to the Girls Camp Director role?
“I have always loved working at camp, and I love creating spaces for people to learn. When I was teaching, my favorite part (besides my students) was designing curriculum. As Girls Camp Director, I have the privilege of designing high-quality programs for our campers, and it really allows me to use all my skills and passions.”

Can you share some of your history with summer camps?
“I began attending summer camp in Ohio when I was 9 years old, and I cried from homesickness every single night! But I still had so much fun that I decided to return the next year, and after that I just fell in love with camp. I convinced the camp director to hire me when I was only 14 to look after the staff children. After that I worked in pretty much every role until I was a program coordinator. I then spent two summers working at a camp in Hawai’i as the activities coordinator and then two more summers working at the MetroParks day camps in Columbus, Ohio.”

What was one of your favorite summer camp activities as a child?
“I loved horseback riding! This was something extra special I only got to do in the summer. When I started working, my best friend’s mom was the barn director, so we got to take extra rides during our time off and it was a really meaningful experience.”

How did your childhood experiences at summer camp shape who you are as adult?
“Summer camp established such a strong sense of community for me that has helped me take risks. I am still close with so many of my camp friends who are always supporting me. I have the privilege of going through life knowing that even when I fail, I have people in my corner who will help me back up again.”

What prompted you to pursue education and communication disorders in college and graduate school?
“I have always loved learning and became passionate about understanding how people learn. For my undergraduate degree I learned a lot about the science of how people learn. But I didn’t want to miss out on working with children every day, so I took that knowledge and became a teacher for many years.”

How does that background inform your approach to outdoor experiential education?
“My experiences have shown that the best way to learn is by doing. I love getting to incorporate the science behind learning into creating programs that maximizes a participant’s experience. Experiential education has such a tremendous impact because it engages the whole person and allows new knowledge to stick in someone’s brain long term.”

What about the AYF’s approach to youth development resonates with you most?
“I love our motto ‘My own self, at my very best, all the time.’ It’s easy for youth to get caught up in comparing themselves to others, so I love the emphasis on doing what is best for each person. AYF’s commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion is also extremely important to me. I’m thrilled to be working with an organization that is not afraid to question things and works so hard to make camp more inclusive.” 

How are you preparing for the 2023 summer season?
“One of my biggest focuses right now is hiring the best possible staff – they give camp that magical feeling. Having a group that is in sync and focused on providing the best possible experience for our campers is one of the most important aspects of a great summer.” 

What are you looking forward to most during your first year as Director?
“I am so excited for the first day that our 2023 campers arrive. I have heard so many stories about Miniwanca, but I can’t wait for that first day where I get to experience the buzz of everyone arriving full of hope and excitement. I think that day will stay with me for many years.”

What is one of the biggest challenges facing youth today, and how does summer camp help them meet that challenge?
“Our youth are facing a serious mental health crisis that seems to get worse every year. There is no longer a state of blissful ignorance while you are young. Kids are so deeply connected to everything happening in our world, and it seems the bad news outweighs the good too often. I love that summer camp gives them a chance to disconnect from the endless stream of information, create a supportive community, and allow them to just be kids for a while. I hope that camp gives them tools to better navigate the world when they return home and know that they have a network of people supporting them.”

What do you enjoy doing outside of the AYF?
“I absolutely love to read, and I love being outdoors with my family. We like to hike, camp, and fish. I have also coached competitive soccer for many years which takes up a lot of free time, but it has been one of my favorite things to do!”

What book has changed your perspective on the world?
“I don’t know if I can choose just one! One book I would recommend is Eric Klinenberg’s Palaces for the People, which talks about how social infrastructure like parks, libraries, and community centers positively impact people psychologically and physically. I also recommend Grandma Gatewood’s Walk by Ben Montgomery. It’s a biography of Emma Gatewood, who was the first woman to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail when she was 57 years old. I admire her determination and fearlessness so much.

How have your family’s first few months in west Michigan been?
“We are most excited for all the great outdoor adventures we can have close to home and being part of a new community. We have lived in a large city for many years and have felt disconnected from people at times because there is always so much going on. We like to live at a little slower pace.”

Is there anything else you’d like to share with the Miniwanca community?
“I feel incredibly honored to be the next Girls Camp Director. I am committed to keeping Miniwanca a truly amazing place that positively impacts the youth that come through our doors.”