Steph Dasman’s childhood camp experiences sparked a passion and interest in youth development from an early age. The enthusiasm and passion those program staff members displayed inspired her to work with youth at summer camps, public schools, emergency shelters, community centers, and outdoor education nonprofits.
In 2022, the American Youth Foundation welcomed her to Merrowvista as the new Director of Camp Programs. Here, Dasman shares her thoughts on the challenges facing kids today, the importance of connecting across rural, suburban, and urban communities, and why Halloween is hands-down the best holiday of the year.
What were your childhood camp experiences like?
“I attended a few single weeks of overnight camp here and there throughout elementary and middle school. Some of my favorite camper experiences took place during fall, winter, and spring retreats, when our favorite adults would take a group of us rambunctious kids up to camp for a long weekend. Those brief moments to reconnect with camp throughout the school year were a huge highlight for me.
“Most importantly, I saw adults being silly, having fun, and taking care of each other. That’s what convinced me at a young age that I needed to be a camp counselor as soon as possible and see what it was all about! It seemed like the ‘cool club’ except everyone was invited, and I loved that.”
You worked at day camps in high school and residential camps in college. What about camp life hooked you?
“This will be my 11th year as a member of a camp staff team. Every summer I spent away from camp was a summer I spent longing to be back! I would often daydream about those long summer nights when dusk falls over camp and everyone is well fed, happy, and grateful to be in such a beautiful place surrounded by such welcoming people. I love waking up and seeing the same people every morning and eating every meal together. In camp community, we have the chance to deeply know and be known by others. My camp friends have become lifelong friends who I consider family. That togetherness is what makes camp magical for me.”
You first encountered Merrowvista and the AYF through Camp Spinnaker. What was that first AYF experience like?
“Camp Spinnaker was a program for campers with asthma to enjoy a typical camp week while being medically supported. We had a blast with the campers, and looking back, I see how so many things I took for granted were actually part of AYF’s culture. From the moment of gratitude, The Melbourne Cup box races, and the morning Go Getters, it was all AYF the whole time, and I enjoyed every minute of it!”
What appealed to you about the Director of Camp Programs role at Merrowvista?
“I feel honored to take on such an important and trusted role within the Merrowvista community. Knowing that Merrowvista has an almost 100-year history was very appealing to me. It means there are deeply meaningful, longstanding traditions I now get to be part of. I know what a huge responsibility it is to care for a camp that is so special to so many, and I am excited to cherish the old and welcome the new as I use my unique gifts and skills in service of Merrowvista.”
What is one of the biggest challenges facing youth today, and how does summer camp help them meet that challenge?
“Youth today are struggling to navigate the complexities of creating and maintaining positive, social connection with each other. At the same time, they seek to understand their unique and best selves in the context of extreme global upheaval and chaos. And they are doing it with unprecedented levels of access to information, opinions, and media that are nearly impossible to make sense of.
“Summer camp allows young people a respite – to live in a community where building relationships with peers and caring, enthusiastic adults is the only thing on the ‘to-do list.’ We invite them to look at the trees, the fire, and the water instead of their phones. We invite them to listen closely to each other and themselves instead of the voices competing for their attention back home. We invite them to enjoy a world that is full of laughter, growth, and newfound confidence. Even if they are only here for a single week, camp builds resilience that lasts a lifetime.”
You’ve worked with youth in remote outdoor education settings and in urban centers. How do those experiences compare?
“In the outdoor education and camping world, it is often part of our mission to bring youth from all backgrounds into the beauty of nature, especially youth who might not have access to outdoor spaces. But I think we often forget about the beauty of the city and its vibrant communities. There are parks, greenways, and rivers to explore, as well as cultural celebrations, delicious food from around the world, and neighborhoods of joyful families supporting each other and doing meaningful, justice-oriented work.
“While I will always advocate for giving youth from the city a chance to summit a mountain or go canoeing on a pristine lake, one of my dreams is to start a program where campers who live in suburban or rural areas travel to the city so they can be transformed by its richness and residents!”
What else do you enjoy doing outside of work?
“When the weather is warm and sunny, I love finding the perfect spot in a park or forest to hang my hammock and just relax away from technology and the rush to be anywhere or be doing anything. Gathering with friends and having long conversations over a table full of good food will forever be my favorite way to spend time!”
What song has left a lasting impression on you?
“I’ve had Pinegrove’s song, ‘Skylight,’ on repeat this year. It’s a reflective acoustic song that comforts me in times of uncertainty, and it motivates me to remain open to the self-discovery that often unfolds while we’re challenged. The lyrics repeat in an almost meditative way: ‘Whatever you’re feeling is natural. Let me let go. Let me know me better.’
“It reminds me that whatever emotions I’m having are a real and valid part of the shared human experience. The more I can let go of how I think things ought to be, the more I can understand myself and my purpose in life.”
What is a little-known fact about you?
“I love the family-friendly version of Halloween – not the scary side of things – and look forward to it all year. It takes me days to decorate my home from top to bottom, and I throw a big costume party for all my friends. Every party includes some sort of camp-inspired programmatic element like team Olympics, a photo scavenger hunt, or a Halloween-themed gift swap. It’s the highlight of my year!”
What are you most looking forward to this summer?
“I can’t wait to eat more of Kim Novotny’s cooking! I’m also looking forward to the moments where we all gather around the fire as a whole camp community.”