With ziplining, archery, and art comes LBGTQ acceptance at camp

Sarah Weill-Jones (center) at Camp Highlight, a one-week residential camp in Wernersville, Berks County. She is with camp founders Jackie McGowen and Chris Hudson.

Sarah Weill-Jones loves hanging out with her friends.

But until two years ago, the Roxborough tween didn't have any friends who had families like hers, with two moms.

So when she was 11, her parents enrolled her at Camp Highlight, a one-week residential camp in Wernersville, Berks County, geared to children of LBGTQ families.

There's swimming, arts and crafts, archery - and people who get where she's coming from.

Camp Highlight, which costs about $1,000 to attend, has grown from 12 kids at its start to 66 who plan to attend this summer. Though some identify as LGBTQ, most have family who do. "Children of gay people are often thrust into a spotlight where they're forced to justify their existence," said Chris Hudson, who founded Highlight in 2011 with friend Jackie McGowen.

Today, about 60 percent of the 311 camps that responded to an American Camp Association survey serve kids who self-identify as LGBTQ. Much like traditional overnight camps, these places offer typical activities that give kids a chance to become more independent. But they also create communities where kids of all sexual orientations and gender identities can learn to accept and appreciate one another.

"As important to us as building a fun, safe space for our kids is character-building," Hudson said. "We spend a lot of time talking about respect, responsibility, and cooperation."

Joanne Weill-Greenberg says the camp filled a void for her daughter, but there was more to the experience than just that. She met "good people of all ages" and learned to be more independent.

Although the trend toward LGBTQ camps started in the early '90s, many were "secretive" about their campers' identities, said Eli Erlick, director of Trans Student Educational Resources, which promotes the well-being of transgender youth. Today, the group lists more than 40 U.S. and Canadian camps specifically geared toward kids self-identifying as LGBTQ, a number that's grown primarily because of the general growing acceptance of LGBTQ youth, Erlick said. The camps include the usual camp fare, and some might include workshops on LGBTQ history or emphasize more social justice.

But countless other camps, not specifically marketed to the LGBTQ community, make it a point to be welcoming to typically marginalized groups.

"We celebrate all our kids," said Sheira Director-Nowack, director of camp community at Camp JRF, a residential camp associated with the reconstructionist Jewish movement in the Poconos. At any given time, about 15 percent of its 200 campers identify as LGBTQ or have families who do.

"We don't have gay sports or transgender swim - that's not who we are," said Director-Nowack. "What we have is a place where if you're coming out, you should speak to your counselor about it and your counselor says, 'I'm glad you trusted me with that. I'm so proud of who you're going to be.' "

Campers can live in cabins with whatever gender they identify as and use whatever bathroom they choose. Full-length doors offer privacy, and campers choose their preferred pronoun.

Nina Vitek of Hatboro discovered Camp JRF at 10 because a friend attended. "When I heard the camp was a very open community and that everyone there was very welcoming, I felt safe with that introduction to camp," said Vitek, now 16, who self-identifies as bisexual. Spending four weeks there each summer, she's become very close with her bunkmates and enjoys ziplining, rock climbing and off-campus excursions to a waterpark or movie. Her favorite moment was seeing a shooting star.

"We do lots of activities that incorporate friendship, community and values," said Vitek. "I don't know a lot of people in my school in the LGBTQ community, but at camp, I have a huge community of people from all over."

Her mom, Beverly, appreciates that her daughter can enjoy camp without judgment from her peers. "She has a big network there that she can rely on and make her feel safe in the community, accepting her for who she is," she said.

Bortman siblings Ari, 18, and Eliana, 16, of Yardley don't identify as LBGTQ, but they chose Camp JRF about a decade ago for its exceptional staff and accepting attitude. "It's completely about being who you are; no one is bullied there," said their mother, Dara. "I loved it from when they were young because, whether they realized it or not, they were learning to be good people, good citizens. It's ingrained in their activities."

It's not just that Camp JRF is supportive of LGBTQ people, she said, "they are supportive of people. It's the recognition that everyone comes to the table with different backgrounds, skills, experiences, and family structures, and that's a good thing, not a bad thing. It's just a whole culture of being accepting of everybody."

Parents interested in sending their kids to an LBGTQ-friendly camp should try to visit the summer before their children might attend, said Tom Rosenberg, CEO of the American Camp Association.

Ask questions about the camp's culture and how it might suit your child. If your child identifies as LGBTQ, "ask the camp director specifically if they have any campers who identify as LGBTQ and what efforts they take to make them feel included and safe," he said.