Special Feature: Providing every kid a special summer camp experience

By Alyssa Dearborn

Liz Schmid, VP of properties and programs for Girl Scouts of NYPENN Pathways and member of Camp Beyond Binary’s planning team, wants to make sure that all kids – no matter their gender or orientation – are able to have a special summer camp experience. 

So, our CEO of Girl Scouts of NYPENN Pathways, Julie Dale, has a kiddo who needed a place to be themselves and explore who they were and be in a safe space.” Liz said about Camp Beyond Binary’s beginnings. “As a CEO of Girl Scouts, she realized there isn’t really a place for kiddos who are not necessarily identifying as a girl or boy. And she decided that she would explore options for her own kid, which became Camp Beyond Binary.”

At the time, Schmid was the director of outdoor programs for the Girl Scouts of NYPENN Pathways and was in charge of all the summer camps that we had, which are four camps throughout the council. “So she came to me and said, ‘Hey, what if we do a summer camp for kiddos who are LGBTQ and their allies?’ and I said, ‘That is a fantastic idea, let’s do that!’” 

I do want folks to know that even though we’re powered by Girl Scouts of NYPENN,” she added, “you don’t have to be affiliated with Girl Scouts to come to this camp. You don’t have to be a Girl Scout, you don’t have to have a mom who’s a Girl Scout. We really are open to the community as a whole as long as you are LGBTQ and or an ally, you are welcome. At this camp.”

The camp, which is running two sessions in August this year in Ithaca, has the typical camp activities that you would find at most camps, but the camp also includes exclusive activities that tap into LGBTQIA+ history and culture. 

Last year was our first year in 2022.” Schmid explained, “So we tried to marry both traditional camp activities – like hiking and waterfront where we do boating, we have canoes and kayaks and swimming of course – with other activities that really are enmeshed with the LGBTQ community. Things like queer history. We had a historian come in and set up a whole history trail for kids to walk on. There were pictures and information about folks who were really important to the LGBTQ history throughout the years. So that was really cool for them to do. We had a talent show. The kiddos were able to dress up and sing songs and act out skits and things that really touched on their creative side. We had an arts and crafts area called ‘House of Frida’ – like Frida Kahlo – and they did weaving and painting and all sorts of art therapy type things.” 

In addition to all of the fun activities that happen at Camp Beyond Binary, the camp organizers wanted to include important activities and resources that help kids attending the camp build resilience and self-acceptance. According to the camp’s website, the camp has staff and counselors trained to work with those who have different physical abilities and those who are neurodivergent. The staff also includes LGBTQIA+ competent nurses and mental health providers. 

Also, instilled in the camp is a support system where staff members can check in on the mental health of the young campers.

We did something called ‘Community Circle’ where the kiddos got together with two or three staff members and a small group of kids and they talked about things, like how they’re doing in school and how they’re doing in after school programs, how their family’s doing, are they able to be safe and happy and do the things they need to do in their outside world?,” Schmid said. “So we really think that the Community Circles are a great piece of the camp where kiddos are really able to talk with their own peers, but then also have adults who have maybe been through some of the same challenges and triumphs they have been through.” 

Providing a sense of community and a place for kids to connect with those like themselves, Schmid said, is important for helping kids build a sense of self and not feel alone. When asked why providing spaces for LGBTQIA+ youth is important, she said, 

I think that queer spaces are so important because the way that the world is right now…the world’s a scary place. We are helping to provide a safe space for kiddos to come and just be who they are. We don’t want them to worry about the outside world and what’s happening there while they’re at camp. But at the same time, we want to teach them to be strong advocates for themselves, for their community, so that when they do go back into this scary world that we are in, they can better support themselves and each other,” Schmid said. “They might have a stronger voice than they had before they came to camp. We want to make sure they know that they are a part of this world, they’re a part of society, they’re important, they matter, and that they shouldn’t think of themselves as ‘other’ or as ‘less than’ just because there’s a few vocal voices out in the world telling them that they are. We want to make sure they know that they are supported and that when they go back out into the real world, that they have what we have built at camp.”

I would love for people to know that our camp exists,” she continued, “that we are providing safe spaces for kiddos and allies. You know, sometimes being an ally is an important job you can do when you have friends and family and coworkers and people that you love in the LGBTQ community. I want folks to know that we’re here, that we are providing these spaces that will provide leadership and the advocacy work so that kiddos can go back out and be their true selves, no matter where they are. They can just go back and feel stronger and more empowered and more loved.”

This year’s camp sessions will take place August 6-11 and August 13-18. If you are interested in learning more about Camp Beyond Binary, visit www.campbeyondbinary.com.