Local LGBT ally, activist and volunteer Courtney Ware shares her experience serving as camp counselor
“Mom, is everyone here transgender?”
His eyes were bright and excited, and a smile beamed across his face.
As his mother looked down and hugged him, I felt a knot in my throat and my eyes fill with tears.
What had the "A-Team" told us new counselors just a few hours before?
Oh yeah, that this week would be emotional. At the time, I wasn’t really sure what they meant.
Sure, I knew that when it was time to say goodbye at the end of the week it would be sad, but I didn’t even think about experiencing happy tears until that moment.
Standing in the driveway on that first day, welcoming campers as their parents checked them in, it hit me: I knew I was in for something extraordinary.
A special week for all
Last week, at a location known only to the parents, staff and counselors, I had the honor of volunteering with Camp Aranu’tiq, a week-long, overnight summer camp for transgender and gender-variant youth, aged 8 to 15.
The camp, started by Nick Teich on the East Coast, was held on the West Coast for the first time this year, right here in Southern California.
The mission of Camp Aranu'tiq is to "provide transgender and gender-variant youth with a safe, fun, and unique outdoor camp experience and to foster leadership skills in a place where campers are able to express gender however they are comfortable and connect with others in similar situations."
I received information about the Southern California session through my involvement with PFLAG San Diego. As soon as I read the materials describing the volunteer opportunity, I knew I needed to apply, since Aranu’tiq combines my two passions in life: working with children and LGBT activism.
Although I have worked with children for many years and been very active in the LGBT community in San Diego, I have never worked with transgender youth. I was unsure of what to expect at camp, and was a little nervous. But my nerves were quickly calmed on the first Sunday afternoon, as the campers started to arrive and all I saw were just kids ready to have fun.
There were 36 kids at the camp in five different cabins, with the staff a mix of transgender and cisgender males and females. Every day, the members of the staff and each of the campers wore lanyards with an attached name-tag, displaying their name and preferred pronoun.
On that first day, the staff helped the campers find their cabins and get settled in, while the parents went to an orientation session. I was a cabin counselor with two other females, one transgendered and one cisgendered, bunking with nine male-to-female transgendered kids up to the age of 10.
There was lots of talk of Justin Beiber, Hannah Montana and Carly Rae Jepsen in our cabin, and the girls became fast friends. There was no discussion of who was transgender and who wasn’t, because that wasn't necessary. All of the kids accepted each other and were just there to have a good time without being discriminated against or scrutinized.
The week was structured like a traditional summer camp and went by quickly. During the day the kids had five different periods of sports, games and creative expression, like hiking, rock climbing, archery, arts and crafts, volleyball, canoeing, drama and writing.
We ate all our meals together in the dining room and ended each meal with camp songs. Each night we had special activities like karaoke contests, a "Minute to Win It" game show, dance parties, campfires and on the last night, a talent show.
There were lots of laughs, bonding, and even some tears at the last campfire, when the three 15-year-olds in attendance read us letters about what camp has meant to them, as they "age-out."
The best part of being at camp was seeing the friendships the kids made with other kids who could relate to the journey of transitioning and being transgender.
These kids felt accepted, safe and “normal.” They could be who they are and have fun without worry. Camp Aranu’tiq is something special ... I have never seen so many smiles in my life.
All week long, the counselors reminded ourselves that "camp is for the camper."
This held true and we all worked very hard to make sure the week was unforgettable for the kids, but I left camp feeling like the experience was unforgettable for me, as well.
Each of the campers and the other counselors made a huge impact on me and I have never felt as proud or as passionate about anything I have ever done in my life, until working with transgender youth at Camp Aranu’tiq.
For the last few years I have been soul searching, trying to figure out where my path in life will take me. After Camp Aranu’tiq, I feel like I have found that path.
- Aranu’tiq … a great place to be.
I love this camp, I love this camp, ‘cause I can be me.
-- verse from a Camp Aranu'tiq song
For more information about Camp Aranu’tiq, click HERE.