By Dawn Wolfe Gutterman
BURT LAKE – They thought they were going in order to have fun in the woods. And, to be sure, fun was had – campfire stories, canoeing, fire building and at least one panty raid. In addition to the fun, though, the campers and staff at the first YMCA-sponsored camp for youth served by Detroit’s Ruth Ellis Center enjoyed the gift of experiencing a whole different world.
On Memorial Day weekend, 22 teens and 12 staff members went up north to Camp Al-Gon-Quian courtesy of the Ann Arbor YMCA and the Y’s Strong Kids Campaign.
“It was life-changing. It really was. The counselors were all so affected – there were counselors crying when they hugged the kids goodbye,” said Antonio David Garcia, Y staff member and founding director of the Rowan Education Network. The original idea for the camp came from Garcia. “The staff is talking about how to make it better next year.”
The Y counselors who made up part of the camp staff had their eyes opened on Friday night when they spent the night at the Ruth Ellis Center in Highland Park before leaving for camp the following Saturday.
“That was a bit of a culture shock for our Ann Arborites, including myself,” Garcia said of the night in Highland Park. “We were feeling outside of our comfort zone and a little nervous. We didn’t feel real safe.”
That experience, though, was the beginning of a new understanding between the Ann Arbor staff and the Ruth Ellis youth.
“As I was talking to the kids that night and they told me how scared they were to go up to the woods, I told them they are never going to be more safe than at a Y camp; and I started to realize that what we were feeling that Friday night was exactly what they were scared of – leaving their comfort zone,” Garcia said.
Cynthia North, REC’s volunteer coordinator, was highly impressed with the Y staff and said that the teens were as well.
“The sleep-over here was an absolute hoot,” she said. “We danced until the wee hours of the morning. The staff from the Y was excellent. They were open and generous and silly and really, really good at being organized, which was really good for the kids. The kids ended up falling in love with them.”
According to North and Garcia, the campers, most if not all of whom had never been in the woods before, also learned to appreciate a whole new world during the trip and the camp.
On the way up north, according to North, the campers stopped at a rest area where a local Boy Scout troop was serving coffee and juice to travelers.
“These people were so nice to these kids – they just treated them like kids,” with “zero negative” attitude, North said. “They [the Boy Scouts] were incredibly generous with the kids, and that made a real impact on them.”
After arriving at camp “they became kids,” said North of the campers, who ranged in age from 16-20. “All that behavior that you see from 12 and 13-year-olds came out, because they’d never done 12 and 13 before. One night we laughed until 2:30 in the morning and my ribs hurt the whole next day.”
“It was funny seeing 19-year-old kids chasing minnows around the lake because many had never seen minnows before,” Garcia said.
Before leaving for the camp, “We were worried that the kids were going to revolt because they were so scared” of encountering snakes and spiders, Garcia said, but “by the end of the weekend they didn’t want to leave.”
“I taught one of the trans kids how to build a fire without gasoline and she was just amazed,” Garcia added. “When all of the other teens came for the campfire that night she was so proud.”
Dealing with LGBT kids for the first time presented some unique challenges to the YMCA staff, said Garcia.
“My whole career we’ve been trying to keep the boys out of the girls’ cabin,” Garcia said. “We weren’t used to dealing with trans issues or same-sex attraction; [it was] the first time we were dealing with such questions. But we dealt with them and handled them very well, I thought.”
However, staff supervision wasn’t enough to prevent a 2:30 a.m. panty raid, said North.
“They [the campers] got in trouble for it but it was just a riot,” she said. “Getting up in the morning at 2:30 and stealing your neighbor’s underwear is really fun!”
Mike Fitzsimmons, the vice president of the Ann Arbor Y, likened the impact of the camp to an “earthquake.” Fitzsimmons said that he went up to the camp for a visit and to support his staff. “As I was reluctantly driving home before the end it began to be a reminder of the work that we do, the work we can do, the work we should do with kids in this age group.” Fitzsimmons said he would support repeating the camp next year.
No matter how big next year’s camp is, though, North said that she is certain of one thing: the campers will be bringing a cooler of meat to supplement the camp’s vegetarian menu.
The vegetarian food took some getting used to, North said.
Culinary issues aside, North said that the camp was a highly positive experience for the staff and campers alike.
“We learned some really good lessons about what to do and not to do, and the kids learned that there are so many other things than dancing on the corner of Six Mile and Woodward,” she said.