Welcome to the country's first free summer camp for transgender kids and teens
On a summer day in July, 50 kids descended upon the pine tree-covered lands of Big Bear, California, for what some would call a life-changing, and even life-saving, week of summer camp.
Welcome to Camp Laurel, the country's first free summer camp for transgender youth.
"I'm 16, and I came to camp because I needed a place to feel safe," said Sam, who drove to camp from San Diego. The transgender young man's reason for coming wasn't all that different from those of the other campers.
"It's been super fun. I've met so many people," said Caramel, a 13-year-old also from San Diego.
Sam and Caramel are two of the 50 transgender 10- to 17-year-olds who camp to the camp from places as far as Hawaii and as close as Los Angeles. The atmosphere the camp had created on the fourth day when we visited was one of comfort.
"I feel like I can talk to [the campers," said Sam. "I can trust them. These are friendships that I want to continue having."
The camp has the things your average summer camp usually has: ropes courses, swimming, workshops and friendship. But if you listen closely, the conversations happening in the line for the ropes course are a little different.
"Hey, I was noticing your hips," one teen girl whispered to another as she jogged over to her. "I just started taking my hormones, and I wanted to ask you what you did to get such big hips. I want some like that."
The other teen gushed visibly and teetered off into her hormone routine, a conversation she seemed to have had before, but this time more at ease.
A lot of the kids at Camp Laurel are in the intense part of their transitions, so the camp has a social worker and medical staff to support the kids during their stay. It helps that more than 75 percent of the camp counselors are trans themselves."These kids get harassed," said Kat Williams, a volunteer camp counselor from San Diego. "They get bullied. I can relate because I was the same way. One of the most powerful things you can tell these kids is, 'There's nothing wrong with you.'"
This is the first year the camp is in session. Camp Laurel has been around for 25 years as part of The Laurel Foundation. The organization has been holding free summer camps for kids with HIV/AIDS since its inception. Now it's adding another community to its list of beneficiaries.
"Over the last couple of years, we've decided that we wanted to open up to another population that was in need of a camp program," said Margot Anderson, the founder of The Laurel Foundation. "And through research, we found that for trans youth, there really was no free program available to them."
A 2016 study by the Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center found that 42 percent of transgender youth report a history of self-injury. Thirty percent have attempted suicide.
"People need this," said Caramel, who will be transferring to a new school this year because of bullying at her previous school. "I mean, people are struggling at home and they need relief."
The cost of the camp comes in at about $1,200 per person, but it's covered by a long list of corporate donors like Wells Fargo, Boeing and Nordstrom, to name a few.
"It's nice to not only be able to lend a helping hand," said Sam, "but also be able to look up to other people who are much farther than I am. So it's like connecting the chain, and the chain's just getting longer."
The Laurel Foundation hopes to make that chain 100 people-long next year when it holds the camp for a second time.
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