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Swimming, archery and queer sock puppets: A Vermont camp for LGTBQ+ youth expands

A wooden cabin with red window and door frames under a blue cloudy sky.
Camp Sunrise
/
Courtesy
A cabin at Camp Outright in Orwell, Vermont.

Camp Outright, one of the only residential summer camps geared toward LGTBQ+ youth across the country, has a years-long waiting list that is hundreds of names long.

And that’s partly because they don’t have the space to house more campers right now. The camp’s rented space in Starksboro is limited.

To help meet the need, Outright Vermont, the statewide advocacy organization that runs Camp Outright, recently purchased 146 acres of lakefront property in Orwell.

The land has welcomed campers for decades, formerly as Camp Sunrise, which was owned by the recently renamed Scouting America.

Vermont Public's Jenn Jarecki was recently joined in-studio by Outright Vermont Executive Director Dana Kaplan to talk through the significance of this acquisition and what expanding Camp Outright’s scope means for queer youth in Vermont and beyond. This interview was produced for the ear. We highly recommend listening to the audio. We’ve also provided a transcript, which has been edited for length and clarity.

Jenn Jarecki: Well, let's start broadly, what is Camp Outright? And why expand it?

Dana Kaplan: Yeah, so Camp Outright is a residential summer camp for young folks aged 13 to 17. And we talk about camp as being an opportunity for young folks to come and experience the beauty and simplicity of summer camp. You know, it's an opportunity for young LGBTQ folks to come and have fun just being kids. We talk about it like it's a summer camp with a queer twist.

Jenn Jarecki: What would a typical day in the life of a camp outright camper look like?

Dana Kaplan: Sure. So, lots of singing, folks are lining up and getting ready for breakfast. There's workshops that range from queer sock puppets, to archery, to swimming and hiking, friendship bracelets, all the sorts of good typical stuff that you find at summer camp. There are opportunities for young folks to come together with each other in affinity spaces, so to talk about aspects of their identity that they might not otherwise get to ever talk about or explore with other folks who have similar experiences. There's always campfires and skits and just time for joy and play for young folks who often don't have that opportunity.

Jenn Jarecki: So, Camp Outright isn't the only camp with a queer twist, but there aren't many residential summer camps for LGBTQ youth across America. Dana, how much of your interest comes from families outside of Vermont?

Dana Kaplan: Yeah, that's a great question. You know, there's a changing landscape right now. We see lots of families that are coming to Vermont right now, based on the political and social climate that LGBTQ folks and specifically trans youth are facing. We have always had an interest in camp from folks, both in Vermont and outside of Vermont. And we think about a lot of factors when we consider the cohorts of who comes together, including priority spots for the most marginalized of LGBTQ youth. So specifically thinking about LGBTQ youth of color, and trans-feminine LGBTQ youth. We want to create spaces of belonging for everybody, and we know that there's not a level of equity across our LGBTQ community. So we think about our cohorts very carefully. We do make sure that there's a majority of Vermont youth, but we absolutely accept folks from across the country and in fact, across the world. We've had campers from Italy, we've had campers from China. This really is a niche program.

An aerial photo of an A-frame cabin next to a lake
Camp Sunrise
/
Courtesy
A drone shot of a cabin at Camp Sunrise.

Jenn Jarecki: Well, that makes me think of safety, which is a word that came up a lot in the Seven Days article, the interview that you did recently, and also on your own website for Camp Outright. And I imagine that safety is on the minds of a lot of parents sending their kids to overnight summer camp, but at Camp Outright, I bet safety is pretty nuanced. Can you say more about what a safe environment at Camp Outright means?

Dana Kaplan: So there's an extensive process, just like at any camp, that folks go through in order to attend camp to make sure that it's going to be a good fit for everybody. Safety looks like community agreements in cabins — "this is how we are going to agree to be in space together." Safety looks like making sure that the staff, the volunteers that are coming onto campus have been through background checks and have gone through extensive training in terms of this is how we hold community, this is what community looks like, this is what belonging looks like for us in this space. You know, we're talking about a population of young folks who are used to having to be really hyper-vigilant about making sure that they are safe on a daily basis based on what they're navigating in the world around them. And so we want to make sure that when they're coming into this space that is dedicated and decidedly affirming and celebratory of their identities, that we're really getting it right.

There were a couple of things that we needed to make sure we could say yes to, one being continued public access to Lake Sunset. This is a lake that has been precious and beloved for generations and generations of Vermonters and we needed to make sure that we could continue to keep that public access and honor that for the community.
Dana Kaplan

Jenn Jarecki: I understand that the Vermont Land Trust and the Vermont Housing Conservation Board helped Outright Vermont acquire this land and that most of the acreage will be conserved. Will you tell us more about that?

Dana Kaplan: So we worked in deep partnership with the Vermont Land Trust and the Vermont Housing Conservation Board. They have been pivotal to this acquisition, and the opportunity for us not only to purchase this camp and to make sure that it remained a camp, but to be able to protect the land in perpetuity was just an incredible opportunity for us, VLT and VHCB. For them to understand that social equity is a key component of land conservation was really, really huge.

Jenn Jarecki: So now that the acquisition has been finalized, what are the next steps before campers arrive in Orwell?

Dana Kaplan: Now that we have acquired the property, we're going to turn our focus to a level of community and stakeholder engagement. We're going to bring young people to the land to begin to vision, what it looks like for them to be in nature and to be queerly and joyfully themselves. So we will start that process of community engagement, and the hope is that we will then begin renovations and ultimately, a full season of camp in 2026. Fingers crossed.

Jenn Jarecki: There's still a ways to go. But this acquisition has been in the works for years. Right, Dana?

Dana Kaplan: So we first visited the land in December of 2022, and have been working through our due diligence since then. There were a couple of things that we needed to make sure we could say yes to, one being continued public access to Lake Sunset. This is a lake that has been precious and beloved for generations and generations of Vermonters and we needed to make sure that we could continue to keep that public access and honor that for the community. We also needed to make sure that we were going to be supported by local folks, that local folks wanted us to be there. And the outpouring of love and support has been critical.

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