Camping Pioneer

The “camp bug” bit Kevin Gordon ’91 in college, when the psychology concentrator took a summer job as a tennis pro at a Wisconsin girls’ camp. He had never camped as a boy, and was impressed by the “growth of the kids, the intensity of the camp experience.” But while learning the ropes as a counselor, activities leader, and assistant camp director in subsequent years, he noticed how homogeneous camp populations tended to be, and resolved one day to start a multicultural camp of his own.

Photographs courtesy of Kevin Gordon
Camp owners and directors Gordon and Jackson with their son, director-in-training Mico.
 

It took more than a decade, during which Gordon earned a J.D. at Berkeley and juggled law and camp jobs, as well as luck: there is no open market for residential camps, he says. In 2006, after two years of negotiating, he and his wife, Natasha Jackson, an elementary-school teacher and fellow veteran camp counselor, bought Camp White Eagle, two hours west of Chicago. They believe they are the only black owners of a private, residential, accredited summer camp in this country.

Now they are launching their next innovation. “Camp Kupugani” (www.campkupugani.com) is a multicultural session that aims to offer 7- to 12-year-old girls a challenging and enjoyable two-week program within which they can build self-confidence and community, free of the “sometimes limiting restrictions of school and other social hierarchies,” in Gordon’s words. He and Jackson have recruited a diverse set of counselors (“Mostly people we’ve worked with in the past”) and have fine-tuned the shorter, specialized trial session that they ran last year.

Photographs courtesy of Kevin Gordon
Snapshots from Camp Kupugani’s trial run last year
 

Kupugani, Gordon explains, is a Zulu concept meaning “to raise oneself up.” There hasn’t been a summer-camp tradition for girls of color in this country, he says, so one long-term goal is to educate their families about the benefits of camp. That way, he hopes, “we won’t have to specially search out minority counselors in the future: they will have grown up with camps,” and the camp movement itself will have become diverse.

~J.M.

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