Summer camp for Pagan youth?

Cara Schulz —  August 28, 2014 — 11 Comments

“Time and again, parents and community leaders have recounted to me how the American conception of camp offers an opportunity for a cultural, religious and, in some cases, linguistic immersion with other American Hindu children. This is understood to be all the more important because within the dominant American and Christian culture, Hindus and Hinduism are often exoticized and maligned.” – Shana Sippy, professor of religion at Carleton College in Minnesota, on the value of Hindu-American summer camps for children.

The above quote comes from the recent New York Times article “Building on U.S. Tradition, Camp for Hindu Children Strengthens Their Identity.” In it we meet Neha Dhawan, a Hindu-American woman who says her life was changed by attending “Hindu camp” when she was eleven.

Like many children growing up in a minority religion, she felt set apart from her more mainstream friends. Her holidays were different; her culture was different and she dreaded questions such as “where do you go to church?”

At first Neha did not look forward to summer camp for Hindu children. But eventually she loved doing morning yoga, her hair still cool and damp from the shower. She discovered a favorite bhajan, a Hindu devotional song. She spoke with her peers and their college-age counselors about dealing with stereotypes and racism. “I realized,” she said, “it’s O.K. to be proud of who you are.” Neha is now the director of the Hindu Heritage Summer Camp.

The US has a long tradition of religious or ethnic summer camps for children. According to Professor Sippy, they help to “strengthen the denominational and ancestral identity of young people in a polyglot nation with an enticingly secular popular culture.” Because they are surrounded by their peers, children learn what living their religion looks like for them. They learn how to be more comfortable with their religion which allows them to be more comfortable in mainstream society. If that’s the case, are summer camps something that would benefit Pagan children?

Teens create a pattern using spices before the Rangoli at Sacred harvest Festival. [photo credit - C. Schulz]

Teens create a pattern using spices before the Rangoli at Sacred harvest Festival. [photo credit – C. Schulz]

“As a family, we are a solitary unit. We attend one Pagan Festival every summer, but that is the only exposure they have to us being part of a larger community. I would love for my children to have another opportunity to make those important connections,” says Kristin, a Pagan mother of two who lives in the Chicago area. She says that she would budget through the year to be able to afford sending her children, ages 5 and 8, to a Pagan summer camp and would spend up to $700 a week for a sleep-over style camp. She says not only would children benefit from knowing they aren’t alone, but Pagan communities would also benefit through a focus on instilling Pagan ethics in children.

Ashley Sears, a Pagan mom living in the Minneapolis area, also welcomes the idea of a Pagan summer camp for her three children, ages 15, 13, and 11.“Having raised my kids Pagan since birth, it’s been a struggle to help them find their own “identity” within our faith. We’ve moved all over the country and have been blessed with many Pagan friends and Pagan Parenting groups, but never a chance to expose them to an immersive experience in our faith.”

We sought opinions from many Pagan parents. Other than questions about affordability, there were no parents who were opposed to the idea. One parent did say that he wouldn’t send his children because he didn’t see a need for summer camp and declined to be interviewed. However, he wasn’t opposed to the idea.

Pagan summer camps – past and present
While there appears to have been a summer day camp for Pagan children in the past, there aren’t any operating now. So what options do Pagan children have for a summer camp experience? Not many.

The closest to a Pagan summer camp currently operating are programs like Indigo Camp. These are summer camps with no specific religious take, but with Pagan-friendly components such as spiritual drumming, yoga, and non-violent communication techniques. These camps welcome people of all, or no, religious background. However, they won’t be able to give a child the benefit of being surrounded by those of their same faith.

For a specifically Pagan camping experience, a family could attend a Pagan or Heathen camping festival. These can last from a weekend to a week or longer. Festivals vary in the programs offered specifically to children.  Some are increasing their offerings as more families with children attend.

One of those festivals with a robust child and teen program is Pagan Spirit Gathering. “Every year, Circle Sanctuary [the organization which produces Pagan Spirit Gathering] creates programs for youth of different ages as part of its Pagan Spirit Gathering,” says Rev. Selena Fox, Senior Minister of Circle Sanctuary. She says activities include storytelling, craft projects, playtime, and rituals. She adds, “It is a wonderful way for Pagan children and older youth to learn about Pagan spirituality as well as form friendships with peers.” Rev. Fox asks those with skills in youth programming to please contact her at psg@circlesanctuary.org

Yet these festivals aren’t the same as a summer camp just for children. The children camp and take meals with their parents, not with their peers. The environment is friendly towards them, but wasn’t created just for them.

Another option isn’t a camp experience at all, but an alternative to Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts called SpiralScouts. SpiralScouts was created in 1999 by the Aquarian Tabernacle Church and is coed and nondiscriminatory. SpiralScouts was created to be specifically Pagan, but can be adapted to work with most any faith. Like other scouting groups, it focuses on woodland lore, camping, and outdoor living skills, but also includes the mythos of the ancient world. As of now, SpiralScouts does not host a summer camp and it can be difficult to find a local group.

Challenges in creating summer camps
If there are Pagan parents who want the traditional summer camp experience for their children, why aren’t there any Pagan kids camps available? There are many challenges that a group or organizer would face in setting up a summer camp.

The first is simply numbers. Although the American Religious Identification Study in 2008 reports that there are more Pagans and Wiccans in the USA than Hindus, [582,000 Hindu vs 682,000 Pagan and Wiccans – ARIS 2008 data], Hindus are more homogeneous than Pagans. Paganism isn’t one faith with denominations; it is many different religions with little in common with one another. The largest religion under Paganism, Wicca, is mostly either coven based or solitary, but it isn’t family based – although that may be changing. While Paganism may have the numbers on paper to host summer camps, in reality the number of Pagans practicing one specific religion is still very small. Yet it’s not impossible. There are an estimated 135 Hindu summer camps. That’s one camp for every 4311 Hindu-Americans.

Another challenge is the cost:  the cost to buy or renting land with the facilities for a summer camp; the high cost of insurance for taking care of minors without their parents on site; the cost of employees and volunteers to staff the camp and the cost to parents.

While parents may say they want a summer camp for their children, do they value the idea enough to pay for it? There’s a common misconception that Pagans are economically lower than the general population. Yet data from Voices from the Pagan Census: A National Survey of Witches and Neo-Pagans in the United States shows Pagans are slightly higher than the general population in both education and income. The average cost of a summer camp stay is anywhere from $400 to $2000 per week, depending on whether it is a day camp or an overnight camp. In addition, parents need to transport children to and from the camp and pay for supplies. While other religious and ethnic minorities do find the summer camp experience of value enough to support, it’s unclear if the Pagan communities feel the same.

The last challenge is more nebulous – trust. Pagans generally are less trusting of organizations and less inclined to follow traditional organizational processes. While there are benefits of this, the downside can be poor business practices coupled with lack of support from the community, which is a reinforcing cycle. Recent and past sexual abuse within Pagan groups and gatherings, although similar to what other groups of any type face, may also cause some parents to be more cautious in sending their children away to camp.

Do the benefits outweigh the challenges? That’s a question which can only be answered by potential organizers and parents.

“Our children have met other Pagan children, but normally have to hold their faith close to their vest for fear of social exclusion or not being able to answer questions,” says Ms. Sears. “Having a Pagan camp for kids would be an amazing way for our kids [to] freely celebrate their love and faith in the Gods.”

Send to Kindle

Cara Schulz

Posts Twitter Facebook Google+

Cara Schulz is a journalist and author living in Minnesota with her husband and cat. She has previously written for PAGAN+politics, PNC-Minnesota, and Patheos. Her work has appeared in several books by Bibliotheca Alexandrina and she's the author of Martinis & Marshmallows: A Field Guide to Luxury Tent Camping and (Almost) Foolproof Mead Making. She loves red wine, camping, and has no tattoos.
  • Gwion

    Actually, the Reclaiming community here in Northern California has two, week-long summer camps that are family based. Not exactly a summer camp exclusively for kids, but pretty close. We also have a program called Teen Earth Magic which is exclusively for teens in our community. My children have attended both and I can tell you it is a a wonderful thing for a community to have available.

    • Cara Schulz

      is the teen one a day camp or an overnight camp? is there a website where people could learn more?

      • Gwion

        Hello Cara – The teen camp is 5 or 6 days and happens up in the Nevada City area. There are folks from Nor Cal, as you would expect, but we also have teens from the East Coast and Midwest there often. More info can be found at http://www.reclaimingquarterly.org/web/tem/

  • David Salisbury

    Yes! This is the type of thing that I desperately hope manifests within our communities some day. Pagan youth really do need their own spaces to effectively grow and bond. Although I don’t have kids of my own, I would donate to some kind of national Pagan kid summer camp effort in a heartbeat.

  • kadiera

    I really like the idea of a camp just for kids, but I suspect my kids would never be welcome given their special needs (both have mild CP, leading to some developmental delays, including severe speech delays). As it is, we have a hard time finding activities at Pagan events that are even willing to work with us to involve them (which, given what I see on various social media streams, is a problem across most religions, not just for Pagans). They’re little (3 and 6), and maybe in the future it’ll be easier for them to fit in.

    I feel like our kids need to know that there are other kids out there who are sort of like them. We have been a part of SpiralScouts, and of informal playgroups locally.

    But given that my kids need my direct involvement 1:1 with them to participate in anything, I can’t realistically take on planning anything, and “you want it, go make it happen,” is usually the response when ideas are brought to the table.

  • Wendy Griffin

    I am a Pagan because I went to summer camp for girls in the 40s and early 50s.

  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    Summer camp was formative in my development as a Unitarian Universalist and held the roots of both my earlier Humanism and current Paganism, the common thread being in-your-face engagement with nature as it is.

  • Don Cunningham

    The Reclaiming community in the northeast also runs a week-long family-friendly camp, Vermont Witchcamp. http://www.vermontwitchcamp.net/

  • Raksha38

    I would have dearly loved to have gone to a Pagan summer camp as a child!

  • Patrick

    As a very active member of the BSA, I and my pagan boys very much love the adventure of Summer camp, though I arguably spend a lot – A LOT – of time in conversation with them about the various Religious and Cultural issues I have with the group – but – the opportunities my young men have through that organization outweigh the negatives, so far, at least locally. The cost of camp is steep, running around $1200 for the three of us annually just for camp, but its worth every penny as the adventures are endless from sun up to well after sun down. One of the major problems with translating that model into the Pagan community is that the BSA has so many other revenue streams that if they take a hit on camp in one area, it’s made up for in another – the math is a little more complex than that but in general, they maintain profitability over a number of streams, not just one, like a standalone Pagan Kids camp would likely be doing. The BSA also own their own land, usually tax free, so that land cost has likely been offset many times over since most of those properties are very old. Pagan events, in most cases, have to rent a facility. For a week-long event those costs can easily creep up to around $15-20k depending on where you hold your event and how far you are asking people to drive and what facilities at the venue need to be augmented. Even if you don’t have to rent, there are still infrastructure costs to be absorbed that are usually pretty steep. No one wants to use the Porta that hasn’t been maintenanced in a few days.
    The other problem is finding qualified, trustworthy people to turn your kids over to for a week. I know that the BSA has its share of problems and until a Boy is 10, their parents are almost always present at every event, so this translates into the population of Pagan Festivals, if not into the programming itself. Then once a boy is 11/12 the Leaders are trained and certified in protection of themselves and the youth. It isn’t a perfect system, but it is A system. Who is providing training to the Youth leaders in the Pagan community? We don’t have a system. And if someone came forward with one, I am pretty sure we all have ideas on how that would play out.
    Then the question is around programming, if joining the Kid’s camp into the Adult Festival community is going to happen then the thing that’s missing is the quality programming. I don’t mean making glitter wands and paper hats as contrived ritual props. My kids are more tuned in than that and thrive on something deeper and more connected. They’re pagan. They didn’t become pagan. They ARE pagan. At the Festival we go to every year, my 12 year old son was one of two ritual fire tenders who spent a week in service to the community in that role. It was amazing to see as a parent. So that is the level of programming a program would need to be aiming for; From teething rings to High School Class rings.
    Sprial Scouts looks on paper like a decent organization but they are IMPOSSIBLE to get hold of and when you do get hold of them, answers to simple process questions are often IMPOSSIBLE to get hold of. You can’t build the walls up so high that nobody can get in. I tried for over a year to even get to the point of understanding the process of how to start a Hearth and then gave up – I gave up trying because it was so convoluted and complex, at least working with the people involved back then, which is admittedly about 10 years ago now.
    We also have to remember that we’ve got both young women and young men out there. Finding the capable, trustworthy adults who can build an entire 7-10 day long program and are willing to make running that program the entirety of their Festival experience would be problematic in most of the fairly insular Festival management communities that exist out there. And then if you do find them, how do you keep them engaged and active? I think if you looked at metrics about Festival attendance retention vs turnover, you’d see some interesting stats emerge.
    In concept Camp is a great idea, operationalizing that is where the real issues start emerging. I’d get behind one if it existed but most folks I know who have the [time, energy, experience, initiative, drive, willingness, etc.] also are involved in some great groups around town either putting on Fests, Cons, Prides or whatever other cause they’re currently invested in. New groups are often tough to get some traction and are often criticized based simply on who is willing to step up, so people learn not to step up and thus kids stay home in the summer or go to Fest with their Parents. The whole picture needs some touchups before this can be a reality on a larger scale than localized and individualized events.
    I applaud those who have accomplished this task because the work and dedication is immeasurable and demonstrates a spirit of service to the next generation.

  • Xaria

    As a parent raising my children to find their own paths I believe that children would benefit from the experience of summer camp. It is a welcome idea I believe should be persued