Serving Kids, Serving Others: Community Service at Maine Camps

Every summer, in camps across Maine, kids are developing skills, gaining independence, making new friends. But at many camps, kids are also participating in a broad range of community service projects. Whether they are helping neighbors nearby, or traveling thousands of miles away, campers are getting the chance to give back. It is a win-win: activities that serve the needs of others, thereby helping to fulfill camps’ missions.

At Camp Nashoba North, in Raymond, teenagers aged 16 and 17 can participate in the camp’s two-week Summit Program, which offers the opportunity to work with a variety of Southern Maine organizations in serving those in need. From Habitat for Humanity to the Good Shepherd Food Bank to Partners for World Health – and many more – participants log as many as 25 hours of service, while at the same time enjoying other elements of camp life.

Bob Eagle, assistant director of Camp Nashoba North, says the program’s primary premise is offering exposure to service opportunities. “It’s important for them to gain it at this age, if not earlier,” Eagle says.  “I think the kids love it.”

Other Maine camps also have programs geared specifically toward service. At Hidden Valley Camp, in Freedom, director Peter Kassen  says the month-long Hidden Valley Community offers about ten campers aged 14 and 15 the chance to live off the grid in a house a half mile from Hidden Valley’s main campus.  The boys and girls participate daily in a range of service activities, including many projects in the local community.

One regular venture takes them to an area senior housing facility.  “One of the great things they did,” Kassen says, “no one knew how to set up the internet.” A perfect task for teenagers.

In addition to serving the greater community, Hidden Valley Community participants also contribute to their own camp community, Kassen says.  By working with younger campers, for example, the teens learn “about how you give back. These campers were once eight years old themselves,” he says.

Hidden Valley Community participants also learn about living in their own small community, And it’s all about helping Hidden Valley Camp achieve its mission.

“One aspect of our mission is always a sense of recognizing camp itself is a community, and if we hold larger society to certain standards, we hold ourselves to those standards as well,” Kassen says.  Communication, inclusivity and moral support are all key, he says.

And like Camp Nashoba North Summit participants, Kassan says Hidden Valley Community campers “have a blast.”

“If you’re a city kid or a suburban kid, and you meet a farmer in Maine, that’s a great experience.”

Hidden Valley Camp also incorporates community service into its programming through Outreach/Outdoors, an activity in which younger campers can participate. Although the activity in the past has taken place only outdoors – such as helping at a local farm – the program has broadened to  include helping at the local library and food co-op.

Camps of all types can exist “in a bubble,” Kassen says. “That can be a fantastic opportunity for growth, but we also need to remind them that there’s a larger world out there. They can exercise some sense of community responsibility as well.”

Sue McMullan, CCD, director of Alford Lake Camp, a girls’ camp in Hope, agrees that teaching kids to give back is essential.

“Our mission in camp is to be the best we can be, give back to others, be self-aware, be independent,” she says. “In our out-of-camp trips we always do some community service.” And about a decade ago, McMullan says, Alford Lake instituted its community service activity, where on a daily basis girls can support both the camp community and the community at large.

“The idea behind all of this is to learn what our role in life is,” McMullan says. “To give to others and to make a difference.”

McMullan says campers of any age can participate in the activity, where projects include working at the local animal refuge league, going to nursing homes, even cleaning windows at the fire department.  “It’s a very inspiring thing for them to be part of that,” McMullan says. “They feel pretty grown up about it.”

“I am really pleased and thankful to see the energy behind it,” McMullan says.

At Camp O-AT-KA, a boys’ camp in Sebago, Executive Director Kyle Tong points to the camp’s Galahad Program, which has seven vows to which campers commit as they progress in age. The final vow is service, and Tong says he wants to bring that quality to each boys’ camp experience. O-AT-KA has an annual community service day, during which each unit participates in a project. Last summer, the camp also sponsored a road race for Maine summer camps, with entrance fees going to Global Camps Africa, a Virginia-based organization whose mission is to educate South Africa’s children about HIV/AIDS prevention through camp experiences.

Like other Maine camps, Camp O-AT-KA also has a program specifically designed for service opportunities. The four-week program offers older campers three weeks preparing at camp in Sebago, followed by a week-long service project in northwest Nicaragua.  In the several years of the program, campers have worked on hydrology and reforestation projects, even helped build a stove for the local Nicaraguan community.

“At the same time, they spend time with kids in the community,” Tong says.

Tong says Camp O-AT-KA also seeks to serve the community by offering scholarships to campers from Dennen Week – a free, week-long camp for deserving youngsters – enabling them to participate in regular camp sessions. “The camp is committed to that as part of its mission,” he says.

Camp is certainly about fun, but it is also learning to live in communities. Those communities exist in cabins and tents, dining halls and activities. But camp directors are committed to exposing youngsters to opportunities for giving back beyond camp borders. It’s part of camps’ missions. And it’s making a difference for both kids and those who they serve.

Kristine Millard

About Kristine Millard

Kristine Snow Millard is a free-lance writer from Portland and a fan of all things summer, including camp. She holds a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of New Hampshire, a master’s degree (communications) and a law degree from Boston University, and, most recently, earned an MFA in creative writing from the Stonecoast MFA Program at the University of Southern Maine. She is currently helping to edit The Art of Outdoor Living, a guidebook used for Junior Maine Guide candidates, and is a regular contributor to the Maine Summer Camps newsletter. She has also contributed to the American Camp Association New England newsletter. Kris has written regularly for Maine Women and My Generation, both publications of Current Publishing. She has written features for the Maine Sunday Telegram, and is also a free-lance grant writer. A parent, she is also deeply committed to the subject of emotional wellness, and has seen how camp can foster whole and healthy kids. She is working on a memoir about living with clinical depression, and an essay she has written on that topic is forthcoming in an anthology to be published by Talking Writing, an on-line literary magazine.