Virtual camp counselors

Making Camp

On April Fool’s Day, while in quarantine, we got word that the summer enrichment program that my daughter was scheduled to attend had been cancelled. This was heartbreaking given all of the other events, school trips, and a vacation that she had to forego this year because of Covid-19. We had hoped (like everyone else) that it would pass quickly and that summer programs would continue, but alas, that was not meant to be.

By mid-April, I resolved to start my own online camp to provide enrichment for high school students who would otherwise have been experiencing a life-enhancing, resume-building summer.

Within six weeks, we had a name, a logo, and a website and had identified six leaders for one-week “camp” sessions on a variety of subjects that were not typically taught in high school. We recruited nationally-known subject matter experts to develop the camp session content and lead the campers throughout the week by video, culminating in a “live” appearance on Zoom on Friday of their session.

While the camp sessions were being developed, we started marketing to parents with children at elite private schools in the hopes that they, like me, wanted to provide their high school-aged children with an enriching summer experience despite the fact that they were stuck at home. Summer should be a time of exploration and exposure to new ideas that inform choices about college, career, and life in general — and that became our mission. I defined success as an “aha moment” when a camper discovered something they would like to pursue outside of camp.

We were in the process of recruiting campers for our unique sessions, when on May 25, George Floyd was murdered. Full stop.

Making it Matter

Within one week, our business model was changed to a “pay what you want” model to enable as many students as possible to get the experience and exposure originally designed with an affluent clientele in mind. We reached out proactively to schools to provide scholarships for camp sessions. We formed relationships with the Beacon Academy in Boston and the Detroit Christo Rey High School, who put us in contact with students who received our scholarships to camp.

We began a crowd funding campaign to enable us to extend scholarships to more students and subsidize those that could not afford to pay the full amount. Our campers represented a truly geographic, socioeconomic, and racially diverse group. As of this writing, we have had more than 90 campers from 15 states, Brazil, Switzerland, and the Seneca Native American Tribe.

In keeping with our camp model, we employ college students who facilitate the cabin (i.e., breakout room) discussions and activities for the campers. This paid summer position provides a resume-enhancing experience for our counselors in a summer when many plans for summer jobs were cancelled as a result of Covid-19. We wanted to offer the counselor positions to a diverse group of college students, but our primary recruitment methods were not providing the Black and brown candidates we sought. We again reached out for the high schools to see if they could recommend former students as counselors and I discussed our recruitment challenges with my fellow Board members at Women Impacting Public Policy (WIPP). Ultimately, we were able to recruit and employ a group of counselors as diverse as our camper population.

Making Sense

Our approach quite simply makes sense. The forced online learning that Covid-19 has wrought provides a glimmer of hope that we can begin to close the opportunity gap and democratize learning experiences. While wifi and laptop access remain a huge barrier for many, we need to seize the moment and provide the opportunities and exposure to learning for as many students as we can. If high school students can engage in meaningful conversations about topics of shared interest with a diverse group of their peers, it will help us to return to a more civilized society where discourse is possible and commonality of interest and joint exposure to ideas creates bonds rather than divisions.

Julie Rothhouse is the Founder of SynaVoice SOL, a virtual camp providing exposure to new ideas and unique topics for high school students.