There’s no doubt about it: The traditional summer camp experience is getting a queer makeover. When wives and cofounders Jessica Ryan Weissbuch and Kayla Ryan Weissbuch bonded over their shared love of summer camp four years ago, an idea was born for a summer experience that would turn the traditional heteronormative experience of mosquito bites, canoes, and gender-specific activities on its head. In 2015, Camp Brave Trails launched as a non-profit leadership camp for LGBTQ+ kids looking for a classic summer camp experience without all the baggage. With the backing of powerful advocates like Jodie Foster and “Queer Eye’s” Karamo Brown, Camp Brave Trails is now approaching its 4th summer with dreams to keep expanding. Before the camp’s 4th annual “Camp Out” fundraiser on April 22, we caught up with Jessica Ryan Weissbuch to talk about the camp’s origin story and the importance of giving queer kids a positive summer experience.
The Pride: Tell me a bit about how Camp Brave Trails started.
Jessica Ryan Weissbuch: My wife and I started this together, and we have very different backgrounds that led us here. I grew up in the midwest, in the Chicago suburbs. I was in a pretty suburban town that was extremely white, middle-class, without a lot of diversity. I grew up Jewish in this really Christian area, so I always felt like an “other.” I got involved in an organization called Operation Snowball at an early age, helping kids with drug and alcohol prevention. My wife, (Kayla Ryan Weissbuch) grew up in a single-family household and was nominated by one of her teachers to attend a camp for underserved youth and foster care youth. So she was able to go to camp for $75, which is unheard of. She absolutely loved it. She would walk by the director’s house and think, “oh, that’s gonna be me someday.”
When we met, I’d started working at the local LGBT center with queer youth and development and leadership, and she started volunteering there. Like every queer couple I guess, we were driving home from the movies one night like, “how are we going to take over the world?” I had a lot of experience in queer youth leadership, and she had tons of experience in camp. So we were like, “what if we did an LGBTQ+ leadership summer camp? What would that look like?” We just loved the idea. We’d never created a non-profit from the ground up before or created a camp before, so there was a lot of learning involved. We did a lot of research, and we found the American Camp Association. We got a lot of support through them. We also found volunteers that were really dedicated. For the first three years, we were completely volunteers. We held a spaghetti dinner in our backyard to raise enough money to reach non-profit status. We started working from there. Our first summer we were like, “if we get 15 campers we’ll be so happy!” And we ended up with 43 kids in one week of camp. Our second year we had two weeks of camp and about 96 campers. Last year we had three weeks and we were able to have about 120 campers there.
So the fundraiser this year will be the biggest ever.
Yes. We have a full-time development manager as well. He’s totally knocked this out of the park, it’s going to be an amazing event. One of our core values is that we don’t want money to be a reason why someone can’t come to camp. We hold Kayla’s story very, very close to our mission. We’re also trying to diversify and change the narrative of camp, which is usually that white, upper-middle class kids go to camp because they can afford it. We don’t ever want money to stand in the way, so we have approximately $40,000 worth of scholarships to give out each year. Camp Out is a huge way that we get the money not only for operating, but to eliminate that waitlist and give as many scholarships as needed.
It’s cool that there are these queer-focused camps popping up to change the idea of what camp can be.
Yes, and we do a lot of consulting, which is the awesome part. Through the American Camp Association, we can do a lot of consulting with other camps. Since it does tend to be very heteronormative. You know: Girls sleep here, boys sleep there. To be able to bring a new lens to that has been really amazing. We have camps of all kinds come to us being like, “we can’t change this, but we want to be more supportive and inclusive, so how do we change?” It’s really cool. I think that queering camp, or throwing a wrench into the idea of what camp’s supposed to be, is really happening right now.
What steps do you guys take to make sure genderqueer or nonbinary folks are comfortable?
Gender is not even a factor for us. We don’t even ask. The gender field on the application form is optional. If kids want to fill it out, great, if not, it’s cool. We bunk everybody by age and it works. We have probably 8-10 campers in a cabin with two staff members and it’s all by age. I would say 60 percent of our campers are trans or gender nonconforming, so it’s a place they can come and just be, and focus on other stuff.
Camp Brave Trails’ 4th Annual Fundraiser Camp Out will take place on April 22 at the Garland Hotel. To donate or learn more, visit www.bravetrails.org.