Camp Laurel focuses on needs of at-risk youth  

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MAKING A DIFFERENCE

There are plenty of summer camps for kids around the country, but Camp Laurel, according to its founder, is the only one that serves children, youth and families affected by HIV/AIDS, transgender youth and other at-risk youth populations.

“We bring everyone into a safe space emotionally and physically,” said Margot Andrew-Anderson, who founded the camp in 1992. “We have excellent volunteer social workers and medical staff. Our goal is to build their self-worth.”

Andrews-Anderson said the organization’s mission is to empower the kids and work on their mental health.

“Some have depression, some deal with self-harm,” she said. “There is a magic that happens at this camp. Because they feel comfortable and supported, they just start talking and opening up.

“We help them gain the tools to work through whatever they want to talk about. The big thing about our camp, though, is that it’s fun.”

Camp Laurel, which is under the banner of the nonprofit Laurel Foundation, was founded by Andrew-Anderson to fill the urgent need for programmed activities for its clientele through educational and support programs in a safe and trusting environment.

For nearly 27 years, a mandate of the Laurel Foundation has been to enrich and empower at-risk children, youth, and families through diverse and educational camp experiences. The Laurel Foundation’s educational and support programs impact the lives of more than 559 children, youth and families affected by HIV/AIDS, transgender youth and other at-risk youth populations annually. The programs address the challenges of living with an illness or facing social isolation issues, bringing a sense of healing, hope and joy to the kids.

Anderson said the Laurel Foundation’s programs tackle the emotional and social challenges at-risk children and youth face by constructing environments that support the mental and physical welfare of the participants. 

Our programs give participants the tools to build self-sufficient, productive, healthy lives,” she said.

There are specialized transgender programs, and HIV/AIDS programs.

The “Life Skills” programs are designed to help kids develop the skills and qualities necessary to build an independent, successful, self-sufficient life path. 

The “Health” workshops improve mental and physical health through various year-round educational and support programs.

The “Education” program instructs youth on the consequences of at-risk behaviors while at the same time providing knowledge on how to make healthy life choices.

The “Balance and Compassion” program is introduced into participants’ lives by bringing them experiences that show they can rise above the adversities they face and make more of their lives than they thought possible while learning to serve others with their strength.

This year, due to COVID-19, the camp, which is open in some form throughout the year, is virtual and free. 

When the camp is in-person, it costs $1,600 a week for an at-risk child. It includes transportation, medical supplies, program facilities, insurance, rent, food and clothes.

Camp Laurel’s donors offset the cost of low-income participants. About 91% of all Camp Laurel participants live below the poverty level.

“Our programs are year-round,” Andrew-Anderson said. “We want everyone to be able to participate, regardless of their finances. We have several camps. Some of them include long weekend camps, winter family camps, summer family camps, and day camps in the city that could include a beach day. Now that we’re virtual, we can touch base more often.”

Andrew-Anderson said Camp Laurel is also open to the families of the children attending the camp because while they, too, need support, they can also obtain learning resource skills to successfully support their family member.

Camp Laurel, which opened its current session on July 13, holds its online video support groups on Zoom. 

Andrew-Anderson said the groups are held bi-weekly for current campers affected by HIV/AIDS, who are between the ages of 10-17 and are currently living in California. Each group is facilitated by a camp social worker.

Various camp counselors join each week with fun activities, games and discussion topics. Some of the activities include a Zoom Morning Circle, Crazy Hat Tuesday and various game nights.

Each morning, kids are required to check in with their location and a parent’s phone number. At that point, everyone goes to their Zoom room where there are two or three volunteers. Each activity is an hour long. There is a designated lunchtime and a break at 4 p.m.

There also are cabin groups for kids interested in connecting with their friends. At 7 p.m., there are activities like bingo trivia, a talent show, a campfire and a version of Project Runway.

Prior to the camp’s opening, each registrant decides on the activities they want to do. They then receive a “camp box,” which includes a hat, shirt, cookies, a nametag, and the materials they need for their selected activity. 

If they select painting, the camp box they receive will provide all the materials needed in order to participate in the workshop. Boxes can include beads, sketch pads, sharpies, supplies for rock painting, transgender flags, bracelets and more.

“The parents think this is very important because now the kids have something to do,” Andrew-Anderson said. “For a week they can see the counselors online. For that moment, they really feel like they’re at camp. There is a kind of magic that we create through the screen.”

Over the years, the physical ability of the kids has changed dramatically.

“Because of their physical ability, our programs have shifted to mental health,” Andrew-Anderson said. “That’s what the kids need more help in. Some kids are still very sick. Now we have social workers. We didn’t always have them.”

According to Andrew-Anderson, there is a missed opportunity if there is no mental component. 

“If kids want to discuss their sexuality, abuse, or abusive relationships, they can,” she said. “We have social workers there 24/7. There is a camp Chill and Chat designed to build healthy relationships.

“Stuff comes up at camp and the kids want to talk. Sessions can be held under a tree or by a brook — whatever makes them comfortable. We do various sessions where we discuss things like, What is abusive?”

Andrew-Anderson, originally from Canada, started the camp because she enjoyed the camp experience when she was growing up. She named it Camp Laurel because, in Greek mythology, the laurel leaf is a healing leaf.

“Apollo covered his compound with laurel leaves,” she said.

“Going to camp as a kid changed my life,” said Andrew-Anderson. “It made me who I am today. It taught me about life and life skills and character development.

“In 1992, when HIV and AIDS were at the forefront, I thought those children also needed to have a camp. They need to have fun outdoors just like everybody else.”

Unfortunately, when the camp first started, information on HIV and AIDS was not as widely known as it is today.

About 85% of the kids who attend the camp are transgender. To accommodate them and make them feel comfortable, there is a transgender medical staff at the camp.

“It’s important that the kids see themselves through others at the camp,” Andrew-Anderson said. 

Within the diverse HIV/AIDS population, the children range from 6 to 17. About 40% are African American, 40% Latinx, and 10% white. 

The transgender population, ages 10-17, is 40% white, and 30% African American. 

“Making a Difference” is a weekly feature profiling organizations that are serving their communities. To propose a “Making a Difference” profile, send an email to newsroom@wavepublication.com.

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