Into the Woods: Camp Rise Up preps teens with life skills

Home/Culture and People/Into the Woods: Camp Rise Up preps teens with life skills

A week in the woods can result in a lifetime of positive changes

Kids and camp—next to long beach days and the sound of an ice cream truck gliding down your block, is there a summer activity more iconic? More than just fireside songs, arts and crafts, and canoe trips on the lake, camp also is an opportunity for learning, growth, and community during a child’s development. But, for kids living with homelessness, camp is often out of reach. According to a report by the National Center for Education Statistics, only 7 percent of children living at or below the federal poverty level have access to summer camp.

It’s why The Floating Hospital’s Camp Rise Up has become such a pivotal piece of programming for kids ages 12 to 15 who live in temporary housing. Specifically designed to meet their unique needs, the camp combines old-fashioned fun and practical lessons in life skills for those who don’t have access to the same rites of passage as their housed peers.

“Camp Rise Up is important for a lot of different reasons, one being teens in temporary housing are at increased risk of having sex before age 13, being in abusive relationships, using drugs and alcohol,” says Floating Hospital Director of Health Education Dr. Meghan Miller. “But it’s also important to have a time for them to get out of their living environments and experience nature and a different place. It’s also cool to get a support group of other kids in the same situation. A lot of them have to move around and get shuffled to many different places through the year—it’s really nice that every year they can count on going to Camp Rise Up.”

graphic with quote from post
graphic with quote from post

Miller began the camp in 2018 with 20 students; this year, 80 will participate in the week-long sleepaway event the last week of August at Camp Ramapo in Rhinebeck, NY, which specializes in working with children who have social, emotional and learning challenges. Miller’s team designed a progressive three-tiered curriculum, each tier building upon the previous, and leading to a counselor-in-training program and, eventually, an internship.

Camp Rise Up is offered to qualified campers at no cost to them, however, the expense of organizing and running the camp falls to The Floating Hospital and a program of fundraising from private donors. The current rise in inflation is concurrent with the camp’s increase in attendees and staffing. Five camp counselors for a week costs $3,000; the six counselors-in-training are each paid $300, and room and board for the week is $625 per camper. Added to that is the fact that most kids living in homeless shelters don’t have the necessities for camp—a basic hygiene kit, a backpack, a beach or bath towel, a bathing suit, sneakers. The cost of those incidentals cause parents to assume camp is out of reach.

“We’ve encountered this when we do outreach with parents. Some say they can’t send their child anymore, and when we gently ask why, it comes to light that some don’t have clothes, luggage or transportation,” says Reynaldo De Leon Jr., a health education specialist in Miller’s department. “But if we can address it, then they’re on board with attending.”

graphic with quote from post
graphic with quote from post

For those who come, the camp pays off in benefits far more valuable than the initial dollar amount. Camp Rise Up’s counselor-in-training program is a paid work experience for former campers and is a stepping stone to a better path and a brighter future, including attending college.

“A lot of the kids who have been with us for last few years didn’t necessarily think or want to do that originally. They form close relationships with the staff and we encourage them. And we’re pretty convincing!” says Miller, adding that staff members provide letters of reference and help campers with their applications. “One kid in camp from 2019 who’s going to be a counselor this year told me he wants to be a role model. It’s amazing to see how mature he’s become.”

Beyond that summer week, Camp Rise Up continues its influence all year long with monthly pizza party meet-ups for alumni. But the kids also get something they’re often lacking while living with homelessness: consistency. “When I started Camp Rise Up back in 2018, I didn’t think we’d form these relationships. In the clinic, we might see the same kids several times, but it’s not as consistent as being a classroom teacher, which I was and I miss,” says Miller. “Camp has been able to give those kids that.”

— Amy Zavatto

Since 1866, The Floating Hospital has been the largest provider of healthcare and education to families living with homelessness. Based in Long Island City, it provides comprehensive primary, dental and behavioral-health services, and health-education to patients living in more than 300 shelters and domestic violence safe houses throughout New York City.

In 2021, The Floating Hospital moved into a new modern main clinic in Long Island City, and continues to support patients in satellite clinics at family homeless shelters and public housing complexes in Queens, Brooklyn and the Bronx.

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