This article originally ran in the St. Louis Jewish Light and is used with permission.
When Andy Brown and Dan Grabel founded Camp Manitowa in 2010, with two locations in southern Illinois, they vowed to make the summer camp experience as inclusive as possible for every youngster.
They made good on that promise for the past decade, hosting week-long and weekend summer camps for a variety of participants, including children in the foster care system and those with cancer and blood-related diseases.
This summer, from June 12-19, they are offering Camp Indigo Point in Makanda, Ill., a week-long sleepaway camp for LGBTQ+ youth entering second to 11th grades.
“We’ve always believed camp is a special place where kids can be themselves, take safe risks and make friends who maybe are a little different and more special than the friends they have at home,” said Grabel, who along with Brown, has attended and worked at Jewish summer camps for decades.
“We have hosted a group called TransParent, which is for families with transgender children. In talking more with families, and we’ve had a couple of transgender campers over the past couple of summers, we just thought it was a natural progression to offer something specifically for the LBBTQ+ community. Camp always is a special place for people who have shared experiences.”
When Central Reform Congregation Rabbi Daniel Bogard, a Macalaster College graduate and former Shir Tikvah employee when he was in college, heard about the camp from Grabel, the rabbi couldn’t contain his enthusiasm. He reached out to his network of summer camp friends, including Shira Berkowitz, co-director of PROMO, a Missouri organization that advocates for LGBTQ equality. Both Bogard and Berkowitz, along with a couple of other Jewish St. Louisans, have agreed to serve as the camp’s leadership and planning team.
“When I started telling my own 8-year-old about (the camp), the smile and excitement that he’s not going to be the only trans kid or even one or two of the only trans kids but everyone around him is going to be like him,” said Bogard. “It’s magical to see it in his eyes and it just reinforces how great this is.”
Camp leaders expect to attract at least 20 campers, though Bogard is hopeful that the number will be closer to 40 or 50. One camper from Florida has already committed to coming, as has a second one from Chicago.
“I talked to (the Florida camper’s) mom and we cried through the whole conversation because of what this camp is going to mean to her daughter,” said Bogard. “It’ll be a place for kids to be themselves and not feel forced into the boxes that the outside world forces them into.”
While Camp Indigo Point will not be explicitly Jewish, it will be modeled after Jewish summer camps such as Camp Sabra and Camp GUCI. It will offer traditional camp activities, such as canoeing, archery, swimming, team sports, arts and crafts and outdoor excursions, while encouraging LGBTQ+ youth to build a community with one another. The plan is for the camp to happen annually so that youngsters can develop lifelong friendships and positive memories.
“We hope that by creating a space where LGBTQ+ youth can share their hopes, fears and stories, we can empower young folks to carry the feeling of queer community wherever they go,” according to the camp’s website.
“This is going to be a week where the experience of trans, gender-expansive and LGBTQ+ kids is really centered and is the normative experience,” added Bogard. “I’m very hopeful that I will be the only person at camp who is not broadly LGBTQ.”
The cost for the camp is $575, which is considerably less expensive than most week-long ones, but both Grabel and Bogard said they are committed to making it financially viable for any youngster to attend.
“I don’t know how we will find the money, but this is life-giving, sometimes lifesaving literally, for trans kids and queer kids who experience a daily level of oppression and awfulness in their lives,” said Bogard. “I’m committed that any kid who wants to be at this camp needs to be. We have to be there for these kids. I think it’s our Jewish obligation, a mitzvah, a moral obligation.”
For more information about Camp Indigo Point, go to campindigopoint.org or call 314-375-6766.