It was 2015, and Camp Brave Trails just launched their first summer camp program. They welcomed 43 teens to camp that year. The following year, it grew to 96. Today, they serve hundreds of LGBTQ+ youth through a variety of year-round programming. Chaco sat down with Brave Trails co-founder and Executive Director, Jessica Weissbuch and talked about the organization’s origin, what a typical day at summer camp looks like, and how they create a safe and empowering space for LGBTQ+ youth.
Chaco: Can you tell us about Brave Trails’ origin?
Jessica: My wife Kayla and I founded Brave Trails in 2014 but we had our first summer camp in 2015. We came from very different backgrounds; Kayla grew up going to summer camp and was fortunate that she got nominated by a teacher to go to a leadership summer camp that welcomed underserved and foster youth. She started going to camp from the age of 8 all the way to 18. She fell in love with [camp]. It was a place where she could be herself in a way that she wasn’t able to be in other spaces; it was life changing. She would walk by the director’s house and think, “Oh my gosh, one day that’s what I’m going to do”, and she just chalked it up as being her “astronaut dream”.
Kayla and I met in 2012 at a local LGBTQ+ center where I was working. I had just graduated grad school with a Master’s in Clinical Psychology – I’m a licensed marriage and family therapist and I did all of my studies and work with queer youth, primarily in leadership and development. Kayla started volunteering at the center, we began working closely with one another, and fell in love. During that time, our focus was on building community for queer youth, specifically within leadership. It was great, but then one day, we’re driving home from the movies and we’re like “what are we going to actually do with our lives?” Kayla started talking about her summer camp experience and what it meant to her and then it quickly turned into: “what if we start a summer camp that is queer youth and leadership focused?”
In 2015 we hosted our first summer camp. We are first and foremost a nonprofit, so we formed our nonprofit at that time. We figured out how to run a nonprofit, as well as how to run a camp. There just so happened to be an ACA conference happening and we decided to attend. There was a new director workshop that was added so we attended and met so many people. Everybody was so welcoming and excited to have us there, it was like no other industry I’ve ever experienced. We showed up and people were giving us their material and sharing knowledge. It was incredible. That really gave us the confidence to move forward.
The first summer we ran one week and thought ‘if we get 15 kids, we’ll be super happy.’ I believe we had like 43 kids that year which was amazing! The second summer we ran camp for two weeks while balancing our full-time jobs and had like 96 campers. That third summer we were three weeks and the number of campers increased to 150 or something like that. At that point we’re like, “well, we kind of have to decide if we want to grow this thing. Are we going to do this?!” We took the chance and Kayla and I became full-time employees of Brave Trails. It’s hard to believe, but we just hit our 8th summer this year, which is mind blowing!
Chaco: Thinking back to those first few years, what were some things you learned? What were some of your biggest hurdles during that time?
Jessica: I think about the obvious stuff. For example, we learned a lot about the ACA standards. Queer youth leadership, we’ve got that down, and the programming we know how to do. But running the summer camp is like no other business that I’ve ever experienced and so just figuring out all of that on the fly was challenging at times. To add to that, figuring out how to run a legit nonprofit, right? I always emphasize that we’re a nonprofit first.
Chaco: What does a typical day at Summer Camp look like?
Jessica: I think we run similar to a lot of traditional camp programs, but also a lot different in so many ways. When our campers wake up in the morning, instead of doing a typical “round-up” or going straight into programming, we meet at our flagpole and raise a different identity flag each day. Our CIT (Counselors in Training) team or better known as, “The Unicorn Justice League” (they named themselves that the first year) picks out a flag, raises it, says a few words about it and then we have a moment of silence and reflection. After that, we open the floor for all campers to tell their story in conjunction with the identity flag. We do that every single morning.
After breakfast, we go into what we call our “Build-On” programs. For us, that is exactly what it sounds like – they pick a program that they want to go into at the very beginning of camp and they do it every single day to build a skill and then at the end of camp we have what we call our showcase to show that skill. This past summer, we had a camper select a photography program and they were able to put up a whole gallery to share with the rest of camp! Other examples include drag, theater, and outdoor skills!
Then we go into our leadership workshops. These are intentional leadership spaces – the campers know they’re coming to leadership camp, not just a ‘fun’ camp. There are amazing things about ‘fun’ camps – I believe there’s leadership in every single camp, but we’re very intentional and vocal about it. So, these leadership workshops for us look like a variety of things. There can be leadership in any subject. For example, we’ve had campers come in and choose “mindfulness juggling” so they can learn that skill, but they do it with a purpose. And that could be for mindfulness, anxiety relief, depression relief, and/or to help ground them. For us that’s considered leadership because you can’t be a leader in your community unless you yourself are grounded. There are other examples of workshops more focused on hard skills like public speaking, queer sex-education or picking out a queer friendly college. Things like that that our kids need and aren’t getting elsewhere. And so really, our intention with these workshops is that they can go back to their community and actually use them.
After workshops, we do lunch, then have a rest period where campers can hang and do their thing in their cabin. In the afternoon, we have more traditional programming like archery, hiking, pool-time, and more.
This summer, we tested a new program called “Trailblazing Troops”. It’s basically a group where they can bring to the table whatever they want to talk about. It could be, you know, “Dungeons and Dragons” for example, it could be about gender, it could be about identity, or sexuality, it could be about being POC in a camp space. It could be all of those things and it could just be quiet time. It could be reading a book, or it could be everybody watching a show and discussing it afterwards. It’s important that we create these spaces for our campers, especially to have those conversations around identity and sexuality.
After that, we have dinner and then ‘community chill’ which is when the whole camp can come together and play and do whatever they want. We close with evening programs which are pretty typical of most camps. Everybody gathers around the campfire, and plays games; each night is different. We have unique themes for each session, so every night is different! We have dances and a bunch of fun stuff and then they go to bed, and they do it all over again!
Chaco: What are some ways Camp Brave Trails creates safe and inclusive spaces for LGBTQ+ youth?
Jessica: I think for us, we’re just really intentional with everything that we do. We have gender neutral bathrooms and showers. Things like that are really easy in my mind to alter and adjust. I know there are a lot of camps now that are popping up with gender neutral cabins and bathrooms. We bunk everybody by age, literally by birthday and it’s awesome. I think it can be an easy adjustment for camp organizers to make, but I also realize people may not be ready for that step. I understand the tradition, but a lot of camps are starting to move in this direction. That’s a huge start. I think those little things are easy ways to support and retrofit your program to be more inclusive.
Many industries, but especially the camping industry is all about tradition so, it’s like, it’s always been this way, so at Camp Brave Trails, we’re going to totally rock the boat and try to do something a little different.
There are organizations that I’ll call out by name because they’re absolutely amazing like the Girl Scouts. They’re a single sex camp yet, super inclusive. It means anybody who identifies as a girl can participate.
Chaco: Can you tell us about some of the other programs you’re excited about?
Jessica: Yeah, there are a few – We do year-round programming, so we have monthly meet-up groups that are either in person or virtual. They’re kind of like leadership workshops and are typically virtual. If they’re in person, we like to have fun; go to the beach, have pool parties, go to museums, hike, things like that. We also have Family Camp which is a weekend long – we’re actually going to do two weekends this winter, due to high demand. We’ve typically only had one weekend a year, and it sells out within 24 hours. I would say we have about 100 people at each Family Camp gathering, and it has really evolved. It’s a cool combination of queer parents and their kids and queer kids and their parents. We originally thought we should keep those separate because their needs are so different and then this last summer, it was a really good mix between the two groups. At first, I think the queer parents were like, “well, I don’t know, this isn’t exactly what we wanted” and then by the end, it was so beautiful because they had kids coming up to them and basically saying, “thank you, I can see myself now, and I can see myself being a parent someday.” it’s been so inspiring; we’re going to keep it for next time because it was so powerful. For the queer adults to see that too, it’s really cool. We’re super excited to do two weekends this year, it’ll be a lot of fun!
Last year we launched a fully comprehensive mental health program. So, going back to how we’re definitely a camp, but we’re also a non-profit. Our camp is not therapy camp, but it’s therapeutic. Unfortunately, with our demographic of queer youth, the need is pretty high and we’re always there to support in that way. We saw the need for year-round mental health support and so we launched last year. We’re just starting our second cohort in a few weeks actually, it’s a cohort of five therapists that are pre-licensed, and they go through a year-long training on queer youth therapy.
Chaco: What are you excited about for the future of Brave Trails?
Jessica: Biggest news is we bought a property last year which is exciting! We’re currently working with the Forest Service and are finally at the place of almost breaking ground. We’ve cleaned out the space and are currently in a huge capital campaign to raise additional funds. To date, we’ve raised about $3 million of our $4.5 million goal. We’ve had to basically tear down every single building and rebuild, so it’s looking like a 4-5 year adventure on our part. To have a home base is foundational. We’re excited to expand our year-round programming. We will be able to do more retreats for young adults and offer a summer, spring, and winter camp. Right now, we retrofit all of our rented spaces to fit us. As an example, we have to gender neutralize our space at the start of each season. We’re looking forward to building a space that works for us, where we can further foster community and invite like-minded organizations. And to my knowledge, we are the first in the country to have a deliberate space for queer camp and we’re really proud of that.
Chaco: How can people support Brave Trails?
Jessica: The best way to support Brave Trails is to check out our website, sign up for our newsletter, and follow us on Instagram, Tik Tok, and other social media platforms. As I mentioned, we are in the throes of our capital campaign so if you do have financial resources that you are able to donate that would be amazing and you can do so on our website under our “donate” tab.
Chaco: Just want to finish by saying how grateful we are for this partnership. It has been a dream to work with y’all, looking forward to all the magic ahead!
Jessica: I would also like to say, partnerships like ours are huge, and it’s been an honor to work with you all. What you bring to the table is so fun – like coming out to camp during training and making custom sandals for our staff. These things are so important to us, not only the fun relationships we get to build, but also the community we’re creating.
Learn more about Brave Trails by visiting https://www.bravetrails.org/. You can find them on Instagram, Tik Tok, and Facebook by searching “Brave Trails.”