Annika is a Development Intern at Sanctuary and a high school rising senior at Friends Seminary in New York City. She is passionate about politics and criminal justice and hopes to study government in college.
Summer camp is a place where children can disconnect from technology, be active, grow independent, develop their social skills, connect with nature, and make life long memories and friends. It offers young people an escape from their routines at home, and an outlet to have fun and express themselves freely. For some children, summer camp is the only place where they can truly be kids.
Children who are impacted by domestic violence often have no choice but to grow up quickly, missing essential childhood milestones that inform their development and personal growth. Domestic violence affects roughly 1 in 4 women in the United States; as a result, approximately 15.5 million children in the United States live in families where domestic violence has been perpetrated. Some children and adolescents have no choice but to take on parental roles in the household, act as guardians to younger siblings and take care of their abused parent. Others may turn to risky behavior, including drug use and gang affiliation, to cope with their stressful home environments. Either way, domestic violence robs kids and teens of their childhoods, leading to lifelong trauma and behavioral problems that often promote the continuation of the cycle of violence. Sleepaway camps offer young survivors of domestic violence the chance to be kids, removed from the potential stresses and dangers of their families’ living circumstances.
In 2018, Sanctuary partnered with Camp HOPE America to run the first session of Camp HOPE New York, a one week sleep away camp that affords children affected by domestic violence the opportunity to access crucial childhood experiences that they may have missed out on as a result of abuse. With its specialized trauma-informed approach and dedicated staff, Camp HOPE is designed to specifically meet the needs of each child who attends. At Camp HOPE, campers enjoy classic outdoor activities that help to build trust and confidence in themselves and their peers. Each session of Sanctuary’s Camp HOPE has approximately 36 campers and 14 counselors, yielding an impressive >3 to 1 camper to counselor ratio which ensures that every camper gets the personalized attention they may need. Camp HOPE America’s website states, “Hope reflects an individual’s capacity to develop pathways and dedicate agency toward desirable goals.” Using the ‘Children’s HOPE Scale’, Camp HOPE America has seen increased growth in its campers’ capacities for hope over the course of several summers.
Andrea Yeriazarian, Sanctuary’s Program Director for Children and Family Services, works closely with the staff at Camp HOPE to ensure that it is a positive experience for campers and counselors alike. When I spoke to Andrea about her experience at Camp HOPE New York last year, she described some of the activities that help campers get the most out of their time there: “Each day, our campers read a story about someone who went through a difficult childhood — which could have included violence, or war, or any number of things — and who were able to find support outside of their family and become a very successful adult. We would then gather around a campfire to discuss these stories and talk about how, despite what happened in the past or what we’re going through now, there is always be hope for a better future. The definition of HOPE that we use is ‘believing in yourself, believing in your dreams, and believing in others’, so those stories are meant to teach the campers that if you believe in yourself and reach out for support from others, that you can achieve your dreams”.
When I asked Andrea how counselors support campers who struggle with taking risks, she described a Camp HOPE motto, ‘challenge by choice’. She explained, “…for some kids who are afraid of water, their challenge by choice might just be putting on a bathing suit and standing on the shore.” Kids are not pressured into doing anything that makes them uncomfortable; rather, they are encouraged to set goals, to challenge themselves, and to overcome their fears.
As we were wrapping up our conversation, Andrea shared a success story from Sanctuary’s first session of Camp HOPE New York:
“A camper told us that trying out new things at Camp– things she had been worried about but that she did really well at – gave her the courage to try out for a school sports team for the first time. She now felt confident and ready to take on new challenges, because she knew she could do it.”
Childhood is a precious time that should be full of fun and excitement, not violence and trauma. All campers who attended Sanctuary’s Camp HOPE last summer had overwhelmingly positive experiences and those who are eligible look forward to returning this summer.
If you would like to support Sanctuary for Families’ second Camp HOPE and our youngest clients, please click here.