During the summer of 2020, there was much speculation about whether or not camps could operate during COVID-19. What would be the point of a place-based recreational experience if there could be no place and no recreation?
At Camp Harbor View, the decision was a lot more complicated. Its summer program, set on an island in Boston Harbor, offers activities like swimming, sailing, sports and biking, but it also provides three meals a day, leadership training, mental health counseling, and summer jobs for high schoolers.
Camp Harbor View is not so much a camp as it is a multi-purpose, holistic, wrap-around program serving the city’s most marginalized neighborhoods. So, when faced with having to close down due to the pandemic, its leaders reversed course and brought the camp to the campers. Not only did backpacks arrive with sports equipment, crafts, games, and totes for families filled with household supplies and hygiene products, daily meals were also provided to campers’ families along with unrestricted funds to lessen the toll the crisis has disproportionately taken on their wellbeing and livelihoods.
What Camp Harbor View was able to do last summer was made possible by years of steady growth fueled by the imagination of its founders and an unparalleled fundraising effort. The Camp was started in 2007 by the late Mayor Thomas M. Menino and Boston businessman Jack Connors, Jr. as a way to get middle-schoolers out of the city at a time of escalating crime. The hope was that, once they came to camp, they’d stick with the program through high school and even, for some, into college where they would return to the island as staff members in the summer.
Stick they did, as the camp now serves a total of 950 kids through two month-long summer sessions, 200 Leadership Academy participants year-round, and employs over 100 others as counselors and staff members each year. Over time, the camp became a natural extension of its original work with a teen center in the city where kids can connect with one another as well as with mentors, attend workshops on issues like social justice, or work on college and career readiness within the Leadership Academy.
In the last three years, the growth accelerated with the arrival of Lisa Fortenberry as executive director and the addition of the Youth and Family Support Program, both of which brought the organization even closer to the social service model it has now adopted. Fortenberry had held a number of leadership positions in youth-serving organizations, mostly as an advocate for education equity. Her interest in social and emotional learning (SEL) and youth development led her to Camp Harbor View, where she says she was “blown away” by what was happening.
“I went out to the island for a visit with Jack [Connors], and when I got there I literally said, ‘This can’t be real,’” said Fortenberry. “I’m looking at 500 Black and Brown kids that are like my own running around this incredible island with everything you’d see at a Nantucket country club. I’m looking at 100 staff people, 90 percent of whom are Black and Brown. And they are all having these incredible experiences – culturally, recreationally, and emotionally. I had never seen anything like it.”
Fortenberry says what she saw most clearly was an opportunity to bring all of the elements of the Camp together with a therapeutic underpinning that could intentionally improve the lives of campers and their families. After hiring an impressive staff team and undergoing a theory of change process that challenged the organization to identify what it was uniquely positioned to do, Fortenberry focused on building out the elements of its program with a commitment to youth, family support, and clinical services.
“We looked at generational approaches to lifting kids out of poverty, which required intensive support for the whole family,” she said. “And we strengthened our clinical work where we now have true caseloads and systems and structures that mirror more formal social work agencies – but without the billing.”
With a high-profile charity event called the “Beach Ball” and ongoing donations from corporations and individuals, the Camp was able to pursue its expanded support strategy. In 2018, Fortenberry hired Lauren Bard, a social worker with experience in directing youth programs, to head up the Youth and Family Support team that includes free therapy sessions for anyone who needs them.
“We are providing individual mental health therapy for many, many young people with no insurance billing, no co-pays,” said Bard. “That makes it really accessible and stigma-free for our families.”
With clinicians on staff, the program offers year-round therapy for high school students as well as the holistic student assessment for all kids in the program to identify anyone who needs extra attention. Bard is an advocate of restorative practice and has since trained all staff in restorative circles which, she says, allows anyone who interacts with campers to support their emotional health. Campers who need to “take a moment” can do so in a sensory break room with bean bag chairs, aromatherapy and soothing music, right on the island.
“We’re not just making sure that every kid has access to a therapist, we want to make sure that every staff member has the skills they need to provide mentorship, de-escalation, and positive relationships. That way, we can better serve the kids who come to us.”
Bard describes a three-tiered model that involves intense individual work; emotional and social support that might include some group therapy; and restorative techniques, like circles, that benefit everyone.
“Sometimes campers want to come out to the island to forget about their troubles and just go swimming or sailing,” she said. “But when they are struggling, we need to know that and be ready with the right kind of support.”
For some campers, the therapeutic element is the difference between staying and leaving.
“I can think of one young person from last summer who was having some struggles in the community and he brought some of that behavior to camp,” said Bard. “I am pretty sure he would have been kicked out of another camp, but we were able to make a deal with him to check in every day with one of our mental health counselors who was a Black man with training in trauma. It was such a beautiful connection that allowed us to keep this camper all summer.”
In the summer of 2020, mental health was top of mind for Camp Harbor View as campers endured the isolation and suffering brought on by COVID-19. Therapy sessions were declined by some young people who were uncomfortable with remote counseling, though the program tried its best to provide some in-person therapy in safe distances. Zoom-based group work on a range of SEL topics increased, but Bard said she was really concerned about campers’ emotional and behavioral development being stunted by the lack of routine and in-person relationship-building. She is also worried about safety in the home with fewer checks on domestic violence.
In October, Camp Harbor View issued a “Healthy Minds Tool Kit,’ coinciding with Mental Health Awareness Month.
“With COVID, there was an increase in understanding just how important mental health is to young lives, or anyone’s lives, so we put together a mental health tool kit customized for our families to recognize signs of distress and know where to turn,” said Bard.
The tool kit for campers and parents is the kind of wrap-around support families can expect from Camp Harbor View. Other examples include food and housing assistance, parent workshops, a holiday fund, and a resource hub that connects them to services throughout the city. Since COVID-19, the program has helped people apply for unemployment, navigate the eviction crisis, and get back on their feet with $2,000 given in partnership with the Family Independence Initiative (FII).
“I think the ability for us to meet families where they are and provide responses to real challenges for them has really built this element of trust,” said Fortenberry, who is proud of the brand that Camp Harbor View has built within the city’s neighborhoods.
Camp Harbor View’s credibility is critical to its recruitment efforts, which include reaching out to families who are most in need of what it has to offer. “This is not a ‘first-come, first- served operation, says Bard. “We spend a lot of time and energy finding families that need this support.”
After the year that just ended, that need has only grown, which makes Bard more appreciative of the direction Camp Harbor View chose to take. “With what our kids and families are going through right now, our therapeutic work is more important than ever.”