VOICES: Summer camps must evolve to meet the new needs of young people

When you think about summer camps you might think fondly of playing outside with friends, swimming and memories to last a lifetime. At their peak, summer camps were a place of refuge for children and parents seeking enrichment and facilitated time outside of school.

As modern-day children grapple with issues like social media, internet safety and a wealth of access to information at their fingertips—youth-focused opportunities offline are now more important than ever. Yet, institutions like these are dying— why?

Some answers lie in COVID-related barriers that never fully recovered, others are a lack of access to options and funding. Regardless of the answer, we hope innovation can be the solution.

In short: summer camps are essential, but they can’t thrive as a monolith. They must change and grow to meet the new needs of young people.

Across the country, many students are not receiving the relationship and sexual health education that they deserve. In Ohio, there are laws being put in place that make it even more difficult to allow qualified health educators to discuss topics like anatomy, contraception and sexually transmitted infections.

As the Senior Director of Education at Planned Parenthood Southwest Ohio, I see these effects daily. We are constantly addressing and soothing fears in young people that come from misinformation, like the high school student who doesn’t understand and feels shame around their period. Or, when we see middle school students whose only source of information is Tik Tok, are being introduced to topics they can’t yet understand. All of this leads to a lack of confidence in asking questions pertaining to changes in their own bodies. And when we don’t understand what’s happening in our bodies, it’s hard to advocate for our needs.

We know that access to critical information and skills around health and wellness has so many benefits. To overcome the barriers created by our state, the Education team at Planned Parenthood Southwest Ohio created Camp MEE (Movement, Empowerment and Engagement), a free camp for youth ages 11-14 that approaches health and wellness in a holistic — and fun — way.

Camp MEE provides relationship and sexual health education that youth are often deprived of in school, while also bringing in experts in their respective fields to talk about mental health, nutrition, career development, financial literacy, movement and more. We’re addressing relevant issues youth are facing and offering them support and a space to thrive with new skillsets that will help them feel informed and empowered.

By combining movement, creativity and peer to peer connection, Camp MEE is unlike your average summer camp. There are no other programs like Camp MEE in our area, not only in content, but also in style and atmosphere. Camp MEE is a place where youth can truly and unapologetically be themselves in a space that is warm and welcoming and encourages learning and asking questions.

By mixing the feel of summer camp with critical education and skill-building, we create a space for conversations youth are desperate to have, while giving them opportunities to build relationships and find their own voices.

After piloting the program in 2021, the uniqueness of Camp MEE and the appreciation for what we have created is evident in parent feedback and retention of participants who have come back three years in a row. As we approach our fourth summer camp season, we continue to plan camps that are unique, intentional, diverse in voice and thought and that honor the identities of all who join us.

We hope you will join us in the push to innovate and preserve summer camps as a crucial institution for children and their development. Together we can expand the conversation of access in Ohio and push for more opportunities for young people to learn and find their voice.

Sarah Dahlston, M.S. is the Director of Education for Planned Parenthood Southwest Ohio Region and an AASECT and CHES certified sexuality educator.

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