Service camps for teens gain in popularity


Participants in the Yachad program work on a wheelchair access ramp. (Courtesy of Yachad)

Eliza Bubes, 18, could have signed up for a photography camp, a music camp or an art camp. She could have spent her summer afternoons in the comfort of air conditioning, at any number of area camps tailored to her interests.

Instead, last summer she enrolled in a service camp run by Yachad, a local nonprofit organization, and spent a week helping to build a wheelchair ramp for a family that has a child with a disability.

“Even just after the first day, it was rewarding. We made a plan; we had committed to the family that we were going to do this,” said Bubes, a student at the Lab School of Washington. “And the last day, you feel so proud. . . . It was hard, but we really helped this person.”

As the end of the school year fast approaches, and families search for ways to keep their students occupied in the summer, many will choose from a variety of hobby-focused camps and summer programs. But in recent years, more teens have been opting for a different kind of experience.

And not only because their high schools make volunteer hours a graduation requirement. As classroom lessons increasingly emphasize civic responsibility, and colleges look for students whose applications stand out, officials at nonprofit organizations and schools have seen a steadily growing interest in service-oriented summer programs.

Adam Young, 16, a student at Woodrow Wilson High School in the District, was on the hunt for ways to fulfill his community service requirement, “but I wanted to do it in a fun way,” he said.

Adam was intrigued by the prospect of working with the Student Conservation Association, a national nonprofit group focused on environmental preservation. So, last summer, Adam joined a crew organized by the conservation association and spent five weeks helping restore Fort Dupont Park in the District by installing a drainage system to prevent pooling water and clearing invasive plant species.

“You meet so many new people . . . and when you’re done with the work, you feel super satisfied, and that’s an awesome feeling,” Adam said.

The conservation association has had a steady rise in applications for summer crew positions over the past five years, said Kevin Hamilton, vice president of communications for the organization.

This summer, the group received more than 200 applications for about 50 positions available in the Washington area. The same ratio applies to the organization’s national programs, which place teens in national parks around the country, Hamilton said.

“A lot of the young people who come into [the program] just naturally want to give back . . . but without a doubt, there is also a strategic need to strengthen their résumé,” Hamilton said. “Years ago, it might have been less critical to have a résumé or an application for college with [service] experiences on it, but more and more, that’s what makes you more competitive out there.”

Christina Alcorta Hollinsed, 17, of the District accrued more than 260 hours of community service last summer when she traveled with the conservation group to California and helped build a trail around a lake. But the promise of service hours wasn’t what drew her to the program, she said.

“It just sounded like a fun opportunity,” she said. “And you meet so many different kinds of people. I felt like I learned a lot about environmental science and conservation.”

In the Washington area — home to some of the wealthiest communities in the country — many families have the option of sending teens on more glamorous overseas service trips. Those programs can offer remarkable experiences, but they sometimes overshadow local opportunities, said Audrey Lyon, executive director of Yachad, a group dedicated to preserving affordable housing and repairing the homes and communities of low-income residents of the District, Maryland and Virginia.

Yachad offers a summer program called “Ramp It Up!” that gives teens the opportunity to build accessibility ramps for lower-income homeowners with disabilities in the Washington area.

“We find ourselves sometimes in competition with the programs that are — I use the word ‘sexier,’ ” Lyon said. “Especially for affluent families who can afford to send their kids to service projects in Central America or Africa or Mexico, we’re in competition with them.”

The overseas programs are “truly wonderful,” she said, “but the need is also very great right here in our own community.”

Lyon said that for many teens, the interest in service goes beyond school requirements or college admission goals and speaks to a greater social awareness.

“Yes, we get panicked calls from parents who say, ‘My kid is supposed to graduate – they need so many hours of community service, what can you do? ’” she said. “But then there is also certainly more education, through religious school programs, as well as [public] school programs, about the need to do this kind of work, that it’s the right thing to do.”

Before working with Yachad last summer, Jacob Korn, 14, of the District had never touched a power tool, and he’d never met anyone like Gregory, a homeowner left disabled after a violent assault years ago. At the end of the program, Jacob wrote an essay about what the experience meant to him.

The program “opened up my eyes,” Jacob wrote. “We have to learn to focus on the small things and be determined to give help to those who are less fortunate.”

Nonprofit organizations aren’t the only source of service-focused camps and summer programs. Many area high schools and county parks and recreation departments offer them, as well. In Montgomery County, students can enroll in a summer volunteer program that teaches them to work one-on-one with younger campers with disabilities. Several jurisdictions in the Washington region, including Montgomery, Fairfax and Loudoun counties, offer counselor-in-training programs for teens who are interested in volunteering at county-run camps.

Local private schools, such as Sidwell Friends School, a Quaker school with campuses in the District and Bethesda, and Georgetown Day School in the District, also host service camps that are open to all high school students.

Georgetown Day School offered
summer service-learning camps for the first time last summer, said the school’s director of service learning, Vinita Ahuja. This year, three week-long programs will focus on one issue: hunger, homelessness and housing equity. By mid-May, waiting lists had formed, Ahuja said.

When choosing a service camp or program, Ahuja said, students should look for those that encourage participants to put the experience in context.

“I think the service feels more meaningful when there’s an academic component to it, where it’s not, ‘Let’s just go make a meal in a food pantry,’ but, ‘Let’s talk about why this is necessary,’” Ahuja said. “The reflection piece is really key, because it allows the students to be really clear about what their expectations were going in and how maybe their thinking has changed, or what questions they have remaining.”

Connecting teens to local groups has the added benefit of creating lasting volunteer relationships, Ahuja said.

That was the case for Eliza Bubes. With the hours she earned during her first summer of service camp with Yachad in 2011, Eliza had already surpassed her high school’s community service requirement, but she signed up again last summer anyway.

“I had the hours I needed, but I still wanted to go back,” she said. “It’s a great cause. It really helps people. And it’s fun.”

Caitlin Gibson covers Loudoun County for The Washington Post.
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