Camp for gender-variant kids takes off
by Heather Cassell
Marci was relieved when she found Camp Aranu'tiq for her 13-year-old daughter, Nikki, three years ago. It was a different experience from her first trip to summer camp when Nikki was in the sixth grade. This time Marci didn't have to explain to camp leaders that Nikki is a transgender girl, which pronouns to use, or educate camp leaders about which camp she should be in and which bathroom she should use.
Instead of coming home upset because things went awry, Nikki returned happier than Marci had seen her daughter in years.
Marci and Nikki requested that their last names not be used to protect their privacy.
Prior to Nikki attending the nonprofit Camp Aranu'tiq, now operating as Camp Aranu'tiq of Harbor Camps, Marci was concerned about her. She watched as her usually happy daughter grew older and started becoming withdrawn because she was being forced to live as a boy, Marci said. Nikki has known she wasn't a boy since she was 2 years old, she and her mother told the Bay Area Reporter.
Nikki said that she had some "ups and downs," believing that she was alone and "not with any sort of community or anything."
Marci began searching for how to help her daughter live as her "true authentic very girly self," she said. During her research she stumbled upon a video about Camp Aranu'tiq.
"Then I went to camp [and] I noticed that there are a lot more people like me and I'm not alone," said Nikki. "I'm very grateful for that."
"It was amazing. When we picked her up I just saw a difference in her. She just seemed more comfortable and I could tell that she had the best time and didn't have to worry about her gender at all," said Marci.
It was a change for Nikki, who is the only transgender kid at her school in their conservative Central California town and was transitioning that first year of camp in 2010.
"It's a pretty amazing camp for sure," Nikki said.
That's because at Camp Aranu'tiq being transgender or gender-variant isn't unusual, it's the norm.
Camp Aranu'tiq, which is the Chugach Eskimo word for two-spirited, is a camp for transgender and gender-variant kids. It has locations in New Hampshire and California.
The camp was a big part of Nikki's transition and Marci has been sending her daughter there every summer since. She hopes to send Nikki to camp again this year.
At Camp Aranu'tiq trans kids simply enjoy being at camp. They don't have to worry about basic things such as being questioned by other campers and staff about staying in the boy's or girl's campground or which bathroom to use or uncomfortable moments of being referred to by the incorrect gender.
"The kids can just be who they are and there's no worries about their gender because it doesn't matter, they are just kids," Marci said. "They are just there to have fun and experience camp like other kids without worrying about their gender, which is something they worry about all of the time when they are at home."
At Camp Aranu'tiq the days are filled with arts and crafts, drama, and music culminating in a talent show at the end of the week. Kids also enjoy outdoor activities, such as canoeing; "gaga," a type of dodge ball; windsurfing; swimming; hiking; and exploring nature. Many of the camp counselors identify as trans and serve as role models to the genderqueer youth, wrote Tori Gabriel, MBA-HA, director of development of Camp Aranu'tiq, in an email.
Nick Teich, LCSW, founder and CEO of Camp Aranu'tiq, loves hearing comments like those from Marci and Nikki.
"It's wonderful," said the 31-year-old straight trans man, who launched the camp five years ago while he was earning his master's degree in social work at Boston College.
"It just makes me feel so grateful to be able to do what I do," said Teich, who enjoys the positive feedback and simply seeing the kids "having fun and letting go."
"It's all for them and its super fun at the same time," he added.
At the time, he was volunteering at a camp, not the one that he grew up attending, and he began to go through his transition. The camp leadership asked him to leave. Upset by the situation he began thinking about what happens to kids who are transitioning at a younger age. Doing some research, he quickly found out that there weren't any overnight camps that catered to trans kids.
Additionally, many parents of transgender kids were resigned to not having the opportunity to send their kids to summer camp. Further complicating matters, many mainstream camp leaders and staff members were apprehensive about the "trans kid question" and believed it was too difficult to deal with kids who didn't fit in with the general gender binary system and the needs of the rest of the campers, he explained.
Knowing how his experience as a transgender adult and recalling his summer camp years and how transformational they were for him he wanted other trans kids to have the same experience.
A new type of camp
At first, Teich thought it would be a passion project he volunteered for in his spare time, he said, but Camp Aranu'tiq has experienced exponential growth.
In five years, Teich has grown the camp from its East Coast location that saw 40 kids its first year in 2010 to adding a West Coast location, a leadership camp for youth ages 16-18, and a family camp, called Harbor Camp, for families with LGBTQ parents. The camp now serves nearly 400 youth and families annually.
"I'm very surprised," said Teich.
The cost for Camp Aranu'tiq/Leadership Camp is $700 (one week) or $1,400 (two weeks). Family camp rates are $225 per adult and $175 per child (children under 2 years of age are free).
It was his vision to simply allow the kids to have the summer camp experience of his childhood and not to process what it means to be transgender.
"I guess it's organically therapeutic, it just sort of happens by kids being themselves and being with others who have gone through or are going through similar things," said Teich. "We really want them to be their 100 percent authentic selves at camp. That's all we ask."
This year is a big one for Camp Aranu'tiq. Teich and his team of three full-time employees, including himself, and a group of mostly volunteer camp counselors will see the fruits of their labor. Last year they launched a $3.6 million capital fundraising campaign. They are currently at 61 percent of their fundraising goal, and plan to purchase a new campground in New Hampshire.
He also rebranded the camp changing the overarching name to Harbor Camps to serve more underserved communities, said Teich.
The new 116-acre New Hampshire camp features a mile of lakefront, can house up to 200 cabins or tents.
Last year, Teich expanded family camp to include LGBT families. The camp is also heading west to California for the first time, March 27-29. The East Coast camp is expanding from one week to an optional two weeks at Camp Aranu'tiq and the Leadership Camp, said Gabriel and Teich.
To protect the kids and respect parents' privacy the sites of the camps aren't publicly disclosed, said Teich, who travels between the camp locations to serve as director during the season.