It may be hard to believe, but it’s time to start making plans for how your children will spend their summer. If they’re between the ages of 8-15 years old, then you should know about Camp Highlight.
Started in 2011 by Chris Hudson and Jackie McGowan, Camp Highlight is a weeklong sleep-away camp for children of LGBTQ parents located in Southeastern Pennsylvania, just a few hours drive from New York City.
The camp was established following the 2010 midterm election cycle, which featured a Tea Party surge and where LGBTQ issues were even more a lightning rod than usual. Chris explained, “Kids at home were listening to these people talking about how (the kids’) families weren’t real families and how they were somehow in danger from their parents, and it just seemed like a great wrong. We thought that we would balance out all the negative things these children were hearing.”
Chris and Jackie met while working as counselors at another camp 15 years ago, and they knew they wanted to give back to families in a similar way. A gay man himself, for Chris the idea of a camp for LGBTQ families just made sense. Jackie also felt a deeply personal connection to the idea. “I grew up with a single mom, which was a new type of family. Also my aunt was a lesbian,” she explained, “so I had someone who was a lesbian helping to raise me. Now, as a social worker, I want to have an impact on the people that I work with (and) I saw that I can have a positive impact on LGBTQ families.”
From left to right: Joseph, Wylliam, Cristian and Todd
Todd Doan and Wylliam Soliwoda-Doan are dads of two campers who attended last year, Cristian and Joseph. Affordability and scholarship opportunities were big factors in their decision to send their children to the camp. “We had an unexpected financial hardship come up before the payment deadline. We were expecting to cancel but Chris went above and beyond to make sure we could send our boys,” Todd said, “(now) we cannot say enough great things about the camp.”
At Camp Highlight children are broken up into houses that compete for points (much like the houses of Hogwarts in the wizarding world of Harry Potter). Points are based on “The Virtues,” a set of 9 guiding principles – peace, respect, honesty, acceptance, unity, generosity, responsibility, courage, and cooperation – that are woven into daily activities and expounded upon at morning meetings.
“Instead of there being a discipline program, we have a virtues program,” said Jackie, “You don’t have to worry about disciplining children when they're focused on trying to be more honest, generous and respectful.”
On his understanding of the virtues, Joseph explained, “The virtues mean ‘be who you are’ and to be truthful and respectful to others, but also yourself.”
I worked as a counselor at Camp Highlight last year and saw the virtues in action. They may sound a little platitudinous, but campers genuinely responded well to the positive reinforcement approach. It isn’t surprising that Todd and Wylliam provided testament to the lasting effects of the virtue system. “Our boys have made close friends who accept them for who they are,” Wylliam said, “They now have a much stronger sense of tolerance of other people.”
Though there are more and more camps established each year dedicated to serving children with LGBTQ parents, there is something special about Camp Highlight. “We are looking at the future of families here,” says Chris.
Seeing the children affirmed by the virtue system and by the thoroughly vetted staff, I can agree that being at this camp is like seeing what a revolutionary future might look like: Children just being allowed to be, to be differently, and to be positively. “Our goal is to make better people and a better environment,” Jackie said.
Upon picking up his sons at the end of the week, Todd explained, “The kids were not shy about hugging each other or showing their true emotions. It was very touching and genuine. It’s the way friendships should be.”
The campers who create these friendships come from all backgrounds and colors. “It is a population of children of queer families, but we want to be sensitive to transracial adoption,” Chris said, “Our kids are from all over the spectrum when it comes from socioeconomic status and pretty much race as well.”
What brings them together is, as Cristian explained, “(having) the same kind of parents,” the selling point he uses to encourage others from families like his to attend.
Over the years, the camp has grown from 12 children its very first summer to about 60, and Chris and Jackie expect participation will continue to expand this summer and beyond. They are also developing a teen program for campers who age out at 16.
Camp Highlight runs this summer from August 14-21, and registration is now open.