Camp Stomping Ground offering ‘online camp’ during pandemic

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ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — Some of the most hurt by the COVID-19 coronavirus crisis are non-for-profits in Rochester.

Inspired by the partnership between United Way of Greater Rochester and the Rochester Area Community foundation, News 8 is producing a series of stories showing what a different non-profit does, how the crisis affects them, and how people can help.

The United Way has launched the “Community Crisis Fund,” to allow rapid deployment of resources to help non-profits impacted by the virus outbreak.

Camp Stomping Ground is a summer camp that helps hundreds of kids learn and explore the idea of “radical empathy.” The campers come from all over New York State — some even outside the state — but the camp caters to some of Rochester’s most disadvantaged kids.

To do their part during the crisis, they’re offering free classes called “Hometown Stomping Ground” over Zoom to any kid who wants to join. You can register here. Classes range from smoothie making, to fitness, to science classes.

We spoke with Jack Schott, founder of Stomping Ground Camp Inc.

He grew up going to Camp Stella Maris on Conesus Lake, and that love even steered him away from his industrial engineering degree.

“It was the best decision I ever made,” he said.

He got out of school, and after a two-year road trip to visit over 200 summer camps — along with institutions that offer alternative learning — with his partner Laura Kriegel.

Neither of them wanted to get a job in electrical engineering or painting and drawing, so they started camp. Now they host camp every summer, with four full time employees.

Their first was a one-week camp in New Jersey with 64 kids.

“It was wild,” he said. “We made so many mistakes… The kids were safe, but we were running around!”

The past four years they were at camp in Binghamton, and this year — assuming the pandemic is under control — will be in Saratoga Springs. They will have seven weeks of camp this year.

What do you do?

About 60% of their campers are from New York City — as well as some campers from Philly or Boston — but 20% comes from Rochester.

“But we disproportionally serve kids who couldn’t afford camp in Rochester,” Schott said. “Anyone in the RCSD can come to camp for free, if they want to.”

They’re partnered with Rochester City School District and ROC Restorative. ROC Restorative is a group of social workers in RCSD, who implement new social justice ideas into the school districts. According to Schott, they have seen impressive results, and they kids to camp.

“We do a lot of restorative justice work at the camp,” he said. “There’s a lot of great overlap there.”

The programming involves one or two week sessions. It’s a choice-based schedule, all supervised. A lot of it has familiar camp things, like archery, boating, or basketball.

They also have three check-ins a day, where campers and their cabinmates talk about themselves and their activities.

“Our goal is to inspire the next generation of radically empathetic decision makers,” he said. “We’re hoping that kids leave camp knowing that their decisions and the choices they make impact those around them.”

Schott thinks that if kids understand this, then any kid can make better decisions that create better lives — no matter how small or big the change may be — for those around them.

“I’m throwing shade at young people, I apologize,” Schott said. “But you still see so many people outside, not social distancing in the world, and because nothing is negatively impacting them right now.

“Our hope, in this crisis is that our kids and staff learn radical empathy,” he said. “And how their decisions can have a negative or hugely positive impact on those around them.”

He thinks camp can do this better than school because it camp has “two superpowers.”

First, “cool young adults.”

“We get to employ incredibly passionate and compassionate young people,” he said. He says those campers don’t usually form those intense connections with “really cool grown ups” who are outside of camp. When they see adults they have a connection with act in a positive way, they’re more likely to model their behavior. “Summer camp has monopoly on that during the summer.”

Second, a different place.

“Sleep-away camp brings you to a new world,” he said. “You enter into a totally immersive environment… You’re coming to new people, and a new environment, and it gives you a chance to reinvent who you want to be.”

How has the crisis affected you?

“It’s hard, (but) we’re doing OK at the moment,” he said. “But we’re looking at what’s coming forward. Will this affect enrollment? Will it be safe to run camp?”

In the meantime:

“We’re trying to bring a little camp magic to kids who can’t be outside right now,” Schott said. “They’re stuck inside, and we all need a bit of a break.”

It’s called “Hometown Stomping Ground.” It takes their unstructured play time model to the internet. You can register here, and it’s all free. Anyone, just not Stomping Ground members, are welcome.

“We have a bunch of different options that kids can choose from,” he said.

They can do more fitness-oriented classes, a popular Dungeons and Dragons camp, but it’s interactive. Classes take place over Zoom.

“It’s not as good as real life,” he said. “But it’s much better than nothing.”

What can people to do help?

“Three things,” he exclaims.

  1. “Like, comment, and subscribe on social media. That stuff really matters.”
  2. “You can register, let your kids try it out, maybe they can summer campers some day.”
  3. “Donations at https://hometownstompingground.org/.”

“With all this, kids can get through this pandemic without losing that social-emotional support that they need,” he said.

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