At Seattle-based Camp Ten Trees, a residential camp for LGBTQ+ youth, staff and volunteers not only provide an identity-affirming environment for young campers—they save lives.
Founded in 2001, Camp Ten Trees is a socially-just and empowering camp for LGBTQ+ youth, the children of LGBTQ+ or nontraditional families and their allies. Along with traditional summer camp activities like swimming, hiking and crafting, campers are offered programming that reflects their interests and identities.
While at camp, youth are surrounded by 80 adults who are themselves members of the LGBTQ+ community, providing the campers a supportive environment in which they feel safe and included. “Campers get to see their identities reflected in the adults around them. They see the possibilities for their future as healthy, happy adults who love their lives,” says Camp Ten Trees executive director Poni Colina.
As the only program of its kind in the Northwest that provides an immersive, week-long outdoor experience to LGBTQ+ youth, it’s no wonder campers travel from across the region, the country and occasionally from overseas to participate. “Being in the wilderness, away from technology, away from cyberbullies or families that aren’t fully supportive, with a community that is affirming and uplifting and empowering—it's the most powerful thing about our program,” says Colina.
Another important aspect of Camp Ten Trees’ program is its commitment to social justice education and engagement for campers and volunteers. They participate in formal and informal discussions on racial injustice, issues specific to the LGBTQ+ community and greater systemic issues as they relate to equity and access. Social justice and public health are intrinsically linked, says Colina. Many of these discussions focus on injustices the LGBTQ+ community face, all of which have an impact on their health.
Because of the health disparities facing LGBTQ+ youth, particularly those with other marginalized identities, Camp Ten Trees consistently works to increase access to the program. Campers are never turned away for inability to pay, and the camp itself has become more accessible and wheelchair friendly. Camp staff and participants alike have become more racially diverse, with a third of campers identifying as Black, Indigenous or People of Color (BIPOC).
But access to camp has been difficult in 2020. All summer sessions were canceled and campers, many of whom do not have a strong support system at home, had nowhere to go. But like many other programs, Camp Ten Trees offered virtual options to keep campers engaged and connected. Every year, the program relies on volunteers and community partners to stay afloat, and 2020 was no different. “Our biggest success is that we’re still here. We survived,” says Colina.
Typically, Swedish Health Services partners with Camp Ten Trees to help at session check-ins and check-outs, collect and track camper medications and occasionally conduct camper health screenings. Swedish has also provided medical supplies and CPR training for volunteers to make sure campers stay safe in the wilderness. Swedish supports the camp’s annual auction gala and is a frequent presence at events. In 2019, Swedish helped fund a new camp session for transgender youth.
Providing an inclusive and supportive environment is especially beneficial for trans campers. The new session has been one of the ways Camp Ten Trees is addressing a public health crisis. “Marginalization has devastating impacts on youth health,” says Colina. “It’s heartbreaking to know the impact on these kids—there's rejection, isolation, bullying and abuse.” Being surrounded by a supportive, inclusive community is one of the best ways Camp Ten Trees supports LGBTQ+ youth health.
Although one in five transgender youth have considered or attempted suicide, a recent study on LGBTQ+ youth health by The Trevor Project found that transgender youth with at least one supportive person in their life are 35% less likely to attempt suicide. “It illustrates the importance of our program, and in a young person just staying alive,” says Colina. “Imagine what it’s like being in a community for a week with supportive, affirmative people. It’s lifesaving.”