Summer Camp Dreams Become Reality for Underserved Kids
When real estate mogul Steven Kessner purchased over 100 acres of land in Livingston Manor, New York, he wasn’t planning a new development project, or designing a grand estate for his family.
Instead, Kessner bought the farmland with the intention of fulfilling a lifelong dream: building a summer camp for inner-city kids.
The son of a New York City taxi driver, Kessner was raised in a small three-room apartment in the Bronx. As a teenager, his life took a dramatic turn the day a college recruiter hailed his father’s cab and talked about scholarship opportunities at Dartmouth College. Before long, Kessner found himself holding a one-way ticket out of his old neighborhood and into a new life.
“Dartmouth opened my eyes to a world I previously didn't know existed,” Kessner shared with TakePart. “It taught me how to spread my wings, and since that time, I've wanted to pay it forward and help other bright children from underserved communities break out and meet their potential. When I found Horizon Farms, I immediately knew that this was the place to plant the seeds of my dream and build a camp for kids who just need a bit of compassion, opportunity, and fresh air.”
After buying the land, Kessner needed to recruit experienced youth leaders who could design the camp, populate it with campers, and run a successful summer program.
SOWING THE SEEDS
Community of Unity (CofU) is a non-profit organization devoted to empowering young people to discover and develop their true potential. Since its founding in 2001, CofU’s workshops and highly successful after-school programs have brought life skills education to more than 30,000 teens in high-need communities.
Summer has always been a difficult season for CofU kids who are disproportionately affected by summer learning loss.
“For a lot of our kids, the summer is a bit of a wasteland,” Komoroff told TakePart. “Some are able to get jobs, but most aren’t. More often than not, whatever gains they’re able to make during the year—whether it’s academic gains or behavior and attitude gains—seem to disappear. Some kids get involved in dangerous behaviors, like hanging out with the wrong folks, drugs, violence, sex, and all the stuff we’re trying to help young people steer clear of. A lot of people end up getting into trouble.”
Komoroff’s vision of the ideal summer camp setting for urban youth matched perfectly with Kessner’s description of Horizon Farms.
“We’re big believers in the power of getting kids out of their environment,” explained Komoroff. “For our kids, that means getting them out of the city. We’ve been doing overnight retreats for our 11th and 12th grade students, and we’ve seen the magic of that. You can do some amazing things with only 24 or 48 hours out of the city that could take weeks, months, or even years to do programmatically here at home.”
And so the partnership to create Steve’s Camp at Horizon Farms was born.
LAY OF THE LAND
Josh Borkin, CofU’s Director of Youth Culture, took the lead on the camp development project. He spent two weeks at Horizon Farms last summer along with several other CofU staff members and a group of 18- to 22-year-old CofU alumni. Together they created a blueprint for the kind of place that Steve’s Camp at Horizon Farms would become.
Partnering with six New York City public schools in low-income neighborhoods, the team conducted camp information sessions, met with parents, and interviewed students to select 100 campers for the program’s inaugural season. They scheduled camp to run for four two-week sessions with 25 kids in each.
“The Kessner family did an incredible job of reaching out and raising the money to support this program so kids are able to go up without having to worry about anything,” Komoroff shared. “Every camp scholarship we give out is 100 percent funded.”
Like most overnight camps, Steve’s has a basketball court, soccer field, and waterfront. But Horizon Farms boasts other features that make it a uniquely special place.
The camp’s counselors are CofU alumni who are just a few years older than the campers, and hail from the same communities. “The campers are going to be seeing themselves in the counselors. They’re the same kids from the same schools who’ve been through the same stuff. That’s so empowering,” explained Komoroff.
The camp’s program emphasizes team building, leadership development, and sustainable living. Teens will have opportunities to challenge themselves on a specially designed ropes course, tend a communal garden, learn to cook organic food, and care for animals on the farm.
Guest speakers will be invited to talk to the kids about college, and about getting prepared for the future. Small group sessions will be held regularly for teens to reflect upon their life experiences, and to read aloud from their camp journals.
The team looks forward to strengthening its partnership with participating urban schools, and hopes that the learning teens enjoy during the summer can be shared with the greater school community. “Hopefully we’re going to have programs throughout the year where the kids could bring back some of what they’ve learned up at camp to other students,” Komoroff said.
LIVING THE DREAM
Steve’s Camp at Horizon Farms welcomed its first group of youngsters on July 5. Kessner and his family were on hand to witness the magic of those first few days.
“Visiting the camp in its first week was inspirational, exhilarating, emotional, amazing,” Kessner shared. “It's difficult to put into words how exciting it was to see these kids enjoying the fresh food, environment, and each other's company. They were lit up with excitement and motivation. I spent a little individual time with each of them, and hearing their stories, plans for the future, and brightness of their voices was my reason for building this camp.”
The other Kessner family members take a similarly genuine interest in making sure campers enjoy a memorable summer. This is especially true of Steve’s youngest son John, a college student who's spending his summer as the only non-CofU counselor.
“Seeing my vision come together is amazing,” Steve said, “but meeting these kids and seeing them realize their potential is truly humbling. I look forward to seeing this all develop, and building a place for these kids to not only take their first steps towards success, but then coming back and mentoring others to do the same.”