Interview: Camp Quest’s Amanda Metskas

Nexus has been lucky enough to interview Amanda Metskas, who is the President of Camp Quest, the North America secular summer camp for kids! Thanks to Amanda for being so obliging, and to benjdm, grumpytheBright, and Pavlov’s Dog for helping Octavia to put together the questions.

Camp Quest’s main site can be found here, so please take time to visit it – especially if you have kids who might like to attend, or if you have some spare time yourself over summer and would like to volunteer at one of their seven locations. Donations of any size towards scholarships towards attendance fees for underprivileged children are also welcome. (Remember, these kids will vote one day!) Just visit the main site and click on any of the locations to find out how you can take part!

2on_ropesSummer camp for kids seems to be a tradition in the U.S. For those of us who don’t live there, can you tell us a bit about it?

Summer camp has been around in the U.S. for about 140 years. The tradition started as a way for kids growing up in big cities like New York to get a chance to experience the outdoors. I think summer camp caught on and remained popular because it gave kids a chance to get away from their parents and do things they might not get to do during the rest of the year – go canoeing, hiking, build a campfire. Of course, it also gave parents a break from their kids!

At a sleepaway camp kids come to camp and stay for usually a week or more in cabins with other kids and a counselor or two. Counselors are often college students, or other young adults. Traditional summer camps offer a program with a wide variety of activities – horseback riding, arts and crafts, singing songs around the campfire, swimming, hiking, sports, games, etc. The cabins or tents that kids sleep in are usually somewhat rustic, and the campsite is usually in a more rural area, surrounded by nature.

A recent major study on summer camps concludes that the camp experience has several benefits for children, including increased confidence and self-esteem, better ability to make new friends, increased independence and leadership ability, and an increased willingness to try new things (the study is available here: http://www.acacamps.org/research/directions.pdf). I’ve seen this happen with a lot of kids at Camp Quest – at home they may be shy, have trouble making friends, or be afraid to try new things, and then at camp they really come out of their shell. One boy was really scared of riding a horse, then he tried it at camp and just loved it. Opportunities like that, to try something new in an environment that’s supportive and caring, is what camp is all about.

Camp is a place where kids can have a community that is separate from all the stresses of school and home. Kids can kick back and have fun, and not worry so much about what other people think of them. Campers are excited to come back year after year to see their friends from previous summers, and make new friends.

How did Camp Quest start up? What was it that prompted it, and why do you think it is important?

Camp Quest was founded by Edwin and Helen Kagin, and fellow members of the Free Inquiry Group, a local humanist group in the Cincinnati, Ohio area. The first session was held in 1996, and 20 campers attended. Edwin’s idea to start Camp Quest came from his experience growing up going to Boy Scout camps and becoming an Eagle Scout, and then becoming an atheist later in life.

The main reason that I think Camp Quest is so important is that it provides a community for kids from freethinking families. Families who send campers to Camp Quest often have beliefs that are in the minority where they live. For our campers, the fact that they come from atheist, agnostic, humanist, and other freethinking and secular families, sometimes causes controversy with their friends, extended families, and classmates. Camp Quest gives them a place where they meet other kids from families like theirs, and they can learn together and have fun.

Religious groups provide this sort of community for their members, but for secular families it can be very hard to find a similar community that offers programs for children. Although many cities and towns in the U.S. have local freethought groups, very few of these groups have activities geared towards kids. Secular parents are looking for ways to pass their values on to their children. Camp Quest, with our focus on critical thinking, freethought heroes, and universal secular values like compassion and honesty, provides that opportunity. And we provide it in a way that kids enjoy and want to return to year after year, which is one of the great advantages of a summer camp program that mixes fun, friends, and learning.

I see that you’re affiliated with the Institute for Humanist Studies. How did that come about, and how does that help you?

The Institute for Humanist Studies has been incredibly generous in awarding grants to Camp Quest as well as many other freethought projects. Grants from their grant fund helped Camp Quest expand from just one camp, to the six Camp Quest camps we have now. The Institute also provides office space for the Camp Quest headquarters at their Humanist Center in Albany, NY. Working at their building has also given us a chance to benefit from the expertise of their staffers, especially their communications director, Duncan Crary, who has helped Camp Quest with press releases and other projects to reach out to the media and let people know about Camp Quest.

dormHave you ever gotten any flack for promoting secularism to children?

Yes, although not as much as I expected. The vast majority of the media coverage that Camp Quest gets is very positive — including stories in the New York Times, The Chicago Tribune, TIME magazine, and on National Public Radio. Sometimes after one of these stories comes out though, we do see some criticism in the blogosphere, mostly from people who misunderstand our mission and think we are indoctrinating kids.

One of the reasons I think Camp Quest is so important is that it lets kids know that it is okay to be secular. A lot of kids who attend Camp Quest don’t know very many families other than their own who aren’t religious. Giving kids a place where they can meet other kids from families like theirs, and have a safe place to explore their developing worldviews is really important.

So what kinds of things do the kids do there?

We offer a mix of traditional camp activities and educational programs focusing on critical thinking, scientific inquiry, freethought history, ethics, and comparative religion. Our educational activities are designed to be interactive, fun, and allow kids to explore ideas for themselves. We intersperse those programs with activities like swimming, horseback riding, arts and crafts, canoeing, games, and other camp fun.

Our specific activities vary from session to session, but here is a sample of a few of the activities kids did last summer. At Camp Quest West campers learned about science and pseudoscience by conducting and experiment that tested whether dowsing rods could really be used to find water. At Camp Quest Ontario campers did an activity called “six thinking hats” where they each wore colored hat which determined what perspective they used to solve a problem with a group. Campers at Camp Quest Michigan watched a short fictional documentary about the “Round Earth/Flat Earth Controversy” and talked about the tactics the film used to get them to believe that there was a scientific debate about whether the earth was round. At Camp Quest Ohio campers tried to disprove the existence of two invisible unicorns who live at Camp. Campers at Camp Quest Minnesota put their values into practice by volunteering at a soup kitchen. All of the Camp Quests do short mealtime presentations about “famous freethinkers” or “freethought heroes,” like Thomas Jefferson, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Lance Armstrong, who are skeptical of traditional religious claims, and have achieved something important in their lives.

Our activities foster an environment where kids are encouraged to question, look for evidence, think for themselves, and come to their own conclusions. QUEST is our acronym for: Question, Understand, Explore, Search, Test. We don’t tell kids what their worldview should be, instead we give them a place where they can explore ideas and decide for themselves what they believe. We don’t tell kids that they should be atheists, because we think that as they grow up, kids should make their own decisions about what they believe with regard to religion.

Our mission statement sums it up pretty well:

“The purpose of Camp Quest is to provide children of freethinking parents a residential summer camp dedicated to improving the human condition through rational inquiry, critical and creative thinking, scientific method, self-respect, ethics, competency, democracy, free speech, and the separation of religion and government.”

tubingWhat’s your best memory about Camp Quest?

That’s a tough one. I have so many wonderful memories from Camp Quest. The weeks I spend at camp are definitely my favorite weeks of the year. If I had to pick just one thing, I think I’d pick this hike we did at Camp Quest West in California last summer. We went to at the Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park. We hiked up a trail, and then we went through this rock tunnel that had a stream running through it. The tunnel was pretty dark and intimidating with a lot of scattered rocks and cold water. I have to admit it was a little scary, even for me as an adult. When our group came out of the other side of the tunnel, there was just this feeling of accomplishment. It was a real bonding moment for all of the campers and counselors. Then after the hike we went swimming in the Yuba River, which was awesome.

More generally, I love seeing the campers having fun, and learning new things. I kind of get to watch them grow up, because they come back to camp year after year.

And the worst?

Well, my second year at Camp Quest, Camp Quest Ohio 2004, I was terribly sick — cough, cold, sore throat, the whole bit. Running around outside and doing all the fun camp stuff isn’t nearly as fun when you don’t feel well. Fortunately, I was sharing a cabin with our camp doctor, and she took good care of me. She would wake me up and give me cough medicine in the middle of the night so my coughing didn’t keep the rest of our cabin awake all night.

Currently there are six Camp Quest locations in the US. Are you planning any more?

Yes! All of the Camp Quest camps are independently run by local groups of volunteers who commit to running a safe, fun program that is consistent with the Camp Quest mission. We would especially like to see Camp Quest expand to parts of North America that are distant from our current camps. We are working on putting together at Camp Quest New England, tentatively to be held in Vermont in July 2009. We are also talking with local groups in different parts of the country who are interested in starting a Camp Quest. Our strongest lead right now is in Florida. I know there are a lot of parents and campers who would like to see a Camp Quest program in Texas as well. I would encourage anyone reading this who is interested in bringing a Camp Quest to their area, to email me at

Amanda@camp-quest.org -mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it
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The first step towards starting a camp is serving as a volunteer staff member at one of our existing Camp Quest programs to learn the ropes. Getting a Camp Quest going is a lot of work, but I think anyone who has been involved will tell you that it’s incredibly rewarding.

It looks like you’re expanding into the UK as well! Fantastic. Can you tell us how that started?

Samantha Stein came from the UK last summer to volunteer at Camp Quest of Michigan. She had a great time, and realized what a valuable program it was, and she wanted to get a program started back home in the UK. We’ve been able to give her a little bit of help and advice, but since we don’t have experience with setting up camps in the UK, or organizing non-profit corporations in the UK, she is really breaking new ground. The website of Camp Quest UK is http://www.camp-quest.org.uk/, and I’m sure Samantha would love to hear from folks in the UK who want to help and/or send campers!

Are you willing to consider bringing Camp Quest to other countries, and how would interested people volunteer to help with that?

Camp Quest, Inc. is a pretty small organization. I became our first employee just this year. While I would love to see Camp Quests start all over the world, I also want to make sure that Camp Quest, Inc. is able to provide adequate support to all of the independently operated Camp Quest camps. For that reason we’re focusing primarily on expanding Camp Quest in North America – both by helping new camps form, and by helping current Camp Quest programs expand the programs they offer and the number of campers they serve.

Although North America is our primary focus, we are willing to work with people who want to start Camp Quests or other programs with similar missions internationally. There are two ways we can work with people internationally – The first is, if you are interested in setting up a program that is similar to Camp Quest, but isn’t officially affiliated with CQ, we’d be happy to send you information about programs that we run and things that we’ve learned. If on the other hand, you want to start an official Camp Quest program, like Samantha is doing in the UK, then the first step is to come serve on staff at a Camp Quest in North America so we can meet you and get to know you, and you can learn the ropes. Because Camp Quest, Inc. is such a small organization, we are moving slowly with expanding official Camp Quest programs abroad. We want to make sure that we can provide the necessary support to newly launching Camp Quest camps, and also we want to ensure that all Camp Quests are running camps that are safe, fun, and consistent with our mission.

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Talking of volunteers, how do people go about doing that? What kind of skills do they need to help out at Camp?

We look for people with all different kinds of skills to help out at Camp Quest. Volunteer counselors do two types of things: serving as cabin counselors, and leading programs and activities. Cabin counselors are responsible with a co-counselor for supervising and helping a group of kids who live in your cabin for the week. Leading activities is the other thing that counselors do – this could mean organizing the arts & crafts projects, leading an educational activity on critical thinking, organizing sports and games, helping run a science experiment, and many others. Some of our activity leaders come in for a day to lead a particular program, and others stay at camp for the whole week and also are cabin counselors.

We also often are looking for people with a few particular skills. Each of our programs has a doctor, nurse, or other first aid certified person on staff at all times. Volunteers with training in those areas, and volunteers who are certified lifeguards for boating and swimming are especially encouraged!

Our volunteers range in age from 18 to 80. Some are former campers who have grown up and joined the staff. We have college students, teachers, graduate students, scientists, doctors, activists, lawyers, parents, engineers, and retired people from all different fields on staff at Camp Quest. If you like working with kids, and you like the outdoors, you would probably enjoy volunteering as a counselor. I think the adults have almost as much fun as the kids!
If you are interested in volunteering as a counselor at a Camp Quest camp, go to our website www.camp-quest.org and click on the links to the camp locations that interest you. You should find information there for how to apply to volunteer, and how to get in touch with the organizers of that specific Camp Quest location. If you have questions, don’t hesitate to email me at

Amanda@camp-quest.org

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We also recruit volunteers to help with some of the tasks that go into running a Camp Quest camp throughout the year – sending out registration packets, publicizing camp, designing activities, recruiting and training volunteer counselors, etc. Make sure to let us know if you are interested in being involved in one of those support roles as well.

I live outside of the States, and at my university there are often ads saying “Come spend the summer in America, working at a children’s camp!” You go through the application process, and get a volunteer’s visa, and off you go. Does Camp Quest take part in this?

We haven’t been a part of a specific program like that yet, mainly because each of our camp sessions are only one week long, and all of our staffers are unpaid volunteers. We have had campers and staffers come from abroad to Camp Quest camps in past years. If you live outside of the U.S., and are interested in volunteering as a counselor at a Camp Quest camp, I encourage you to contact us. We would love to have more international volunteers as counselors at Camp Quest!

Many local governments honor local Eagle Scouts for attaining the rank, or doing specific things, etc. Has any attempt ever been made to do the same for a Camp Quest attendee or has an attempt succeeded?

That is a great idea. We haven’t tried it yet, but perhaps we should! Some of the Camp Quest camps do service projects during the week of camp, and it would be nice to see that be recognized by local governments because it would challenge the misconceptions so many people have about our community.

Just for the record, in the U.S. the Girls Scouts are welcoming to all girls, including girls who are nonreligious, and many of our female campers also participate in Girl Scouting. The Boy Scouts of America, on the other hand, discriminates against both gays and atheists, so most of our campers don’t participate and thus don’t have the option of earning an Eagle Scout honor. We support the work of an organization called Scouting For All (www.scoutingforall.org), which is seeking the reform of the Boy Scouts into a nondiscriminatory organization.

Has there been a documentary made about Camp Quest? If not, is that something you would be willing to do?

A documentary filmmaker came out to Camp Quest Ohio for our summer 2007 session. He’s currently working on promoting his film at film festivals. We don’t know yet if it will get picked up for wider distribution. Keep an eye out!

Finally, Pavlov’s Dog would like to know why you want to make baby Jesus cry?

We don’t want to make baby Jesus cry. I think he’s just sad because Camp Quest wasn’t around for him to attend when he was a kid. 😉

And on that note, let me say that Camp Quest has seven locations offering sessions this summer.
• Camp Quest Smoky Mountains is offering a session for campers ages 8-17 in Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee June 1-8.
• Camp Quest Ohio is offering a session for campers ages 8-17 in Clarksville, Ohio June 21-28.
• Camp Quest West is offering a session July 13-19 near Nevada City, California for campers ages 8-17, with a day camp option for younger campers, and an associated family camp where younger kids and parents can come to a shorter program together.
• Camp Quest Minnesota is offering a session for campers ages 8-17 in Minnetrista, Minnesota July 27 – August 2.
• Camp Quest West is putting together an “Adventure Camp” backpacking and rafting trip in Washington State for teens ages 15-17. The dates of this program are yet to be announced.
• Camp Quest Ontario will offer a one week program for campers ages 7-16. The dates of this program are to be announced.
• Camp Quest Michigan will offer a family camp program for parents and kids to attend together. The dates of this program are to be announced.

If you are interested in more information, registering a camper, volunteering, or donating to provide camperships for families who couldn’t otherwise afford to send kids to Camp Quest please check out our website at www.camp-quest.org. Click on the links for each camp location for information about their programs.

amandamBio:

Amanda Metskas is the executive director of Camp Quest, Inc. She has been involved with Camp Quest since 2003, and in 2004 joined the board of directors. Currently, Amanda focuses on providing coordination and support services to all of the Camp Quest programs. While at camp, Amanda leads activities on debate, critical thinking, and international relations. She holds an M.A. in political science from Ohio State University, and a B.A. in international relations and psychology from Brown University. She lives in Albany, NY with her husband August E. Brunsman IV and their two cats.

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