Jameson Camp Ensures All Kids Can Experience the Joy of Camp
Writer / Christy Heitger-Ewing
Photography Provided by Jameson Camp
In 1928, Julia Jameson founded Jameson Camp. Situated on 125 acres, it was originally conceived as an open-air camp on the outskirts of Indianapolis for tuberculosis patients. Now, nearly a century later, it serves kids aged 5 to 17, allowing them to experience both day camp and overnight camp. Best of all, the staff members are committed to ensuring that every child has the chance to experience camp, regardless of financial ability.
According to Jess Gillum, program director of camp and youth activities, 95% of their families receive financial assistance of some variety, and roughly 80% of the kids who attend the camp live below the federal poverty guidelines. Therefore, staff members at Jameson Camp work with families to help them submit simple financial documentation so that they may be awarded scholarships.
In addition, 46% of Jameson’s campers have a diagnosis of attention-deficit disorder, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, or autism. Sometimes these are the kids who struggle to fit in with their peers at school. At camp, however, all of that falls away because no one knows of diagnoses, academic history or financial status.
They have day camp for kids aged 5 to 12, which is offered in one-week sessions throughout the summer. They also have a weekly overnight camp for ages 7 to 15, as well as a “mini” overnight camp for ages 5 to 14 that’s two days and one night, and is ideal for children who aren’t ready for a full week.
“Because of the pandemic a lot of kids haven’t been away from home for two or three years,” Gillum says. “Others never have done a sleep-away camp so this gives them a taste of what that’s like.”
The goal is for campers to leave with a little more knowledge and courage than they came in with.
“Camp is the perfect place to step out of your comfort zone and discover your strengths,” Gillum says.
At school kids can feel pressured to get things right the first time, but that’s not the case here.
“Here, if you fail at the climbing wall that’s OK,” Gillum says. “You’ll get a chance to try it again. It’s not about doing it perfectly. It’s about giving something a go.”
Spending time at camp can build confidence and independence. Being able to choose activities, as well as establishing likes and dislikes, helps kids grow. At Jameson Camp the list of activities is endless. They offer swimming, archery, arts and crafts, rock climbing, a rope course, and team building, as well as a variety of sports including basketball, slip-and-slide kickball, volleyball, and soccer.
“The kids’ favorite is typically the climbing tower and the high ropes course,” Gillum says. “We also have a creek that runs through camp so we do creek ecology and creek stomping.”
Each year the leaders adjust the activities to suit campers’ interests. Plus, they hire staff members from different countries, each of whom brings with them a set of unique skills. This year they have employees from Jamaica, Mexico, Hungary, Thailand, Scotland, England, Turkey and Ghana.
“We might offer yoga or rugby, for instance, depending on the things our staff members are interested in, in order to expand the kids’ horizons,” Gillum says.
Earlier this year she and her team sat down and asked what they wanted their campers to improve on by the time they left camp. They came up with four words – perseverance, accountability, courage and kindness.
“Those are the things that make a person well-rounded so we want to instill those values in our kids,” Gillum says. For instance, they talk about how one’s actions impact people. “We’re in a microcosm in a camp so you get to see how your actions make other people feel. You’re already out of your comfort zone so this is your spot for growth.”
One of the best parts of camp is the growth that’s witnessed across campers as the summer progresses. For instance, last year they had a girl who was nonverbal when she arrived.
“She came in speaking two words and left speaking in full sentences,” Gillum says. “It was the most beautiful thing to watch.”
They also always see a huge shift in confidence throughout the course of the season, particularly when it comes to swimming. Because some campers are new to the water, having had no access to pools before, they are hesitant to try.
“So many kids sit on the bench at first, then after a while they put one toe in the water,” Gillum says. “By the end of the summer no kids are sitting on the bench. Everyone is doing cannonballs into the pool.”
Each year Jameson Camp registers around 1,000 children. They noticed an uptick in registration early this year.
“Everyone has realized how important it is to be outside and participate in social interactions,” Gillum says.
Studies show that being immersed in nature is good for health. Not only does it offer the benefit of being physically active and getting some vitamin D from the sun, but camp also provides a learning environment where kids want to participate and ask questions when introduced to new things.
“Getting comfortable being outside should be lifelong,” Gillum says. “Summer camp changed my life as a kid and now I work here.”
Another great aspect of camp is being paired with mentors – a key component to growth for many of these children.
“A lot of our kids don’t have many mentors in their lives,” Gillum says. “Plus, in the last couple of years kids have been removed from their mentors or have maybe seen them through a Zoom screen or a mask. Part of what makes our mentors unique is that our counselors and staff are relatable young adults. We are their cheerleaders.”
Most camps have a 1:8 or 1:10 ratio of adults to children. Jameson Camp’s ratio is 1:5, depending on the age and ability of campers. In addition, they hire behavioral specialists to help children who may be stressed.
“Children with a sensory disorder struggle when a situation gets too loud or the food is the wrong texture,” Gillum says. “Sometimes big emotions are really challenging for our kids. These specialists swoop in and separate the child from the group to offer special support.”
In addition, Jameson Camp runs specialty camps every summer, working with kids who have been impacted by AIDS or HIV. They are also partnering with the Indiana Youth Group to host the state’s first lgbtqia2s+ summer camp. Plus, their partner, Son of a Saint, works to transform the lives of fatherless boys through mentorship and peer-to-peer relationships.
“We work with partners in our community to make sure we’re a low-barrier camp where kids are able to come out and have a wonderful opportunity, regardless of where they are from or what their families look like,” Gillum says.
The last day to apply for financial assistance, which is provided on a first-come-first-served basis, is June 1. Camps start on June 6 and end on July 29.
Once camp season ends, Jameson Camp stays open year round to host weddings, parties, company retreats and corporate team building for up to 180 people.
“It’s beautiful here so it makes a wonderful place to hold a party or reception,” Gillum says. “These events are how we raise money for our scholarships.”
Though Jameson Camp spans a sizable amount of land, it is tucked back in such a way that some people drive by and have no idea that it exists.
“We’ve been here 100 years and are our own little oasis,” Gillum says.