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The Women Behind Camp Sojourner Girls’ Leadership Organization

Camp Sojourner Girls’ Leadership Camp is a nonprofit leadership program for Philadelphia girls ages 8-16. Alisha Berry, Director of the camp, is gearing up for the camp’s third annual fundraiser in May 2015. She discusses how she got her start working in camps, the impact it has on young girls and future goals.

Itsawritestyle: What was your inspiration for the camp?

Alisha Berry: I worked in a camp for girls based in New York when I was 20 and it changed my life. I had worked at coed camps in Philadelphia and being at a girl’s camp, the culture and values affected my life. I love working with girls and always wanted to have a camp like that. There I met Kandace “Kandi” Thomas, Program Director of Camp Sojourner, and she was also a counselor. We worked together for a few years and became program director and head counselor. We kept saying someday we are gonna run our own camp.

I worked at the camp for a few more years, then moved to California and worked as a high school and middle school teacher. I also ran summer school programs, but in my mind I knew I would be a camp director someday.

I moved back to Philadelphia the next summer, and went to visit the Girls Scouts and other camps and did not like what I saw. The camps I liked did not have any openings and I did not love what they were doing.

Itsawritestyle: Why a girls leadership camp?

AB: I started out working in a coed camp and it was actually how I became a feminist. I watched the girls change over those three and a half weeks from eight-year-old goofy girls to being really worried about what boys thought of them and begging me to wear makeup. They also did not want to play sports because the boys would see them sweaty. I was pretty mainstream, and did not think of myself as a feminist, but I stopped wearing makeup and changed as I watched the girls follow my lead.

Some coed camps have some heterosexual energy around: there’s flirting and boy counselors giving notes to girl counselors. I had never thought about this and didn’t come into the camp with an agenda, but I even tried to speak up about it. We had a break in between camp sessions and had a staff meeting. I got a huge backlash from speaking out and it was really intense.

Then, I went back to college the next year and read more about it and went back to the camp the next summer. I asked the director if I could be a part of the staff training to talk about my experiences and people practically booed me off the stage.

The next summer, I read about another girls’ camp and something in me said, maybe it’s ok to go backwards and be a counselor again. For me to go to that camp and be in an environment where all leadership positions are displayed by women made me feel so much aware of my potential and not apologetic about having opinions.

Itsawritestyle: What brought about your love for children?

AB: When I was 18, I worked at a camp in the Poconos. I was in charge of a cabin with the youngest group, 8-year-old girls, and they just woke up something in me. I really enjoyed getting to play a role in their lives and learn from them.

Itsawritestyle: Why set the camp in Philadelphia?

AB: I’m from Philly and think camps are a place where you can create the kind of world we all want to live in. People get to explore things in a different context and build strong relationships with others so deeply, beneath any surfaces or groups they might belong to in the world.

I started doing research on creating camps and on the weekends, would rent a car anddrive to different areas, public parks and other organizations I thought would consider potentially selling out their camp. I found nothing I was inspired by and stumbled upon the New Jersey School of Conservation. I just had this feeling, so I drove in and it was so pretty. This place feels like a nudge to your soul like there is a bigger world out there.

Philly doesn’t have an affordable camp that is just for girls and our program focuses on urban girls. Other camps are fine, but I hear from families that they are not comfortable with these camps or that it doesn’t feel relevant to them. I wanted to create something small that would be responsive to particular families and staff. I believe the culture of our organization feels very familiar.

Itsawritestyle: What does the program offer?

AB: Our camp offers girls activities throughout the year, including our summer program and monthly trips to local destinations to enjoy nature hikes, college tours, creative arts and service projects. We also offer our weekly Teen Leadership Institute for returning teen campers.

Itsawritestyle: What do you want girls to take away from the camp?

AB: A sense of confidence and commitment about being leaders and that they are able to do things for their own lives and have responsibility. I want them to have fun and learn, grow and get out of the city and experience a bigger world that is out there. I want them to meet people and make bonds with those who may or may not be different from them and learn to be open-minded and appreciative of people.

Itsawritestyle: What are your thoughts on today’s youth?

AB: I think some things never change, and some things are different. I think within every generation the youth is a mix of brilliant, lovely, impetuous, stupid and diverse in terms of their maturity. I think as increased war, capitalism and imperialism continue to take control of our resources, I think the job prospects and college funding is getting worse. Some adults are experiencing that and it trickles down. Depending on where you are in society, in terms of resources, there are different challenges.

When I got laid off from my job as a college counselor, I was almost glad because it was getting harder and harder to encourage young people to mortgage themselves to the education industrial complex. Of course I want to encourage the youth to go to college, but I am terrified for kids because of this job market, it’s rough. Plus there is social media and violence.

When I was a kid in the suburbs of Philadelphia, there was not a lot of violence. The youth is facing a much tougher reality than people did when I was young, but I also think that they have the same, and maybe more, resources, resilience and strength to figure out how to get on the right path.

Itsawritestyle: What do you feel is lacking in today’s youth?

AB: There isn’t anything lacking in today’s youth anymore than any generation. There are people who are emotionally wounded and don’t care about other people. I don’t think it’s anything more today than in the past.

Itsawritestyle: What are your goals for the camp?

AB: Future goals would definitely include a Philly boys’ camp, and a social justice training camp, where girls can learn how to use power. I want to do this without taking away from the fun and goofiness of what makes camp special.

We have a huge waiting list, so if there were a way to expand without losing the intimacy of our small camp, I would do that. If we expanded, we would have to change our staffing model and I don’t have the time or resources now.

Itsawritestyle: How can people enroll a young woman in camp?

AB: This camps works through word of mouth. When the camp first started I went around to local schools and agencies and did informational sessions. Our list fills up in the middle of February, but people can still register for our wait-list.

Itsawritestyle: You have an upcoming fundraiser. What is your goal?

AB: We are trying to raise $20,000 and have a few hundred blockers. Our goal is to get people to think about women and girls in our personal lives and in the world and get excited about contributing to social justice. We are going to have a female actress play Sojourner Truth and different girls who were part of the social justice movement who changed the world. It’s a 5K walk and we want it to be educational and give our girls experience organizing a big event.

Itsawritestyle: Is there any community input?

AB: The families of the campers and staff who are on the committee started meeting in preparation. People volunteer for various things: hanging flyers, sponsorship and walker registration.

Itsawritestyle: Why is your camp important in today’s society?

AB: I think camps in general are important. There are incredible opportunities to create something that is very different from the world in which we live in. Most camps run on values like love, respect and community, rather than capitalism and competition and it’s a real life-changing gift to be able to live in the camp space and know what it feels like. This camp feels like experiencing ourselves as a larger part of nature.

People have given up on the notion that they can impact things and in a lot of cities, the power structure doesn’t seem like it’s a place where young people can have an impact. I feel like having an organization where girls are on the board and informed on everything, that hopefully this gives them a chance to counter the message they get everywhere else.

Camp is not something a lot of people can afford, but our camp is affordable and we are able to provide scholarships.

It gives a kid a chance to get away and not make it something that their family has to make hard choices about. To me it feels really important.To have a camp that money is not a deciding factor to me feels really important. I feel grateful to be able to offer that.

Itsawritestyle: How can people contact you?


(215) 951-0330 x 2180

Facebook: Camp Sojourner- Girls’ Leadership Camp

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