HUNT – For Akaiah Orr, 14, one of the strongest memories from her summer camp experience last week was the sensation of swinging from a cable during a ropes course.
“The thing that really freaked me out was that stomach drop,” Akaiah said. “You start swinging and you don’t know where you’re going, and I thought I was going to fall. I lived, so I guess I’m OK.”
That experience of letting go and swinging into the unknown is a perfect metaphor for what the roughly 30 girls who attended the camp must have felt last week. Organized by a group of teachers in their 20s, Camp Founder Girls is meant to show African American girls of middle and high school ages how to be strong, brave, creative, and confident.
Alex Bailey, founder of local outdoors group Black Outside, modeled the camp on a summer camp founded in 1924 by San Antonio resident Mattie Landry. The camp was one of the first summer camps for black girls in the country. It shut down in the 1960s following Landry’s death, but Bailey and supporters revived it for the first time this year.
Though the historical camp was held in Boerne, the new version took place at Presbyterian Mo-Ranch Assembly in Kerr County. Campers stayed in cabins, played games, went on hikes, did yoga, swam in the river, and learned songs and chants.
Many of the girls who participated said they’ll remember the outdoor adventures that pushed them to try new things, especially a night hike when Bailey asked all the girls to turn off their head lamps and flashlights to look at the stars. On Thursday, the older girls visited Enchanted Rock State Natural Area and got a chance to sleep in tents.
Kaitlyn “Kaity” Williams, 13, said she appreciated going without phone service for a while, “where we’re just connecting.”
“It’s always best to be disconnected from the social media and connected with the world,” Kaity said. “So we were able to make new friends and not be like, ‘Oh, I’m just going to go on my phone and chill.’”
The bonding began on the bus ride out to camp. That’s where Akaiah met one of her new friends, Ashlee Lancaster, 16. The two sat next to each other and watched the Netflix teen romance “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before.”
“We both love that movie,” Ashlee said as she, Akaiah, and the other girls in their cabin washed their breakfast dishes Thursday between activities. Akaiah said it surprised her how well they all got along.
“I actually like you guys,” she told her cabin mates. “I didn’t really think I’d get along, because I don’t really get along with a lot of females like that. I’ve got a really small circle, and I like to keep within my circle. But I’m glad I actually expanded my horizons.”
Many of the girls’ experiences mirrored those of any other summer camp. On Thursday, camp counselor Taylor Brock played a tongue-twisting game called Prince of Paris, with a group of girls seated around her.
Being in the outdoors brought some of the girls up close with the big bugs of Texas for the first time. One memorable moment came when they found a scorpion in one of the showers. Counselor Keisha Harris had to smash it several times.
“I didn’t know scorpions were so hard to kill,” Harris said.
Like the other counselors, Harris is a teacher first. She had two students who attended the camp and said she liked getting to know them outside the classroom. Her favorite moments, she said, came during “huddles” at the end of the night when all the girls could share their thoughts.
“It’s actually so beautiful seeing inside their minds,” Harris said. “I know they’re young, but they have a different perspective than what I can see.”
Other activities were curated specifically for the black experience.
In the shade of a pavilion, counselor Ebony Branch told the girls about the history of Juneteenth, celebrating June 19, 1865, when news of the Emancipation Proclamation reached enslaved African Americans in Texas.
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“It’s kind of like our independence day, right?” Branch said. “So I want us to celebrate it just like we would celebrate the Fourth of July, because this is the day where everybody was on their way towards freedom.”
Branch then asked the campers to paint their own version of the Pan-African flag in red, green, and black.
“We are going to redefine what we think black means to us,” Branch told them. “Because we know that sometimes people like to have a definition of what it means to be black. But what it means to be black is being proud of your history and proud of who you are.”
Some of the counselors said their favorite moment was a visit to the camp from Gaynelle Gainer, a San Antonio resident who attended the original Camp Founder Girls in the 1950s. Gainer went on to prove herself as a leader in academia, starting the radiography program at St. Philip’s College, among other achievements.
In an interview with the Rivard Report this month, Gainer credited camp founder Mattie Landry with inspiring her as a girl.
“It was just such a great experience to see how impactful that was for Ms. Gainer and her upbringing … and how it’s still relevant and it’s needed in this time,” camp director Angelica Holmes said. “Next year when we expand, I just think about the snowball effect of what this is going to have.”
Harris said she could see herself coming back again to be a counselor next year.
“But next time, maybe with more bug spray,” she said.