They take the kid out of the city, but Camping to Connect isn’t trying to take the city out of the kid. Instead, co-founders and facilitators Andy Isaacson and Manny Almonte are bringing the city kid into the wilderness, an experience they hope their charges can take back to the city. It’s working.
Camping to Connect is a product of the “Mastermind Connect” program, a community organization that brings men, mostly BIPOC, together for mutual enrichment. Each brings diverse skills to teach and support each other.
Camping to Connect is one of their programs, part of the Young Masterminds Initiative focused on young men. Qualified Mastermind Connect volunteers lead youth in trips into the wilderness beyond NYC’s borders. These range from day trips with three or four kids to overnight camping trips with more than 20 participants.
Their first trip was an experiment in exploring nature. “It was the idea of bringing them to governor’s Island–a metaphorical and physical island away from their lives,” says Isaacson, “and taking them out of the world they were familiar with and that they knew (and) bringing them to an Island and exposing them to camping and being outdoors. We found an opportunity to connect with each other in a deeper way.” After that first trip, the trips expanded beyond the five boroughs to places like Harriman State Park and the Delaware Water Gap.
Like their adult programming, Camping to Connect brings in specialists to help broaden the participants’ horizons. There are fitness and camping, but also urban gardening, singing, and opportunities to connect individually with mentors and each other. “Most of them share that when they hang out in school, they’re on their phones,” says Isaacson, “They’re kind of hanging out around one another, but not deeply with one another.”
For the volunteer counselors, it is an intimate experience and a responsibility. Almonte believes that programs like Camping to Connect are core to the vision of Mastermind Connect and the Young Masterminds Initiative. “These (counselors) are men who themselves are part of a group that has to do with self-growth and brotherhood and camaraderie. So we’re taking these young men at an early age and bringing them into our village, into our community. We’re investing in them, (preparing) them to be the type of individuals that we aim to be as adults.”
COVID has slowed down Camping to Connect’s expansion, but not its programming or mission. Counselors are still taking small groups on day and overnight trips under strict conditions to keep healthy and socially distant even as they socially connect. If you’re interested in finding out more about the Young Masterminds Initiative or Camping to Connect, check out their website here.