When Leah Mesches (MSSW 16) started working at Camp Champions, the organization had a small scholarship program— roughly $15,000 went towards campers in need of financial help.
As part of her final social work internship, Mesches set up the Champions Education Foundation in 2016, which has expanded available scholarship funds to over $200,000.
“I really believe in the impact that camps can have,” Mesches says. “The campers gain confidence from knowing they can do hard things and overcome challenges…Kids who can’t afford it should be able to have an experience like this.”
Mesches attended camp as a kid, worked as a counselor when she was a teenager, and eventually become a director at Camp Champions, one of the oldest summer camps in Texas.
After graduating with a business degree from Northeastern University, she knew she wanted to create social change by bringing the camp experience to underserved communities.
“I wanted to learn more about underserved communities while also educating them on the camp industry as a vehicle for growth and education,” Mesches explains. “I had gotten to a point where I had vast management experience but absolutely no background in education or social work. I thought a master of social work was a perfect way to bridge the gap for me.”
Mesches enrolled in the School of Social Work in 2013. When it came time to start her field internship, she took a slightly alternative route: she collaborated with the Field Office to create a work-based placement at Camp Champions.
Her primary objective during the internship was to create a non-profit that would make summer camp accessible to families who never would have dreamed of having the experience.
As she was setting up the Champions Education Foundation, Mesches also worked on training camp counselors to work with first-time campers — who may need extra attention if they have never been away from home — and to be mindful of the fact that they will work with children coming from a broad socioeconomic spectrum.
“The counselors are also taught to realize that each camper’s family has different values. We cannot judge the campers for that, but can teach them all to be inclusive and understanding of another’s experience,” Mesches says.
Fund raised by the Champions Education Foundation support scholarships as well as research that seeks evidence for the impact of camps. For instance, the foundation is currently examining math scores of students who attended summer camps. According to Mesches, preliminary results show that standardized math scores improve among students who were campers when compared to those who were not.
These improvements, Mesches believes, are related to summertime morale boosts, which affect campers positively and ultimately give them a better ability to navigate through high school and college.
Since the foundation’s inception, the number of donors has rapidly increased. Thanks to their generosity, the Champions Education Foundation will be able to provide 100 partial scholarships and 30 full scholarships to well-deserving campers in summer of 2017.
Mesches adds that beyond long-term outcomes, in the short-term campers of diverse backgrounds benefit from learning in a unique situation. They acquire new skills sets in sports, arts and outdoor living but, more importantly, they also learn from each other.
“The campers become more independent and resilient, but in an environment where they are closely watched and guided by incredible role models,” she says. “They are making friends and developing stronger social skills.”
Text and photos by Shelby Knowles. Posted January 13, 2017.