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7 Summer Supercamps You’ll Wish Were Around When You Were a Kid

Some camps go beyond color wars and sing-alongs to solve our nation’s problems and help underserved populations

Helping an Often Overlooked Group Affected by Cancer

WHAT: Camp Kesem, locations nationwide

HOW IT MAKES A DIFFERENCE: It’s not hard to understand the plight of a cancer patient, but Camp Kesem aims to reach another population affected by the disease — the more than 3 million kids who have a parent battling cancer. Through one-week camps on college campuses in more than 25 states, Camp Kesem offers these children a chance to play sports, create arts and crafts and, as the website says, “just be kids” at no cost to their families. An initiative called “Cabin Chats” also gives participants the chance to talk about their feelings with peers and counselors. Since it was founded in 2000, Camp Kesem has helped nearly 6,500 kids. Student leaders from each college plan the week’s activities and work on-site as counselors throughout Camp Kesem’s 53 chapters, while mental-health professionals are on hand to provide support. The initiative is similar to camps like Angel Foundation’s Kid Kamp, in Minnesota, and Camp Good Days and Special Times, in New York, which also offer programs for children whose parents have been afflicted with cancer.

HOW YOU CAN HELP: Volunteer at an existing camp or request to host one at your college campus.

Erasing an Achievement Gap

WHAT: iD Tech Camps, locations nationwide

HOW IT MAKES A DIFFERENCE: American students trail their international peers in many subjects, but the achievement gap in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) subjects is particularly stark. American 15-year-olds ranked 25th among 34 countries in math, according to a 2010 report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. There are many camps trying to close this gap, but one of the largest and most buzzed about programs is iD Tech, which was founded in 1999 near Silicon Valley by a California family of self-professed techpreneurs who had the foresight to see what many education experts now acknowledge: that technology-related skills can prepare students for fulfilling — and lucrative — careers. “We believed in the idea of awesome technology education,” wrote iD Tech’s CEO Peter Ingram-Cauchi on the camp’s website, referring to his educator parents who saw firsthand that “technology was lacking in schools.”

Fifteen years later, iD Tech operates camps on 80 university campuses in nearly 30 states, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard University and Stanford University. Camps, which start at $800 per week, are taught by industry professionals as well as graduate students, and classes maintain an 8:1 student-to-teacher ratio with an emphasis on learning by doing: Students can expect to walk out of camp having designed their own iPhone app, video game or website.

HOW YOU CAN HELP: Support nonprofits that help improve students’ STEM skills.

Serving Families Who Serve America

WHAT: Camp Corral, locations nationwide

HOW IT MAKES A DIFFERENCE: Military kids undoubtedly have a tougher childhood than most of us can imagine, because they deal with the absence of one or both parents. James Maynard, the founder of the Golden Corral restaurant chain, was among the many people who recognized this hardship, and he decided to do something about it. In 2011, Maynard established Camp Corral, a free, weeklong retreat for children of military parents similar to programs like Operation Purple and Camp C.O.P.E. While all military kids can apply, those of wounded, disabled or fallen service members receive priority admission to the 20 camps that now operate in 16 states. With activities like fishing, archery and horseback riding, Camp Corral strives to provide a stress-free environment. “Children of service members, who’ve been wounded, disabled or killed in action, really pay a price too when their moms and dads experience a life-changing injury,” said actor and veterans’ activist Gary Sinise in a press release. “Camp Corral is a way for people to reach out and support these kids and their families. Camp Corral is a powerful way to help military families who have sacrificed so much for our country.”

HOW YOU CAN HELP: Make a tax-deductible donation to Camp Corral.

Inspiring Entrepreneurs

WHAT: Camp BizSmart, California

HOW IT MAKES A DIFFERENCE: Camp BizSmart, which operates out of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation in Mountain View, Calif., and Stanford University in Stanford, Calif., is a two-week-long summer camp for students between the ages of 11 and 15 who aspire to become the next Mark Zuckerberg or Marissa Mayer. Learning from executives at companies such as Microsoft and Cisco, camp participants get a 360-degree view of business — from product design and market analysis to ethics and sales strategies. At the end of camp, students even have the chance to pitch an idea to real investors as a way to practice public speaking and stress management. This summer, camp participants will get the chance to make their case to Andrew Davidge, the CEO and founder of Vintage Electric Bicycles, a company in Santa Clara, Calif., focused on energy-efficient transportation. Camp BizSmart was co-founded in 2008 by Peggy Gibbs, a veteran startup executive, and her husband, an educator. “There are not a lot of programs out there for passionate kids,” Gibbs told CNBC. “We care about passionate kids who really want to make a difference.”

HOW YOU CAN HELP: Recommend an inspiring company or entrepreneur for a future camp.

Getting Kids to Unplug

WHAT: Plantation Farm Camp, Sonoma County, Calif.

HOW IT MAKES A DIFFERENCE: The activities at Plantation Farm Camp — horseback riding, art, hiking — aren’t out of the ordinary. It’s the camp’s setting that really sets it apart. Located just 1.5 miles from the Pacific Ocean on 500 acres of redwood trees and lakes, Plantation Farm Camp offers kids ages 8 to 17 a chance to learn about sustainability and the environment while living on a farm. Encouraging a connection to nature has been the mission of this camp since it was founded in 1952, but Plantation Farm Camp’s objective is especially resonant today, when it’s increasingly harder to get kids to put down their laptops, smartphones and gadgets and engage in the outdoors instead. At Plantation Farm Camp, campers even learn how to garden, feed chickens, milk cows, recycle and cook — many times using the fresh ingredients they’ve gathered on the farm. “There are parents taking a lot of care with what their kids eat,” former camp director Kelly Marston told the website Grist. “To send them to a summer camp where they’re eating hot dogs and precooked hamburgers doesn’t really mesh with their values.” Mother Nature would surely agree.

HOW YOU CAN HELP: Learn more about Plantation Farm Camp and share sustainability tips with friends and family.

Getting Disabled Kids Moving Again

WHAT: Paddy Rossbach Youth Camp, Clarksville, Ohio

HOW IT MAKES A DIFFERENCE: Many camp activities, like swimming and playing sports, can be physically challenging for even the fittest kids. Now imagine being at camp while missing one or more limbs — those same activities can seem impossible. That’s where the five-day Paddy Rossbach Youth Camp steps in. The program, founded in 2000, is named after amputee Paddy Rossbach, the longtime chairman and president of its sponsor organization, the Amputee Coalition, a nonprofit resource center in Manassas, Va., for those affected by limb difference. The youth camp’s goal: to increase self-confidence and self-esteem in kids suffering from limb loss by engaging them in traditional camp activities, such as canoeing, fishing and archery, with support from amputee mentors. “They welcomed me into their large and diverse family and showed me the ropes of basically putting aside my ‘disability’ and made it into an ability,” reads one entry from 14-year-old participant Elaina Gubic from last year’s camp journal. Paddy Rossbach Youth Camp, which is available to children ages 10-17, has hosted almost 800 children since it began and covers all expenses, including travel.

HOW YOU CAN HELP: Donate to the Amputee Coalition National Limb Loss Resource Center.

Empowering Immigrant Kids Through Education

WHAT: MASA, Bronx, N.Y

HOW IT MAKES A DIFFERENCE: The Mexican community is one of the fastest- growing ethnic groups in New York City, and yet more than 40 percent of Mexican immigrant students between the ages of 16-19 aren’t graduating from high school. Concerned by these statistics, the nonprofit MASA (Mexican American Students’ Alliance) set out to promote education achievement and civic engagement among underserved students in New York City. Their summer science workshops are similar to efforts from groups like Code2040 and Hack the Hood, which are aimed at getting more minority students into science careers, where Latinos are particularly underrepresented. (In America’s tech hub Silicon Valley, for example, Latinos make up the area’s third largest ethnic group — and just 19 percent of its business and science workforce.)

HOW YOU CAN HELP: Volunteer to help immigrant students improve their learning skills.

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Feifei Sun is a staff writer at NationSwell. She previously worked at Time and Vanity Fair.