Camp: The Happy Camper program has adapted to help foster youth experience camp year-round. Jill Hudspeth

For foster youth who have dealt with a year of isolation on top of the loneliness inherent to the foster care system, the chance to attend summer camp is a far-off fantasy come true.

Local resident Lindsay Elliot seeks to deliver that opportunity to as many foster youths as possible, and by partnering with online platform Happy Camper Live, make it an experience youth can access year-round from wherever they live.

As Executive Director of Santa Monica based non-profit Happy Trails for Kids, Elliot provides outdoor learning and extracurricular activities to around 400 foster youths each year, including a highly anticipated summer camp at Big Bear Lake. Over the past year, she has used the online hangouts and activities provided by Happy Camper Live to keep campers connected through the pandemic and beyond.

This partnership meets both organizations’ goal to make the joy of camp accessible to every child. According to Elliot and the Director of Happy Camper Live Allison Miller, these experiences can be absolutely transformative in the lives of underprivileged youth.

“There has to be equity in play for children in foster care,” said Elliot. “The system works so hard to keep children safe and deal with educational and mental health needs that the absence of childhood experiences and the importance of them is too often forgotten.”

L.A. County has the largest foster care system in the nation with over 34,000 children under the Department of Children and Family Services’ supervision.

These youth are at heightened risk of facing severe abuse, mental health issues, substance abuse issues, and food insecurity. When youth age out of the system they often lack the education, confidence and self-sufficiency to acquire a job and many fall into homelessness.

Programs like Elliot and Miller’s can make a world of difference for these young people by connecting them to community, providing a mentorship resource, and above all an opportunity to enjoy their childhood.

“This summer we had multiple siblings at camp who had not seen each other since the start of the pandemic, so it was incredibly emotional and inspiring to begin with,” said Elliot. “But what was so incredible is we had a large group of campers who had been together in a virtual experience, who were united in person and already had such deep friendships.”

Youth in Elliot’s programs have been attending Happy Camper Hangouts hosted by Happy Camper Live, which include talks with well-known speakers, activities to build on one’s passions and skills, and a space to gather with a community of peers.

The Happy Camper Live website also hosts over 400 on demand activities, live streamed activities, and a camp blog that any child can take advantage of from their own home.

“I had this vision of bringing summer camps to every kid in the world,” said Miller. “Wherever they are geographically or socioeconomically, I want them to experience the joy of summer camp,” said Miller.

Happy Trails utilizes the hangouts hosted by Happy Camper Live to keep camp connections strong after children pack up their bags. A key component of Happy Trails programs is the mentorship provided by camp counselors as the majority of them have lived experience of the foster care system.

“When they are at camp, either in-person or virtually, they are not only surrounded by their peers, but they have an opportunity to see their camp counselor and connect with them on a deeper level,” said Elliot. “We talk about educational dreams, we talk about work opportunities and it’s a really special thing to see.”

Demand is so great for Happy Trails camps that there is always a long waitlist of foster youth seeking to attend. To help bring camp experiences to more children, the organization has launched an “Everybody Deserves Camp” campaign, which people can donate to by texting “fostercamp” to 51555.