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Atheist And Agnostic Summer Camp Launches In Kansas City

Every summer, young people in the area can attend camps for everything from pottery to ecology to

modeling. And this year, there’s a new place for parents to send kids. It’s a secular summer camp with a focus on science and critical thinking.

A camp like any other

On the first morning of camp, a handful of young teens psyche themselves up to scale a high ropes course 30 feet off the ground. One by one, the campers climb up to the ropes. Some race across the obstacles, while others freeze up, terrified by the heights. Down on the ground, camp counselors cheer them on. Some conquer the course in 10 minutes, others take an hour, but in the end, they all scream with exhilaration as they fly down the long zip line at the end.

In early July, 20 campers spent five days and four nights at the first-ever Camp Quest KC.

They canoed in a lake, swam in the pool, went fishing – basically doing everything kids do at camps everywhere. But Camp Quest KC isn’t a YMCA or Scout camp. It’s designed for kids from atheist, agnostic or freethought backgrounds.

Parent and volunteer David Spake says that too often, even non-religious camps make assumptions about religion by leading prayers or non-denominational worship services.

"So, you think well that is no big deal, but it is for some people," he says.

Spake says he was excited that Camp Quest could provide an alternative experience for his daughter, Avery.

"Being just a child in school, and having parents who are Atheist or Humanist and the children tend to grow up more critically- asking questions about religion," he says.

"And, I will tell you, there's a lot of kids who feel threatened by that and as a result, like my daughter, she has been ostracized a bit at school where we live at because she is asking hard questions."

Camp Quest is a national organization that’s helped organize secular camps around the country since 1996, but this is the first year for a camp in Kansas City. It’s for kids ages eight to 17, and like all Camp Quests, the KC version focuses on science and problem solving and offers campers a chance to think about big issues and ask tough questions in a daily discussion called the Socrates Café. 

Big questions, big fun

It’s early in the afternoon, and the twenty campers sit in a big circle along with counselors in the air conditioned main lodge building. Pool time is next, so the kids are wearing swim suits under their tee shirts. One camper wears a goatee made of black electrical tape.

Camp Quest’s national executive director, Amanda Metskas, runs a poll to decide on the discussion topic. Typical topics include separation of church and state or what is knowledge. Today’s nominations include aliens and time travel.

After young campers vote, Metskas announces the winning topic: death. So for the next hour, the campers talk unflinchingly about the meaning and significance of death.

"The idea of living forever is more scary than dying to me," one camper says. "Because living forever means seeing all of your friends die, and then your next friends and then your next friends it will never end. You will always wonder what's next.

It’s an intense discussion. Several campers cry talking about the death of pets or grandparents, and they struggle to understand what it means. But once the hour’s over, the kids get up, wipe away tears, and head out for the pool. 

'It's not the case that the adults know the answers'

While the campers do cannonballs, Amanda Metskas stays behind to talk a little about Camp Quest. As the executive director of the national organization, Metskas spends a lot of time at summer camp. She says activities like Socrates Café are designed to teach thinking skills.

"It's not the case that the adults know the answers and they are trying to get the kids to come up with some

answer that the adults already have in mind," says Metskas. " It is a place where everybody becomes better questioners and better thinkers together."

Metskas studied political science and psychology in college, and she’s co-written a book about freethinking parenting. But she says she’s learned camp counseling on the job, during her ten years with Camp Quest.

According to Metskas, death is not one of the more common Socrates Café topics, but it does come up from time to time. And part of Camp Quest is creating a safe space for this kind of discussion.

No one wants to talk to kids about this in a serious way because it's scary," she says. "It is scary for adults to talk about it because we loose our cool a little bit, and it's also there's this sense that nobody wants to kind of bring up a topic that is difficult. But not talking about it is worse."

If topics like death aren't discussed, says Metskas, kids are left dealing with the issues by themselves and get a sense that it is not ok to ask question or talk about things that are going on in their lives.

Out by the pool, camper Amelia ranks the philosophical discussions among her favorite camp activities.

"I think they are a really nice time to see, um, and hear what other people think when you don't normally get to see or hear them a lot," she says. "Because they're girls and boys and girls and boys are separated in the cabins and stuff, so you get to hear their opinions more."

Camp controversial

Camp Quest has occasionally drawn controversy. Back in April, Joe Davidson, the founder of Oklahoma Joe’s Barbeque chain (based in Oklahoma and separate from Oklahoma Joe's in Kansas City), stopped a Camp Quest fundraiser while it was taking place at his Tulsa restaurant.

He says he hadn’t been informed that the fundraiser was for a secular camp. Camp Quest Oklahoma says it had been clear with the restaurant about its mission statement.

Amanda Metskas says that more frequently, Camp Quest has problems finding places to host camp. Local groups typically rent space at campgrounds, but they are sometimes denied permission when they tell campground owners what Camp Quest is all about.

Local president Lindsay Burns says she had trouble finding a welcoming campsite in Kansas City.

"I did have one person who asked me if I was an atheist, and when I told him I was an atheist he actually told me that he wouldn't have any animal sacrificing on his land, and hung up on me," says Burns. 

Ultimately, Camp Quest found a home at Wildwood Education Center about an hour south of Kansas City.

Each day at Camp Quest ends around the campfire. The fire pit overlooks a small lake, which shimmers with the orange light in the setting sun. The temperature drops a few degrees and volunteer Sarah Hargreaves leads the campers through camp songs.

After the sun sets and the singing ends, parent David Spake tells the story of the “Emperor’s New Clothes” to the curious campers.

Spake hopes campers like his daughter will leave Camp Quest with the feeling that she’s not the only kid asking tough questions about the world around her.

"I am at a camp where she can come and ask those questions and know that she's not going to get ostracized," he says.

Camper Jacob says Camp Quest has introduced him to like-minded kids.

"Just meeting people that are so similar, but look like everybody else out in the world," says Jacob. "They are at least willing to open up themselves, once you get to know them, and they are willing to help you out.

Local Camp Quest organizers say they’re already making plans for summer 2014.

Editor's note: A previous version of this article did not clearly differentiate between Oklahoma Joe's BBQ in Oklahoma and the independently-owned Oklahoma Joe's BBQ in Kansas City. The restaurant chain that halted a Camp Quest fundraiser was the Oklahoma Joe's in Oklahoma.

As a health care reporter, I aim to empower my audience to take steps to improve health care and make informed decisions as consumers and voters. I tell human stories augmented with research and data to explain how our health care system works and sometimes fails us. Email me at alexs@kcur.org.
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