For 118 years, YMCA Camp Seymour has provided life-changing, nature-based camping experiences to children from nine counties in the Puget Sound area.

According to Executive Director Liz Orgenburger, the land was donated to the YMCA in 1905 by W. W. Seymour. “A group of boys from the Tacoma YMCA came out and camped that first summer, and that’s when the magic began,” Ortenburger said. “That’s how it all started.”

Today, the camp’s Outdoor Education Program serves all four Key Peninsula schools during the school year with a curriculum “based on science programs that we’ve worked out with the state Department of Education and local teachers,” Ortenburger said. “The kids are immersed in a beautiful setting with all kinds of hands-on experiences.”

She said the camp hosts touch tanks so they can learn about creatures living in the Sound.

“They also learn about recycling through our Living Machine that recycles all of our water and uses it to irrigate our landscape. They’re learning to be the next generation of environmental stewards for Washington and beyond,” Ortenburger said.

According to Ortenburger, there are 15 naturalists on staff, all of whom live and work on site. They teach all of the classes and are very well-trained and educated in their own special areas, she said.

The summer camp program offers weeklong camping experiences to more than 300 kids from the Key Peninsula every year, Ortenburger said.

“Our resident summer camp programs are open to everyone, starting in the second grade. The kids stay in cabins with 10 other campers of similar age and two amazing counselors who are engaged and ready to make the summer fantastic for the kids,” she said.

The youngsters have “lots of opportunities to make their own decisions,” she added. “That’s critical to kids. They get to choose what they want to do individually every day, and they also decide as a cabin group what they’ll do together.

“We can see when the light bulbs in their heads go off and camp becomes a magical place. It all happens through the relationships they make with the other kids and with their counselors. All of a sudden a 10-year-old camper connects with one of our 18- to 25-year-old counselors who really cares about them. That’s where we see the child’s self-worth bloom and develop,” Ortenburger said.

Denise Ohlson teaches fourth and fifth grades at Evergreen Elementary and has been involved with Camp Seymour’s programs for about 10 years.

“We go for three days and two nights every school year,” she said. “They’re a Key Pen camp and we’re a Key Pen school and what they have there is so valuable to our kids. They get hands-on science experiences in camp that stick with them for their entire lives,” Ohlson said.

Once the youngsters have had a Camp Seymour experience, Ohlson said, “they really become stewards of the Key Peninsula. They see it as their place. They’re really concerned about things like water quality and keeping our salt water and estuaries clean.”

It’s a partnership that involves the entire community, she said. “It’s not just kids learning skills, but it’s also making our area thrive,” she said

Ohlson credits organizations like the KGI partnership, Harbor WildWatch, Peninsula Light, Angel Guild, Longbranch Improvement Club and the local school PTAs with helping make Camp Seymour’s programs such a success.

“All those organizations add to the effort and we’re incredibly grateful to them for their support,” Ohlson said.

“Camp Seymour changes lives,” Ortenburger added. “And it’s right here in our backyard, close to home.”

This year’s summer camp continues through the end of August. Registrations are taken all summer long. To learn more or to schedule a tour, call (253) 884-3392 or visit campseymour.org.

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