aclu west virginia

Driving down the rain soaked West Virginia highway, I fidgeted in the passenger seat as my friend Travis and I listened to Beyonce’s ‘Renaissance.’ The album, dedicated to the queer community, was the perfect soundtrack as we made our way to the ACLU of West Virginia’s Appalachian Queer Youth Summit.

I had only been asked to be part of the camp a few days prior and it was described as a summer camp for queer youth in the state. My role at camp would be the resident photographer documenting the events of the week.  Without hesitation, I said yes. I kept thinking that it sounded like the coolest thing in the world and if something like that had existed when I was teenager I would have leapt at the chance to go.

We exited the highway and navigated twists and turns down foggy hollers until Jackson’s Mill, a 4-H camp located in Weston, WV, appeared out of the mist. We found the rest of the camp’s team already busy at work. Lanyards and welcome packets were spread across tables ready to be snatched up by excited campers. After  I was introduced to everyone,  Mollie Kennedy, one of the camp’s founders, asked if I would be willing to pull double duty by adding camp counselor to my title. I was thrilled to take on the position. Prior to the Appalachian Queer Youth Summit, I had only ever been to Southern Baptist church camp, a vastly different experience. I was excited to see what the week had in store for the campers in an environment where they could be free to not just be themselves  but to be celebrated for who they are, an experience that is not alway afforded to queer kids.

Growing up as a queer kid in West Virginia can be brutal. My middle and high school experience was one filled with dread and constant fear. I was harassed on a daily basis. Every day felt like a battle and the objective was simply to survive. Once, I had a spitball directed towards me from the audience and hit my face in front of the entire school. I was told later by the principal that there was nothing that could be done about it because despite the fact the auditorium was packed full with students and teachers, no one witnessed who threw the saliva soaked paper ball. The feeling of having an entire school turn their back on you is something that sticks with you. I’ve heard too many stories like this from other queer people who grew up in this region. This camp was an opportunity for me to give the support and compassion that I never got when I was young to someone who needed it. It was a call that I needed to answer.

The next morning cars made their way down the path to the rustic cabins we would call home for the next week. Everytime a car parked a smiling camper would burst out of the door in a full run to sign in. Campers embraced old friends and introduced themselves to new. Their laughter echoed through the campground, creating a symphony of joy. As campers ran back and forth between cabins, lugging their belongings to their bunks, I noticed a quiet kid off to the side pacing back and forth. I introduced myself to them and asked if they were okay. They timidly said it was their first time at camp and they were kind of nervous. I told them that it was my first time at camp, too, and that I was a little nervous but assured them that we were going to have the time of our lives. They took a sigh of relief, smiled, and said, “Okay, good.”

Throughout the course of the week, campers learned from various instructors tools they needed to become activists as well as having some good old fashioned summer camp fun. They worked on personal narratives so that they could use their own lived experiences to advocate for themselves and others in their communities. These stories are often difficult to tell. Seeing the campers support one another during these exercises was a beautiful experience. It’s the kind of compassion I wish I saw more in everyday life.

Perhaps the greatest privilege of the week was simply seeing the kids interact with each other during the fun activities and down time. There were several campers who said that they had never swam with their friends before because they were too nervous to wear a bathing suit in front of others, but here that burden seemed to be lifted. During a canoeing course, two campers who had never been in a boat before paired together to paddle down the stream that ran through the campground, resulting in a comical struggle to move forward out of the circular motion they seemed to be stuck in. When they worked as a team to break out of their circle, everyone on the bank erupted in cheers, sharing their triumph. At night, s’mores were roasted over the fire pit while we were led in classic camp songs. I found myself frequently stopping to soak in the joyful energy, wanting to freeze the moment in my mind. Big smiles illuminated by the campfire, arms stretched across shoulders as they swayed back and forth to the sounds of their own voices, and strings of marshmallow trailing from the graham cracker sandwiches as they gleefully consumed their late nights snacks are just a few of the simple teenage rights of passage that many of them wouldn’t have had if this camp didn’t exist. These are memories that they will carry with them for the rest of their lives.

On the last day of camp personal narratives were shared, awards were given, and tears were shed as the week came to a close and we had to return to our everyday lives. Campers exchanged numbers and hugged as they began to load into their vehicles to make the journey home to various parts of the state. The nervous camper from the first day of camp was beaming from a week of making new friends and challenging themselves to do what they thought they couldn’t. Later, my friend and co-creator of the camp, Billy Wolfe, told me that they had told him that this camp saved his life. That is what the Appalachian Queer Youth Summit is all about. I wholeheartedly believe that it has the power to save lives because it saved mine as well.

This year’s Appalachian Queer Youth Summit, to be held from August 9-13 in Morgantown, WV, promises to be bigger and better than years before. I am thrilled to be returning to camp for another year of queer joy. These kids are a gift to this world and the mission of everyone involved with this wonder camp is to make sure they know that.

If you would like to make a contribution to the Appalachian Queer Youth Summit, a  wish list will be posted for supporters to purchase supplies for the week. For more information and updates visit or follow on Facebook and Instagram.

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