It is somewhat contradictory to describe what we do at Camp Quest as creating magic. We are, after all, primarily a group of freethinkers and skeptics. Having experienced Camp Quest both as a camper and a volunteer, I can not find a better word. For one week, passionate volunteers and incredible young people come together for a unique blend programs and fun. Thanks to CQ, I have helped create an environment where young people feel safe to discuss intellectually or personally difficult subjects, challenge their minds and bodies in new ways, go beyond their perceived or self-imposed limitations, and make life-long friends.
Seventeen years ago, I joined a fledgling community founded by an incredible couple, Helen and Edwin Kagin. In 1996, there was no freethought movement, nowhere online or otherwise for young people to find like-minded peers, no way to safely explore our developing worldviews outside our (hopefully) supportive families. Camp Quest filled a serious void for a handful of kids those first summers in Ohio. Since then CQ has become one of the major forces in the youth freethought movement and has helped thousands of kids (and adults!) find their voice and a place.
I was raised agnostic and humanist in a small, rural, isolated town in upstate New York. With more cows than people, it was culturally, religiously, ideologically, and racially homogeneous and diversity-phobic. We missed out on church-sponsored ski trips, horseback riding camps, and Saturday night sleepovers, and were afraid to speak up about our atheism in fear we’d lose our friends or our teachers’ respect. Camp Quest was the first time we met other secular kids; the feelings of isolation were gone instantly. With our new friends we dug for fossils, visited a Native American historic site, went rock climbing, debated Russell’s Teapot, learned calligraphy. We were in awe of Helen and Edwin Kagin. Edwin’s presence reminded me of Gandalf (assisted by his staff and cloak), and Helen was the sweetest, most passionate person I’d ever met. Together they conjured the first of that Camp Quest magic.
Today, my “real” job is a scientist. My research on laser-cooled atoms has been funded by top aerospace and defense agencies as well as basic research institutions. It may lead to developments in next-generation computing devices that rely on quantum mechanics and entanglement. However, the contributions I make to science pale in comparison to what I do volunteering with Camp Quest.
Over the past few years I have volunteered in many roles, most notably as Camp Quest Chesapeake’s program director. At CQ we naturally gravitate to cutting-edge teaching methods (flipped classrooms, self-directed active learning, etc.) because that’s what’s most effective, engaging, and fun. This leads to intense discussions, extensive works of art, messy science projects, and meandering nature walks. My favorite programs to lead are in science and nature, but I most enjoy helping others develop their interests and expertise into unique programming. Two of my favorites were on virtue ethics and on human rights in the context of the Cyrus Cylinder. I love watching our ideas come to life: campers weave paracord survival bracelets to send to service members through the Military Association of Atheists & Freethinkers (MAAF), debate the meaning of knowledge, get up the nerve to touch a 5’ snake, experiment with Oobleck dancing on a speaker, concoct magic potion necklaces filled with glitter and a poem, beg for another American Sign Language session, and eat ranch-flavored crickets around a campfire...all in just one day.
Camp is a highlight of the year for all of us, though volunteers have even more fun than the campers. We get to step back and take in this magic we’re creating together. We can appreciate how far the freethought movement has come, how truly unique the Camp Quest experience is, and how much these young people will contribute to our world in a few short years. We know that CQ will continue to realize Helen and Edwin Kagin’s vision. The unknowns are only how fast CQ will expand and how far we can take our programming.