Program brings camping, connection and confidence to kids

By Haley Beyer

Happy Camper Hangouts is a program dedicated to bringing camping, connections and confidence into the lives of kids who do not have access to extracurricular activities. PHOTOS Courtesy of Happy Camper Hangouts

Happy Trails for Kids, a camp for boys and girls growing up in foster care, partnered up with Happy Camper Live, Comfort Cases and Alternative Family Services to start a program called Happy Camper Hangouts.

This program is dedicated to bringing camping, connections and confidence into the lives of kids who do not have access to the same extracurricular activities most get to experience. The idea for the camp started back in 1976 when a boy named David Abrams was diagnosed with leukemia when he was 2 years old. He survived cancer, but his treatments left him epileptic and with intellectual disabilities.

Because of Abrams’ illness, no sleepaway camp would allow him to stay, so his mother, Pepper Edmiston, started her own called Camp Good Times, which was changed a year later to Happy Trails. Happy Trails hosted families who were raising seriously ill or incapacitated kids (either kids of their own or through foster care) for 13 years.

David’s sister, Susan, became an attorney who represented kids in foster care. In 2009, she took over as president of Happy Trails and focused the mission of the program on kids in foster care with and without disabilities. From that point on, The Salters (David’s grandparents), Abrams and Edmiston families continued to support Happy Trails for Kids, both to honor the memory of David and in recognition of the value camp holds for every child in need.

Lindsay Elliott, executive director of Happy Trails for Kids, has been a longtime advocate for youth in foster care. She has worked at the Children’s Law Center of California since 2008, putting her effort into laws, policies and statewide coalitions to better support and prepare youth leaving the foster care system to live happy and healthy lives. She found the perfect place to continue pushing this mission forward.

Happy Trails for Kids has returned to in-person events, like exploring the great outdoors, staying for an overnight summer camp and participating in year-round extracurricular engagements.

“It was such a heartwarming and rewarding thing to see once the camp was cleared to open again after COVID-19 because I got to watch them connect in person after spending so much time virtually,” Elliott said.

Once campers attend Happy Trails, they become a permanent member. Their motto is “Once a camper, always a camper” for multiple reasons.
The camp is building a community and support system so once children have found a place that brings them comfort and happiness, they will forever have a place there.

This is especially important when working with children in foster care because regardless of how many foster homes or other changing circumstances, they never have to worry about their place at camp. Happy Trails for Kids is in Los Angeles and serves mostly around the Santa Monica area.

For those who can’t make it to camp, there is also an online version.

Allison Miller, owner and operator of Happy Camper Live, has been running summer camps for more than 20 years in Florida. Her camp has been home for more than 10,000 children.

Through her years of experience, she has found there is truly nothing like summer camp and she wants to make that available to any kid who wishes to attend.

“We want to bring summer camp to kids who can’t come to camp, and not only in the summer, but all year round,” Miller said.
Her goal is for the kids at camp to find their passion, bring it out into the world to share with everyone, and use their skills to explore as many paths as possible.

Unlike other summer camps, the virtual Happy Camper Live did not have to shut down during the pandemic.

These two organizations put their heads together to create Happy Camper Hangouts, a camp for kids in foster care who are unable to attend in person but still want to learn, laugh, play and succeed.

Though every camper’s story is different, all are connected through the bond of foster care — a system where opportunities to grow, learn and become who they are meant to be are not always accessible. These camps want to let kids live out their childhoods as any child should while celebrating adventure, exploration and friendships.

“One of our main goals is to create equity and community among our campers,” Elliott said.

Children are transformed by the power of positivity and possibility, and are equipped with skills and surrounded by support to live happy and healthy lives. A team of counselors, most who emerged from the foster care system themselves, are always ready to help.

“They have a depth of understanding from that lived experience that can’t be found in others who didn’t go through it,” Elliott said.

“They are true role models who are able to push the kid towards their goals and passions unlike anybody else could, while simultaneously displaying that they are not the only ones having to go through foster care.”

The portal to the program is open 24/7 so the kids have access at any given time. They never feel alone and can count on some consistency in their lives, so the fun, learning and support never stops.

There are lessons in anything that interests each child from magic and cooking to musical instruments and sports.

The organizations want Happy Campers to be just that, happy campers. They do their best to make all kids’ dreams come true at camp.

A subscription includes live programming where kids can actively participate, weekly happy talks with well-known speakers, content creation aligned with the kids’ passion, lessons to promote leadership skills, prerecorded content to ensure ongoing engagement and to encourage exposure to new concepts and more.

The average age of kids attending camp is anywhere from 7 to 17, but there have been some younger kids before because siblings of the campers will join in on the video calls.

The program doesn’t have a maximum capacity, so no one will be turned away from living the summer camp experience.

Camp is in session now and there are also opportunities for volunteer work and donations to keep the camps going.