People often ask us what makes the Rural & Migrant Ministry camp different from others. Camp is camp, right? Some canoeing. Some fishing. A muggy cabin filled with late-night laughs. For those of us privileged enough to have enjoyed overnight camps in our youth, the images come to mind easily. Lazy summer afternoons spent in a flurry of activity. Joyful and idyllic, yes—but to what end?
Rural & Migrant Ministry (RMM) has offered its Overnight Summer Leadership Camp for more than 30 years, connecting isolated rural youth from all over New York State for a week of hope, justice, and empowerment. Cofounded by Ruth Faircloth and Reverend Gail Keeney-Mulligan, the camp was created to serve rural children, especially migrant and farmworking children, who might not otherwise have an opportunity to attend an overnight camp. It is a major part of RMM’s larger mission of standing with farmworking and rural communities throughout New York State, who are often isolated from the broader communities and kept invisible to many of us. For many children of farmworking families in particular, the camp offers an alternative to the realities of working in the fields or summers spent in isolation from their peers. In 2021, the mission of the camp was the same as ever, but after more than a year of increased strain on the mental health of rural youth, the stakes were that much higher.
More than 50 children from across the state gathered from August 22 to 28 at the Sharpe Reservation in Fishkill. The theme of this year’s camp was “Breathe,” in recognition of the necessity of taking a moment to regroup after so much distance and difficulty. Campers were treated to hiking, trips to the planetarium, art projects, bouncy houses, archery, and swimming. But beyond the typical camp fare, all activities were infused with a message of possibility and belief in oneself. History backs this message up: RMM camp alumni have gone on to work on national political campaigns, have started their own nonprofits, and have gone on to be educators, advocates, and leaders in their own communities. Many even come back as volunteer counselors.
The camp builds on the ethos of all RMM’s programs: that all people deserve the right to determine their own futures. You can see this through our work on the Justice for Farmworkers Campaign, which shepherded the passage of the historic Farm Laborers Fair Labor Practices Act in 2019, ensuring farmworkers in New York State the right to overtime pay, collective bargaining, and a day of rest, among other rights. It is evident in our rural women’s assemblies, which connect rural women with networks of mutual support and provide workshops tailored to the interests of participants. And, of course, this mentality permeates all our youth empowerment programs, which go beyond camp through groups focused on the arts, entrepreneurship, theater, and more. Still, there’s something special about camp. In many ways, it is the most pure expression of what guides us as an organization: a recognition that rural dignity starts at the root.
As the week came to a close, campers were asked to reflect on a time that they had to use their breath to help improve a situation. Some spoke about when they were sad or angry, how breathing could help them feel in control. Others mentioned their recent swimming test for camp, which was fresh on their minds. One camper offered this: “Speaking is like using your breath. I have spoken a lot to help with conflicts in school, home and everywhere. Words can help.”
As the campers left to return to their homes in the Hudson Valley, Long Island, western New York, and elsewhere, a bittersweet feeling overtook the staff and volunteers. Sad, of course, that camp was over. But happy in the confidence that we’d see these campers again: not only here, but in the world beyond. Making change for themselves and for others.
Rural & Migrant Ministry is holding its 40th anniversary gala this October 9-10 in Cornwall-on-Hudson. For more information and to register, visit bit.ly/rmm40weekend.
The River is a nonpartisan news organization, and the opinions of columnists and editorial writers do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the newsroom.