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Washtenaw United: Building life experience and greater equity through camping

Washtenaw Camp Placement executive director Matt Tarver-Wahlquist.
Matt Tarver-Wahlquist
Washtenaw Camp Placement executive director Matt Tarver-Wahlquist.


Matt Tarver-Wahlquist relocated with his family to Michigan and became Executive Director of Washtenaw Camp Placement in January 2023. He was previously Executive Director of Literacy Connects in Tucson, Arizona, prior to which he served as the Executive Director of The Arc San Francisco, a developmental disabilities services organization. Between the San Francisco Bay Area, Arizona, and now Michigan, Tarver-Wahlquist brings 20 years of nonprofit experience to Washtenaw Camp Placement. Tarver-Wahlquist has a degree in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology from Dartmouth College and a certificate in Strategic Perspectives in Nonprofit Management from the Harvard Business School.


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"Lessons from Camp: Free from school-year demands, summer camps are a key venue for social-emotional learning"


David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU. And welcome to another spring edition of Washtenaw United. Each Monday, we use this time to explore issues of equity and opportunity in our community. And today, we're going to look at some opportunities for kids to have new and valuable life experiences. For some, the cost of a sleepaway summer camp experience is simply too prohibitive and excludes kids based on the family's income situation. Addressing that need for kids in our area: well, that's the mission of Washtenaw Camp Placement. Our guest today is the organization's executive director. His name is Matt Tarver-Wallquist. And thank you for making time today, Matt. I appreciate it.

Matt Tarver-Wahlquist: My pleasure! Happy to be here!

David Fair: Did you ever get to go to sleepaway camp when you were a kid?

Matt Tarver-Wahlquist: Oh, not for an entire week. And it was a little different. I didn't grow up in the Midwest, where camp is such a thing. I grew up in Tucson, Arizona, but I did do a couple nights out in the desert. And it was a good time.

David Fair: Obviously, it's an experience that you remember. Even though it was just a couple of days, did you have a takeaway from it that was more important than just having a couple of nights in the desert?

Matt Tarver-Wahlquist: Oh, absolutely! I mean, it was a completely novel experience: the social experience of sharing a cabin with so many other kids, hearing the sounds at night out in the countryside. And really, for me, I think what was most formative and what impacted me the most was being out in the countryside, away from any urban lights. So, there was no light pollution, and looking up at the sky and seeing the Milky Way, the way it was intended to be seen, it was absolutely overwhelming to see what the night sky looks like.

David Fair: It's been over a year since you took the job at Washtenaw Camp Placement. You came from Tucson, and there you were working in literacy. Prior to that, you were in Northern California working in developmental disabilities. Now, one might surmise that coming here and doing this work is a shift in career focus. But I'm going to guess that you see a common thread that runs through it all.

Matt Tarver-Wahlquist: Absolutely. And thanks for bringing that up, because one thing I've learned in my career--working in the nonprofit sector--is that the entire sector is really an interconnected web of people, organizations and supporters that are working towards the betterment of humanity. And it's really about having a mission that you believe in and that other people can support, and then funding the capacities and the ways to support that mission. And so, in my career, I've always wanted to be of service, and I've known that, as long as you have that mindset, you can do it for a variety of missions. And when we moved to Michigan, I was really interested in finding a smaller nonprofit to work with and to kind of use the experience I've gained both in California and Arizona to kind of help it grow and help it increase its impact.

David Fair: And I want to talk about impact. This is 89 one WEMU's Washtenaw United. And we're talking with Matt Tarver-Wallquist. He is the executive director of Washtenaw Camp Placement. My impression is that going to a camp and spending a week away from home is really traditionally been for the privileged among us. I guess because I cover the growing income gap and disparities in income among zip codes, it feels like a modern issue. But Washtenaw Placement Camp has been around since 1962. It's always been an issue. So, what was the impetus for creation of the organization?

Matt Tarver-Wahlquist: Well, it was for really what you said, because camp really, due to its high cost, is really, in many ways, an opportunity for children who grow up in more privileged circumstances. And what we've learned is that--and there's been plenty of research over the decades to support this--is that camp isn't just a fun way to spend a week. It has a real impact on the kids' lives. In just one week of this novel experience, it gives them an opportunity to really have new experiences that challenge themselves and really grow, have significant growth, in social emotional skills that then show positive results in academics and also later in life. And so, by having really only kids of privilege to have access to this, it just essentially perpetuates this opportunity gap on this privilege gap. And we exist to give this experience and these benefits and make them accessible to children who otherwise wouldn't have the opportunity.

David Fair: I think we danced around it a little bit, but I think it has also been said. But can we more emphatically state that camping, as odd as it may sound to the ear, has become a racial and economic equity issue?

Matt Tarver-Wahlquist: It absolutely has. The children and youth that we serve in Washtenaw County primarily come from urban areas and are predominantly children of color. And the kids that go to camp are predominantly white, and it's those kids that are getting the benefits of it that are getting additional advantages. So, we are really here to help spread those advantages around, to give them an opportunity to see parts of Michigan and have experiences that never would have done: to try archery, horseback riding, canoeing, go on ropes courses, interact with a different and diverse group of peers, spend a week with trusted adults, have an opportunity to really, really come into their own and really open up their world. And this can set people on an entirely new path. They can really open up their eyes to all kinds of possibilities.

David Fair: In your first year-plus here in Washtenaw County and with Washtenaw Placement Camp, is there something that jumped out to you--something you were most surprised to learn about?

Matt Tarver-Wahlquist: Yeah. I mean, well, in the county itself, I was surprised to learn about, first of all, the very vibrant, nonprofit community that we have in this county. I think there's a really wonderful core of people who are there who want to be of service and a wonderful group of supporters in the community who do that: working specifically in this space with camps. Number one, I learned how much camp has affected people's lives. We very often come across people, and they can be people in their 20s all the way up to people in their 80s or 90s, for whom camp was an absolutely formative experience and who can trace, sometimes trace, their entire career path of their life path or their education path to the transformation that they underwent during camp. And then, seeing these kids get a chance to go, many of them for the first time to camp, being there with their families when they get picked up by the bus, it's going to take them on a trip up to Camp Algonquin up north or Camp Hayo-Went-Ha out at Torch Lake or any of our other partner YMCA camps, seeing how nervous the kids are and then seeing them when they come back, it's like seeing a completely new kid and then hearing from the families after the kids get home. You know, we send out evaluations to counselors and to families and to the kids and the hearing about, even just through this week, the way their kids have changed their their attitudes and their approach to life. Just the transformation that happens is something that's been really exciting to be a part of.

David Fair: How does a family get their child a spot in sleepaway camp through your organization? How do you identify who you're going to choose?

Matt Tarver-Wahlquist: Yeah. And that's really why we're here. We have close partnerships with different community organizations: with the Peace Neighborhood Center, with Big Brothers, Big Sisters, with Mentor2Youth, other organizations of that type, as well as with Ypsilanti Community Schools, Ann Arbor Public Schools, other districts throughout Washtenaw County. And these organizations know us, know what we do and trust us. And we put out a call to them and say, "Find us kids age 9 to 16 who you think are going to benefit from the summer camp experience who otherwise wouldn't be able to go." And the school social workers and the teachers send us referrals. And then, we also put it up in whatever means necessary, through social media and other networks, to parents to apply to Washtenaw Camp Placement. And on the other side, we have our six YMCA partner camps around the state with whom we have a relationship. And every year, those camps set aside placements for us. We then look at these applications and then match the kids to the camps. We then provide financial support--meaning we pay for it. The families don't pay a dime.

David Fair: I can only imagine what a tremendous experience that is for someone who thought they might not ever be able to go to a sleepaway camp. But also, there are some who probably don't make the cut, and that says there is a greater need than what can be accommodated? Will there be expansion moving forward?

Matt Tarver-Wahlquist: Absolutely. You know, the limiting factor that we have is just the funds to send them. So, 100% of the funds that we spend to send kids to camp come from individual donors and come from institutional donors and grants. And so, we've been working really hard to build our capacity to get our name out there, to improve our efficiency and our technology, and make sure that people know that this can be a really, really efficient way to support a child and really making a transformative change in their lives. So, we have been looking at ways to grow and looking at more camps to partner with. You know, at this point, we usually end up every year with a waiting list, so not every kid that applies and that we think would be successful at camp gets to go. Although oftentimes, we work our way through that waiting list during the camp season because people drop out whe things happen: people get sick when it's time to go to camp, and then the kids that are on the waiting list are still able to go. But, we're really motivated to really build our capacity up, so that we can make an even greater impact on our community.

David Fair: I'd like to thank you for taking the time to talk with me today, Matt. I truly appreciate it. And I look forward to hearing more stories from the kids that get to go to camp this summer.

Matt Tarver-Wahlquist: Well, thank you so much. It was a real pleasure. And I would just encourage your listeners to understand that camp matters. It's not just for fun. But it is something that can really change your life and really would encourage you to support kids going to camp.

David Fair: That is Matt Tarver-Walquist. He is executive director of Washtenaw Camp Placement. For more information on the organization and the work it's doing and how potentially you can get involved if you so desire, just visit our website at wemu.org. Washtenaw United is produced in partnership with the United Way for Southeastern Michigan. And you hear it every Monday. I'm David Fair, and this is your community NPR station, 89 one WEMU FM Ypsilanti.


Summer vacation is around the corner for kids in Washtenaw County, and while kids are out of the classroom, the season offers them an opportunity to explore and gain life experience that they can’t get in school. That’s where summer camp comes in.

Washtenaw Camp Placement helps connect children and youth with less access to opportunity to the transformative experience of sleepaway summer camp.

Recently, Washtenaw Camp Placement (WCP) Association has received a $15,000 award from the 2024 cycle of United Way for Southeastern Michigan’s Opportunity Fund—a resource for local organizations and groups whose efforts address poverty, racism and trauma: root causes of systemic oppression that hold opportunity at bay for all people in Washtenaw County.

With this investment, Washtenaw Camp Placement upgraded staff laptops and other equipment, to help employees better complete projects.

WEMU has partnered with the United Way for Southeastern Michigan to explore the people, organizations, and institutions creating opportunity and equity in our area. And, as part of this ongoing series, you’ll also hear from the people benefiting and growing from the investments being made in the areas of our community where there are gaps in available services. It is a community voice. It is 'Washtenaw United.'

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Contact WEMU News at 734.487.3363 or email us at studio@wemu.org

Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
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