Each year, so many MDA kids and their families can’t wait for MDA Summer Camp.
Jennifer Allebach, MDA’s new senior vice president of Recreation and Camp Programs, can’t wait to welcome them.
Jennifer joined MDA in May after a long career with Girl Scouts of the USA, where she worked in adult program development, volunteer management, and most recently vice president of Girl Experience. As she puts it, everything a Girl Scout did — from earning badges to camping and community service to take-action projects — fell under her management. It’s a history, she says, that can inform her work now in creating life-changing experiences for MDA campers.
“I’ve been a Girl Scout all my life,” Jennifer says, “from earning the Girl Scout Gold Award to being a parent of Girl Scouts to being a volunteer and then working for Girl Scouts, so it’s kind of in my blood. I’m really thankful for all of the leadership opportunities and development I received there, from the time I was a girl. When this [MDA position] presented itself to me, it was a really exciting opportunity to move to another organization and create the vision and develop the strategy for the children’s experience.”
Jennifer brings a built-in love for the outdoors to MDA Summer Camp. After graduating from college, she spent five years as a National Park Service ranger. And now, at her home in a rural suburb of Philadelphia 25 minutes from the nearest Starbucks, she and her husband have an extensive flower garden. They have five children who live across the country, and they like to travel to visit them and their grandchildren. During the workweek, Jennifer stays at her and her husband’s midtown Manhattan apartment (where there’s a terrace that lets Jennifer get outside), but she says she’s always happy to return to Pennsylvania and its beautifully changing seasons.
“Nature deficit disorder is a potential obstacle everyone faces, and being outside helps to overcome that,” she says. “For me, the magic of the outdoors is just being able to be outside and breathe the fresh air and think of things that will help children benefit from that.”
Camp, Jennifer says, is a place where kids can make friends — sometimes from far-away towns — but it’s also an out-of-the-ordinary place that encourages independence and healthy risk-taking.
“Throughout the year, regardless of the challenges in their lives, kids are not taking as many risks as when they spend a week at camp and jump on a zip line,” Jennifer says. “It’s a sense of accomplishment. It’s a sense of overcoming fears and building skills for the future. Being able to be outside and look up and see stars or feel rain on yourself, looking at leaves on a tree and then making a craft project out of them — all of those things help build a resilience in a child they didn’t have when they came to camp.”
Jennifer is touring MDA Summer Camps across the country this summer. She says she’ll be looking for commonalities to build upon so each child at every MDA camp can strive to have the same confidence-building outcome. Activities from camp to camp may be different, she says, but the programs can be consistently facilitated.
“There are some really deep developmental and educationally sound principles you want the activities to have,” Jennifer says, “but are the activities related to the outcome?”
Jennifer and her team will bolster the camp experience, too, by brainstorming new ways to raise funds and to expand the camp volunteer family.
Ultimately, she says, the goal is to create a memorable sense of self-reliance campers carry back with them into their day-to-day lives.
“Everyone has challenges in their life as a child and as a teenager,” Jennifer says. “Growing up, despite some challenges, I got to go to camp in the summer and it helped me put into perspective very complex issues. I looked forward to those weeks of summer camp because they let 8-year-old Jennifer or 13-year-old Jennifer or 17-year-old Jennifer be a different Jennifer than what I had to be at home. For one week or two weeks, I got to be someone who learned to be the self I could be.
“Give us a try,” she says to potential campers and families considering MDA Summer Camp, “because once you try it, you’re going to count down the weeks and days until you come back. It’s an experience like no other.”
Visit our camp portal to find out more about MDA Summer Camp, register to volunteer, or make a donation to keep camp free for every camper.