SoCal's First LGBTQ Youth Leadership Camp Really Shows It Gets Better

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Campers on a hike (Photo courtesy of Kyle Jarrett)

Southern California's first LGBTQ leadership camp—a unique, week-long experience for youths to express themselves and learn leadership skills—just wrapped up.

Brave Trails hosted their first camp out in the mountainous Wrightwood area in San Bernardino County from August 3 to 9. It was a safe place for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning youth and their allies, ranging in age from 12 to 20, to learn leadership skills to empower communities. According to PEOPLE, the camp heads hand-picked 43 of these youths who applied from all over the country and had them take part in gender identity and expression workshops, a drag make-up and performance workshop, and classes on self image and body positivity. They also did a lot of your average summer camp activities, from theater to archery and cooking.

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Campers participating in a drag workshop (Photo courtesy of Kyle Jarrett)

The camp is only one of nine of its kind in the country. It was launched by Jessica Weissbuch and Kayla Ryan, who later got their other founding directors, Matt Marr and Coby Pfaff, to join their cause. Together they made Brave Trails into a nonprofit and raised $55,000 to fund the camp. People felt so impassioned by Brave Trails' goals that the camp counselors were all volunteers: 20 college students and young professionals.

Marr explained to LAist what he hoped the campers would get from this experience: "Several years ago, a big push with supporting LGBTQ Youth was to let them know they are 'OK' and things like the It Gets Better Campaign. These are such needed messages in the queer community and we still need that type of support, for sure. But with Brave Trails, we wanted to take their autonomy even further. It’s not that they can survive this life, we believe they can thrive in it. We hoped that the campers left camp knowing that they’re not only “OK”, but that they're resilient, resourceful, intelligent, and capable of thriving in their life and that they can be empowered to accomplish life goals. And I think we did that."

One of the participants, 18-year-old Chance Johnston, told PEOPLE that the camp has made him believe that it does get better. "As a child, I was beaten up for being basically the first openly gay guy in my town. Now, I'm starting to see that things are actually going to get better. Brave Trails just gives me this feeling that I thought I'd never feel, it makes me feel open, makes me feel like I don’t have to be afraid to speak."

For Marr, one of the most touching things that he found at the camp was the support campers would give one other, especially during a trans workshop where they discussed body and inclusion issues. "One camper came up to me after the workshop and said they were feeling really anxious and unsettled," Marr said. "Before I could open my mouth, another camper approached and said, 'Ah, we got your back.' And put her arm around him, and they strode off in a group."