The Importance of the J1 Visa: To Camps, To America & To The World

Earlier this week Camp Friendship staff, along with summer camp staff everywhere, received an email which struck very close to us all. The email was in regards to the J1 work visa, specifically the Summer Work Travel (SWT) Program and the recent discussions to potentially cancel this program as a result of the Buy American, Hire American Executive Order signed by the President in April of this year.

For those of you who know Camp Friendship, you will know that we welcome staff from all over the world to enhance our program. In fact, Camp Friendship was founded on the notion of bringing children together from all over the world and providing them a safe space to gather in peace. Our international staff only strengthen this mission with the experiences they bring to share with our campers. Everyday we learn from one another and that is what makes us great. We proudly thrive on diversity of all kinds.

For those of you who don’t know Camp Friendship but know the camping industry, you will know the profound effect of international staff members.

Welcoming staff from around the world doesn’t take away opportunities from American staff, but rather helps with a shortage of seasonal staff and in the process opens up opportunities to all involved. To borrow from the language of the American Camp Association’s letter in support of the SWT program, “there is a shortage of available qualified seasonal workers in America, especially in rural areas like where most camps are located. Camps everywhere must compete with local businesses, internships, and summer educational programs in order to find staff willing to work during the short camp season.” Two thirds of overnight camps hire international staff, making up 10.9% of their staff, a percentage that increases to 19.7% for non-profit independent camps.

Beyond being essential to the operation of Camp Friendship and many other camps like ours, international staff give young people the chance to learn hands-on about different cultures. Research shows that youth camps improve developmental and academic outcomes, promote wellness and provide valuable employment experiences. The greatest economic impact of youth camps (besides almost $3.2 billion of which $1.1 billion is paid in local, state and federal income tax) may be their contribution to the development of human capital… development that is improved by international staff.

For me, the idea of losing the J1 program is hard to come to terms with on a personal level as I am a young person who has greatly benefited from the program. The first question I asked myself when I heard the news was, where would I be today without the J1 visa? The second… Who would I be today without the J1 visa? I can honestly say, without a doubt, I would not be the same person. I am who I am because of the experiences the J1 visa gave me, the people it allowed me to meet and the fears it helped me to overcome.

I am now fortunate enough to be working full-time at Camp Friendship on an extended J1 visa. This summer was the first time I was involved in the hiring of our brilliant staff members and I’ve been able to see first-hand the impact that working at a summer camp has on all our staff. I saw the transition from their first interview until their final day at camp, not just with our international staff but also our American staff. I saw friendships formed. I overheard conversations (and debates) on every topic under the sun: food, sport teams, school systems, the differences in how they would spend their free time and everything in between. I heard travel plans being made and watched international communities grow. To think of these opportunities being taken away from campers and staff alike is heartbreaking.

This summer, I also saw first-hand the impact of this particular international exchange program on our campers. Each and every year I see thousands of young people experience the magic of summer camp and grow, but this year I definitely noticed how much of an impact our international presence had, on our American and international children.

I noticed our campers really engaging and wanting to learn more about different cultures. I watched as staff would take the time to help campers understand why differences make us special and why they should be celebrated. I got to see (in the short space of 1 week) a camper’s ambitions change and their outlook on life develop. Campers developed a desire to travel the world to meet up with camp friends, to learn more, and to grow. This summer at Camp Friendship it didn’t at all matter where you were from, and it mattered immensely at the same time.

How YOU can help

As a part of our camp and global community, we ask you to join us in support of this cause:

Share. Share your stories of the positive impact our international staff have made, whether you were an international staff member yourself or whether you simply idolized your international counselors as a camper.

Write. Write to your representatives. The American Camp Association has pre-written a letter that is easy to sign electronically and send.

Call. Call your representatives, tell them how much you value the SWT Program and share your personal positive experiences that you wouldn’t have had if this program didn’t exist.

The legacy we leave with our campers and young people is what truly matters. Opening them up to the world and teaching them love, diversity and understanding matters. At Camp Friendship we will always strive to do what matters. We will always put your child first and do what is best for them, which is why we’re fighting this fight and we’re fighting it hard.

The Week So Far… Session 9A!

It’s our final week of the summer, and it looks like we’ve saved the best for last!

Our week began with a fun-filled campfire with performances from many of our staff members as well as some brave (and very talented!) campers.

On Monday we had some rain showers that put a few of our morning activities on hold, but that doesn’t mean we didn’t have fun, and it was all-systems go again by the afternoon!

On Monday evening we gathered together under the stars for a camp-wide cookout. As always, cookouts are filled with fun, games, dancing, laughter… and of course, s’mores!

Tuesday was our second day of activities and a chance to try some new things with our new friends. With over 35 activities to choose from, there’s no time for boredom at camp! Whether it’s a camper learning to build a shelter in Wilderness Survival or challenging their fear of heights in High Ropes, camp is a place to learn, play and grow.

On Tuesday night our Senior Campers had a pool party, and Juniors celebrated their creativity in a game called Insanity. Each cabin is required to fill a pillowcase full of random items from their cabin and then present them in the most creative way possible according to the judges’ wishes. Needless to say there was much madness that ensued, and plenty of laughter to boot!

The sun is out in full force today and everyone is enjoying day 3 – there’s singing and dancing in the Dining Hall, splashing going on at the pool and excitement all around. Tonight we’ve got Capture the Flag for Juniors and Noodle Hockey and Dodgeball for Seniors – it’s sure to be a great night! Be sure to watch our mid-week video on our YouTube Channel and keep your eye on CampInTouch each evening for the latest pictures.

The Week So Far… Session 8A!

It’s Week 8 and things are going great!

On Sunday we kicked things off with our Opening Campfire where we saw a hilarious depiction of how animals eat their food as well as some funny counselor impersonations, a song about bananas, impressive dance offs and more.

Our week began with a bit of a wet and rainy Monday, but that didn’t dampen our spirits – we still had plenty of time for fun with dodgeball and noodle hockey tournaments in the gym, a special event of Mock Olympics and some bonding time with our cabin mates and counselors. Monday’s evening activity was a cozy movie-watching session in the Dining Hall with all our new friends.

On Tuesday the sun shone brightly and everyone had the chance to try a full day of activities including free swim in the lake or the pool. On Tuesday evening the Seniors enjoyed a very competitive game of Counselor Hunt while the Juniors had a rocking Pool Party! Whatever we do at Camp Friendship, it’s always a good time.

Wednesday was our third day of activities, and the fun just keeps going. We’re all very excited for our very special evening activities tonight – instead of dinner in the Dining Hall we’ll be having a camp-wide cookout, and then we’ll all watch the big soccer match against Triple C, our day camp friends from nearby Charlottesville.

This friendly soccer game is an annual tradition for our counselors, and every year our soccer team is ‘sponsored’ by a different camp celebrity. This year it’s Owner Alina Ackenbom’s turn! Our soccer shirts are tennis-ball green in honor of Alina’s passion for tennis and her successful tennis program that brings campers from all over the world to improve their game. We hope this brings our team luck in the game tonight – be sure to follow us on Facebook and Instagram to keep up-to-date with the score!

The Week So Far… Session 7A!

It’s Week 7 here at Camp Friendship in Virginia, and it’s been nothing but fun, friendships and WAR… SV Wars to be precise! This week our Senior Villages have declared war and are out to win in the epic battles of SV WARS. SV Wars is a brand new Village Time activity here at camp where campers and counselors compete in various activities throughout the week – there have been dance offs, ping pong tournaments, fashion shows, volleyball challenges and so much more! Be sure to follow our Camp Friendship Facebook and Instagram pages to find out whether SV1 or SV2 are victorious at the end of the week.

Taking it back a day or two to Sunday, we started Week 7 in the same way we start every week at Camp Friendship, with our Opening Campfire on Sunday night. This campfire is a time for new friends to come together beneath the stars and get to know each other a little better. It’s also a time where we watch our counselors make complete fools of themselves up on stage, and we love every minute!

After an early start on Monday, there was much excitement as everyone received their activity schedules and prepared to try their activities for the first time! Instead of regular dinner in the Dining Hall, our campers and counselors ate outdoors in a camp-wide cookout that was great fun!

After a full day of activities on Tuesday, it was time to cool off with a few camp favorites for evening activity: Slip ‘n Slide for Juniors and a highly competitive round of Pool Olympics for Seniors.

On Wednesday we received some much needed rain which gave us all some time to rest and recover from the high-energy activities we’ve been doing all week.

Rest time didn’t last long though as it was soon time to head Under the Sea for our camp-wide dance. It’s always great fun to see how our campers interpret the dance theme, and this week we had sharks, crabs, fishermen, squid and a whole crew of Spongebob Squarepants characters that made everyone giggle. Needless to say we had a whale of a time!

As we near the end of our week, we still have big plans for camp fun with our camp friends. Thursday‘s evening activities are some camp classics: Pool Party for Juniors and Powder Fairies for Seniors. Our Equestrian Campers will spend the evening preparing themselves and their horses for the big day on Friday: Horse Show Day! At the end of every 2-week Equestrian Camp session, the girls get the chance to perform the skills they’ve learned at camp to their families and friends, and of course their counselors swell with pride at seeing how far each rider has come in just 2 short weeks.

Be sure to look out for photos of your camper on CampInTouch over the weekend, and there’ll be a special Week 7 Wrap Up video to watch on our YouTube channel.