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Women of the Year: Poppy White creates an inclusive camp experience, even in a pandemic

Sept. 20, 2020 Updated Thu., Oct. 1, 2020 at 9:32 p.m.

If there is one person in the community who is an advocate for all kids, regardless of where they come from, it’s Poppy White, her colleagues say.

When one camper at Camp Fire Inland Northwest felt uncomfortable using gendered bathrooms, White, director of camping and program services, created a gender-neutral one. A camper who was recently experiencing homelessness had lice, so White and her team educated the child and their grandparents on how to treat it. A young camper decided to change their pronouns, so children at White’s camp chose food-related names to use all summer, instead of their given names that might not match their pronouns.

“That’s Poppy’s commitment to kids,” camp nurse Wendy Williams-Gilbert said. “She’s always meeting them wherever they’re at.”

White knows how important camp is to every kid regardless of class, race, gender or sexual orientation. So when COVID-19 hit in March, she had to find a way to keep camp going, no matter what.

When most people were shutting down, White started asking, “How can we get these opportunities to kids?”

With added sanitation crews, beds farther spread out, health screenings and masks, both Camp Dart-Lo and Camp Sweyolakan looked a little different this summer. But White and her staff knew they needed to find a way to safely keep camp open and inclusive this summer.

“I didn’t see it as negotiable,” White said. “For me and my team, the risk was worth it all.”

White started at Campfire as a Bluebird, a program for young campers, while her mother was a camp leader. She spent 12 years as a camper, counselor and staff member before moving on in 1995.

She grew up in a lower-income family and found it was hard to find a place within the social structures of her school.

“Summer camp really provided to me in my younger years an equalizing space,” she said.

Twenty years later, the Campfire Inland Northwest director of camping and program position opened up. White applied, seeing an opportunity to promote social emotional learning and inclusion for kids who might not get it otherwise.

She got the job, becoming the leader at Campfire’s overnight Camp Sweyolakan on Lake Coeur d’Alene and Camp Dart-Lo, the program’s day camp on the Little Spokane River.

Campfire’s diversity and inclusion statement is robust, White said, but she knew it something she wanted to a part of.

“I’ve been committed to all of that not just in raising of my child, but in everything I do,” she said.

She wanted to provide a space where kids could try new things and learn and fail without the stigma of a social class.

That’s why it was so crucial that camp continue this summer, White said.

White, who has a 12-year-old daughter, saw the effects of keeping her child at home for so long. Her only experience with her peers was over a screen, where it’s difficult to have a personal connection, White said.

She knew if she could provide a safe environment for kids, camp must go on.

Although they did see a slight decline in the number of sign-ups, White said the parents who chose to bring their kids back were grateful.

“The kids we saw overall were resilient,” White said. “Things were weird and different, but they took it all in stride.”

When campers first arrived, they were quiet for about 45 minutes, White said, and then the giggling started. Kids who were likely only with their siblings for the past few months were finally around other people, she said.

Many of them forgot how to play instead of argue, White said.

White and her team put on a camp that gave hundreds of campers some normalcy, without any known coronavirus outbreak, Williams-Gilbert said.

The biggest surprise that White saw was the amount of disclosure campers gave this year compared to others. White allows campers to share deep issues at home with staff, such as parental abuse, neglect or substance abuse.

“It was very clear this year that they needed an outlet to talk to,” White said. “They hadn’t had their teachers or coaches for three months.”

White has always created a safe space for kids, regardless of where they come from, Williams- Gilbert said.

Williams-Gilbert, who nominated White for Women of the Year, has worked with White as a lead nurse for the past five summers. Her kids also attend Camp Sweyolakan.

One of their programs, called “You Bet I Can” weeks, allows kids with disabilities or special needs to come to camp. Many other camps refuse to bring these kids, Williams- Gilbert said, but White hires staff who specifically understand how to work with them.

“Poppy is still doing that work in the middle of everything when people are shutting down,” Williams-Gilbert said.

White said it’s important to her that kids are open and willing to work with anyone from any background. She’ll never get it right 100% of the time, White said, but she can always strive for it.

When a camper decided to change their pronouns to they/them, White said she saw how supportive other campers were. Many of them stood up to anyone who was not as accepting, she said.

It was incredibly heartening for White to see this generation is one that will move forward and be accepting. It’s the culture she said she wants to create at camp, which is why it was so important that they stayed open this year.

During a camp season, staff members work long hours and can often end the day frustrated and exhausted.

But Williams-Gilbert knows exactly where to go if that’s the case: White’s office.

She always has a smile, Williams-Gilbert said, and she is always positive.

“You can’t not be happy when you’re around her,” Williams-Gilbert said.

Laurel Demkovich's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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