Kim Newton is the Executive Director of Camp Quest Inc. (National Support Center). Here we talk about her background, views, and work.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What was early life like for you? Did religion play a role in it? Were science and critical thinking ever a part of it?
Kim Newton, M.Litt.: Critical thinking and science were definitely important aspects of my childhood, but religion also played a major part, too. I grew up in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, which is a traditionally conservative and religious area.
My parents both studied science and electrical engineering, and they encouraged me to love science. We worked on science projects together, and I remember being in awe of my Dad’s collection of science magazines, which took up quite a lot of space on our bookshelves.
Still, science and faith were not mutually exclusive for us. My family regularly attended a Presbyterian church. In high school, I joined a very active youth group at a local Baptist church and chose to be baptized when I was about 15. Even then, I didn’t stop questioning the nature of god.
As a child, I remember thinking, “God doesn’t talk back to me when I pray… should he?” And then later in my early teens, “If God is real, where is he in the universe? Is he outside of it? How does God fit into what I’m learning about physics, evolution, and the Big Bang?”
I think I really stumped the Baptist youth group leader with that last question!
My early years were also defined by a few significant events. When I was 3, my only baby sister was still-born. That was a terrible tragedy for our family. I then had a life-threatening illness at age 5, and spent a lot of time in the hospital.
My parents didn’t want me to grow up as an only child, so we became a foster family. Many children lived with us over the next 16 years. My parents also adopted three children.
My experience growing up with other children who had such different life experiences from my own has definitely shaped my worldview.
As I grew older, I tried to maneuver around my growing cognitive dissonance with religion by reminding myself that I was committed to the humanistic principles of Christianity, not to the supernatural elements, or even the promise of an afterlife in heaven with my sister.
Eventually, I couldn’t continue to believe that an omnipotent and loving god would have any sort of divine plan in which my sister would die, or that other children would be abused and abandoned.
My secular identity emerged over many years and is most definitely entwined with my hope that all children have opportunities to think critically about the world and about religion.
Jacobsen: If you reflect on pivotal people within the community relevant to personal philosophical development, who were they for you? Why is mentorship from elders important for the young?
Newton: Young people need mentors because mentorships help affirm that kids matter, that someone cares about them, and that they can trust and be trusted.
Young people also need to be around adults who are candid about their own doubts and limited knowledge, and who help them tap their innermost powers of self-confidence and reasoning.
I’m fortunate in that I had many adults in my life who encouraged my personal philosophical development. While I enjoyed science, I found myself drawn to the humanities, especially theatre.
I remain fascinated by the power of theatre to bring together communities, and exploring the diversity of humanity through dramatic literature and performance.
My most influential mentors are former theatre teachers and directors. I have Bob Wright, Keri Wormald, and Doreen Bechtol to thank especially for their mentorship over the years.
My parents and mentors empowered me to seek out answers for myself and to strive for the truth. When children lack these types of trust-based relationships with caring adults, they suffer. Mentorship is essential for all children, especially if we want them to grow into confident leaders.
Jacobsen: What about literature and film, and other artistic and humanities productions, of influence on personal philosophical worldview? What ones, in particular, stand out to you?
Newton: When I was 13, I had the chance to go to a Shakespeare camp at the theatre in my hometown, the Blackfriars Playhouse. That experience ignited my love of both Shakespeare and summer camp.
Shakespeare’s plays are full of the complexities of human nature, so it was through studying and playing in them that I further developed my worldview as a humanist. My favorite of Shakespeare’s plays is Pericles.
The books I read as a child also influenced my personal philosophical views. Some favorites include The Giver by Lois Lowry, Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery, The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, Le Petit Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, and The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein.
Jacobsen: How did you come to find the wider borderless online world of non-religious people? How are these important parts of the overall secular community inasmuch as it exists?
Newton: I started seeking out the community of other humanists when I was in college (and Myspace had more followers than Facebook.) I remember taking an online belief quiz and getting a result of “Unitarian Universalist”.
I had never heard of Unitarian Universalism before, but I was delighted to learn about its humanist principles and creedless congregations. It wasn’t until after I finished graduate school that I started looking in earnest to connect with others online.
Online secular communities are necessary for people who are otherwise isolated, or living in rural communities, or who cannot be open about their secularism with family, friends, or co-workers. Still, having a local secular community is also important.
In response to talking with other secular people and families in our area, I helped found Staunton Secular Humanists. It’s been wonderful to help other non-religious people connect, and to increase the visibility of secular worldviews in a community that is otherwise dominated by religion.
Jacobsen: How did you come into contact with the Camp Quest programs and initiatives? What were your initial impressions? What positions have you held within the organization?
Newton: I was working as a camp director for several years before I found Camp Quest. I had gotten involved with our local UU fellowship and decided to become a facilitator of Our Whole Lives (a comprehensive sex education curriculum.).
That led me to further explore my interest in youth programs based in humanist values.
I was at a UU leaders’ training event when I started talking with a few others about the need for kids to have a summer camp experience where they could openly express their beliefs and be free to question ideas about faith and religion.
I didn’t know that such a camp existed…I was planning to start my own! Not long after that, a Google search led me to Camp Quest’s job posting for an Executive Director. I joined the organization in January 2017, and then got to work on relocating our national office to Virginia.
My initial impression of Camp Quest was that the people involved are among the most generous, open-minded, and dedicated folks I’ve ever had the privilege to work with.
I was also impressed by the diversity of the programs, and commitments that each camp has made to be welcoming of all children – from creating gender-inclusive cabin policies, to collaborating with leaders at other camps to make Camp Quest an enduring movement.
This level of commitment to excellence is what makes Camp Quest an exceptional organization to work for. And, being at camp is the best! Our campers are truly remarkable, loving and accepting young people who see beauty in science and nature, and most importantly, in each other.
Jacobsen: As the national Executive Director for Camp Quest, what are the associated tasks and responsibilities coming with the position? Why is this, in particular, a fulfilling and important form of work within the secular community?
What have been some of the more difficult, challenging experiences within it? What have been some of the more heartwarming and intriguing ones?
Newton: My primary responsibility is to facilitate our camp network relationships, supporting our volunteers, camps, and our Board of Directors. I direct the operations of our National Support Center, and oversee our licensing processes.
This includes helping to promote camps, fundraising, and researching and providing resources to help improve all areas of our operations, training, and program development.
Most other secular organizations focus on serving the needs of adult members, but Camp Quest is unique in that we serve kids and help them navigate complex life questions in their most formative years. Our camps continue to evolve to meet the needs of our campers.
A challenging aspect of this work has been learning to adapt to the rapidly changing tides in our economy and politics, as well as new dynamics of family life and what it means to be a child in today’s society.
Kids today are under so much academic and social pressure that it seems harder for them to enjoy opportunities to be outside and to unplug. At camp, kids can relax and enjoy quality time making friendships and engaging in essential unstructured play. Another challenge has been connecting with enough volunteers.
One heartwarming moment from this summer was when a camper, about 10 years old, shared with me that he most appreciated that camp gave him a break from school, because he could be himself around his friends at camp in a way he couldn’t be with his classmates.
Hearing that as an adult, and now as a mother too, was a touching reminder that kids, like grown-ups, also need breaks in their routines and to be around new people and new experiences, because this is how we grow and learn.
Jacobsen: How can individual secular people become involved with an contribute to Camp Quest, e.g., donations, provision of professional networks, sending their kids or recommending others, and so on?
What has been the general feedback of the community of the young who have taken part in Camp Quest?
Newton: Many of our campers talk about their week at Camp Quest as being among the most special times of their lives. They share about the new friends they make, how welcoming and accepting everyone is, and how it is a place where they can truly be themselves.
Sending your child to camp, or sharing about Camp Quest with other children in your life is a great way to get connected and involved. Camp Quest wouldn’t be possible without the volunteers who run our programs.
Every summer, more than 400 talented and skilled adults take time off from work and away from their own families to help make camp happen. So, if you can, please consider volunteering.
Many volunteers are college students, parents with older children, or retirees who want to reconnect with youth and apply their professional experiences to our programs.
Others can support our work by donating, becoming program sponsors, and by making a gift to the Helen Kagin Campership Fund, which provides financial assistance to campers from low-income families. I invite your readers to visit campquest.org to sign up for our newsletter, donate, or just get in touch!
Jacobsen: How do you coordinate programs and initiatives with other the varieties of leadership within Camp Quest?
Newton: I work closely with our senior leaders to coordinate training and other network-wide initiatives. Each year, we plan an annual Leadership Summit, where volunteers from across the country gather for a weekend of networking and sharing ideas.
Our 2018 Summit was in Minneapolis. We held over 17 collaborative training sessions, plus offered a day-long workshop for volunteers to become certified in Youth Mental Health First Aid.
We also welcome guest speakers from other secular organizations and community groups. We recently developed an intranet and program database, which allows volunteers to collaborate year-round on projects, discussion boards, and to share resources in our knowledge base.
In time, this will be an invaluable resource, allowing new volunteers to draw on the experiences of others from across the country. Recently, we coordinated efforts to assist more of our camps seeking accreditation through the American Camp Association to receive discounts on fees and membership.
We also just launched a webinar series so that volunteers, parents, and other movement leaders can connect year-round about secular youth development.
As Camp Quest continues to grow, we hope that our scope will expand and include a broader range of youth development programs in addition to our core residential camps.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Kim.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.
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