Growing up, Laura Kriegel and Jack Schott treasured their formative summers at an overnight camp in the Finger Lakes, later returning there to work as counselors.
It was that experience, Kriegel said, that fueled the duo toward a mission to create a camp of their own — a mission that quickly grew larger than ever expected.
“We went on a wild research trip,” Kriegel said. “We’d just graduated from college and we traveled around the country looking for best practices around the summer camp industry.
“We actually spent way longer than we anticipated. We spent two years traveling around. We visited over 250 different summer camps from coast to coast, in 48 states or something like that. We started collecting the ideas that we really connected with and found what we really cared about.”
The product at the end of that quest was Camp Stomping Ground, an overnight camp based on a mission “to inspire the next generation of radically empathetic decision makers.” Founded in 2015, Camp Stomping Ground’s first five summers were conducted on a rented property in the Binghamton area, but Kriegel said she and Schott were in search of a more permanent home.
That came in the form of the former Boyhaven camp off Route 29 in Middle Grove. The site in Saratoga County had been purchased by John Munter from the Boy Scouts of America after the town’s plan to purchase the land fell through.
Working with Munter, Camp Stomping Ground acquired 70 of the camp’s 300 acres and was ready to prepare for its inaugural summer in its new home.
It was barely days after that acquisition, in early March of 2020, that those plans came to a crashing halt.
“[We acquired the property] right before everything in the world kind of felt like it fell apart,” Kriegel said.
Forced to sit out 2020 with the COVID-19 pandemic keeping overnight camps across the state shuttered, the Camp Stomping Ground team set its sights on renovating its new home with new infrastructure, a fresh coat of paint and extensive landscaping work.
That set the stage for the doors to finally open for eight weeks of camp this past summer, with roughly 100 campers on site at any one time.
“It was like a dream come true,” Kriegel said.
The camp operates with a unique philosophy, hoping to inspire empathetic decision-making in its young campers by allowing them a huge freedom of choice to determine their own activities.
“Kids get to choose from a variety of intentionally crafted options,” Kriegel said. “Kind of like a big buffet. They choose what they want to get up to and who they want to hang out with. They have a lot of choice and autonomy.
“The idea is that kids really learn how to make decisions best by making them instead of always following directions. So, how can we empower kids to see the impact that they have, not only on themselves and their friends, but their community and the environment they’re in?”
That philosophy extends to how conflicts are resolved at the camp.
“We use restorative justice techniques, or restorative practices, to collaboratively solve those problems with kids,” Kriegel said.
Following a rewarding first summer of operation, the next step for Camp Stomping Ground is to foster integration with the local community.
Though campers from all over are welcome, Kriegel said 25% of the spots at the camp will be reserved for kids from the Capital Region, with financial aid packages available.
Camp Stomping Ground is also holding a fall festival on Oct. 30 from 1 to 4 p.m. to officially commemorate the opening of its gates and welcome the local community — something the team couldn’t do when they first acquired the property due to pandemic restrictions.
“It was so hard to build some of those connections that we were really hoping for in the local area,” Kriegel said. “We really want to build a connection with the local community in the Capital Region so we can serve the kids who are right here and let them enjoy this really beautiful space.”
Mission: To inspire the next generation of radically empathetic decision makers.
Areas served: Based at former Boyhaven camp in Middle Grove, overnight camp is open to children from both in and out of the area.
Quote: “The idea is that kids really learn how to make decisions best by making them instead of always following directions.” — Laura Kriegel, executive director and co-founder