Brave Trails campers (Facebook)

Growing up, many LGBTQ young people felt alone and isolated. Though much progress has been made, many LGBTQ youth still feel alone and isolated. Brave Trails is here to change that. Brave Trails is a non-profit organization based in Los Angeles with a mission of transforming LGBTQ youth and families into leaders through summer camp and innovative programming that includes everything from archery to theatre. In 2015, Brave Trails opened its doors, welcoming 43 LGBTQ youth to camp, and has grown every year since.

This year, Brave Trails will welcome over 240 LGBTQ youth, launch its very first LGBTQ family camp and test-pilot a year-round mentorship program. Young people who attend summer camp are empowered to return to their communities to make change. Examples include youth starting their own Gay-Straight Alliance School Club, or fighting for equality in school policies, or conducting other community service programs for the better of their communities.

Brave Trails co-founder Jessica Weissbuch shared her inspiration for creating Brave Trails.

“I didn’t go to summer camp when I was younger, but I did have a youth group called Operation Snowball. It’s basically a drug and alcohol prevention youth group. I had an opportunity to be one of the teen leaders, and it really formed as to who I am today. It helped me figure out my love of social justice and leadership. I grew up in the Chicago area and moved to Los Angeles after college to work in entertainment where I worked in television production for a while.

I needed something different, so I went back to grad school and got my Masters in Clinical Psychology. I knew I wanted to work with queer youth but I didn’t know what that would look like yet. After I graduated, I got a job at the local LGBT center where I was working with queer youth. That’s where I met my wonderful wife Kayla when she started volunteering. Kayla did grow up going to summer camps.”

During a car ride home after a movie night, Jessica and Kayla were discussing the future and the idea for Brave Trails was born. They soon hosted a spaghetti dinner for their friends and raised enough money to acquire non-profit status and hosted their first camp later that year.

Though coming out might be easier than it used to be, Weissbuch agrees that it’s still not usually easy for many kids.

“It’s still hard in a lot of ways, but kids are coming out a lot younger. We’ve had kids as young as 12 come out. I definitely did not have that experience.”

As anyone in the LGBTQ community can attest, you never know how (un)supportive your friends and family might be. Weissbuch explains how this of course holds true for the parents of the Brave Trails campers.

“We need parental consent, so by default, they have to at least be a little bit supportive to send their kids to the camp. It’s a mixed bag. Sometimes, one parent is supportive and the other parent isn’t supportive at all. Sometimes parents aren’t that supportive, but they love their kid so they want to make them happy. We still do deal with some parents who are not at all supportive.”

‘This isn’t going to turn them queer, right? This is a leadership experience, right?’ And it is. That’s what we are. We want to hold the space to allow the camper to be on their journey, whatever that looks like for them. We also accept allies so sometimes when a camper wants to come but isn’t out, they can come as allies.”

Now entering its fourth summer, Weissbuch describes one of Brave Trails’ success stories.

“We have a camper from Florida who started two years ago. He identifies as trans-male. When I first started talking to his parents, they were the kind of parents who were trying to find anything wrong with the camp. I answered all of their questions, but this was one of the families that asked, ‘this won’t turn them gay will it?’ It was a hard conversation for me to have with them. They loved their child but there was a lot of non-acceptance.

“They would misgender him and such. They let him come that summer, and the next summer they let him come again. When I talked to his mother that year later, she was struggling still but was using the proper pronoun. I could tell there had been some movement. They still weren’t wonderfully supportive, but there was a notable difference in the way they spoke to me about his experience.”

Life is all about baby steps. Rarely happening overnight, progress is usually made with incremental changes. To support the progress that Brave Trails makes with LGBTQ youth, it is holding its annual fundraiser, the Camp Out benefit event on Sunday, April 22 at 6 p.m. Held at The Garland Hotel’s Beverly Park, the benefit serves as a major revenue-generating event to fund essential programs and operations to ensure that Brave Trails programs continue to thrive.

Hayden Byerly (“The Fosters”), Jai Rodriguez and Karamo Brown (“Queer Eye”) headline the benefit, which also includes open bar, camp inspired food, campy games (with not so campy prizes), and performances by Stilt World and some of the talented Brave Trails’ campers themselves.

Tickets are $75 with a goal to raise $100,000 to, as Weissbuch said, “start them on their journey to figure out who they are. It’s exciting.”

For ticket and event information about the Fourth Annual Camp Out, visit http://www.bravetrails.org/campout
For more information about Brave Trails, visit http://www.bravetrails.org

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