“I thought I was going to be a dentist.” This is what Davante Jennings told me, sitting across from me on the opposite couch. But dentistry isn’t quite where he ended up. Davante, 24, is a camp professional: He’s the program director at Steve’s Camp at Horizon Farms.
When I asked what caused the shift, he chuckled about a college chemistry course, and then took a more pensive, somber tone.
“I always wish I had someone to listen to me, outside of family and friends, when I was younger. Eventually, I had a coach who played that role,” he said.
As program director, Davante does a lot of listening, and so much more. Logistics manager, camper recruiter, group facilitator, and staff cheerleader. These are just some of the many hats Davante wears on a regular basis in his role at Steve’s Camp.
Steve’s Camp is a nonprofit dedicated to youth development and leadership based out of New York City. Serving high school students through free residential summer camp and year-round programming, the premise of their work is “healthy heart, healthy body, and healthy mind.” It’s a dynamic, wholesome trio they take seriously.
The camp’s core belief is that learning to build healthy relationships can ignite “a fire that lasts a lifetime.”
“We focus on healthy heart, body, and mind through a wide range of activities because we’re always trying to meet students where they are,” Davante explained.
If that’s sharing a Tupac quote, mastering the ropes course, planting vegetables in camps’ garden, interacting with farm animals, talking about self-awareness and identity, or welcoming them into a loving community, Steve’s Camp offers it.
Take, for example, the multitude of ways in which affirmations are practiced at the camp.
“Speaking to young people in their language is so important,” Davante said.
For some, written affirmations in the form of “warm and fuzzies” feels right. Others find they prefer to share verbal affirmations at pre-meal toasts. And others, still, find their sweet spot through an activity called “Taps,” where participants are asked to anonymously recognize their peers as affirmations are read aloud.
For students who leave Steve’s Camp blazing with curiosity the camp’s aptly named year-round programming, Afire, is there to keep that curiosity aflame. Davante recently put together a health and wellness series for participants, curating six weeks of activities dedicated to different kinds of wellness.
From exposing the group to new ways to exercise the body and mind—including hot vinyasa yoga, cycling, and mediation—to attending a social justice roundtable discussion on community gardens, the series addressed physical and communal wellness, and everything in between. Students explored varied approaches to goal-setting in a session on personal wellness, and made trips to the local farmers’ market and New York University’s Urban Farm Lab during sessions on nutritional and educational wellness.
While almost a decade older than some of the program’s participants, I heard myself telling Davante that I could’ve used the same—both then and now.
“Couldn’t we all?” we agreed, without question.
What’s perhaps most striking about Steve’s Camp is that both the residential summer and year-round programs are completely free of charge. This removes the financial burden of traditional camp and opens the door to underserved, urban youth. Another unique detail is the age of this population. High school students are a demographic so often left out of the camp equation. With apprenticeships and counselor-in-training opportunities for older and aging-out students, Steve’s Camp builds a community of staff who are young and relatable to the campers.
The program structure of Steve’s Camp, which Davante swears by, is interesting as well: Each two-week session is limited to just 50 participants. This helps create a culture that lends itself to close relationships and lasting bonds.
When asked how kindness plays a role in the camp experience, Davante said, “My mind immediately goes to our camp values, one of which is real kindness….real kindness, real courage, real forgiveness, real honesty, real safety. They all have this ‘real’ in front of them, which is like an extra stamp of intentionality and purpose. At camp, we’re all stripped down to our realest, raw, and most authentic selves.”
To do that, you surely have to be gentle and kind—especially, to yourself.
Davante continued, “Young people have their schools. Many have their families. But I, through Steve’s Camp, want to be that extra layer of support. To catch them. To catch those who are slipping through the cracks and really lacking support, because everyone deserves to have that.”
What I didn’t mention earlier is that Davante’s original dream career was to be a dentist who employed and uplifted victims of human trafficking. In this sense, Davante had always set out to enact kindness in one of its many forms.
“My goal,” he said, “always comes back to helping people feel validated in their experiences and their stories. The stories and experiences we have are very real and should be honored.”
So dentist or program director, Davante is doing just that.
Sometimes, all it takes to change someone’s day, week, month—or dare I say, life—is one of the kindest and bravest acts: to really, truly listen. It’s revolutionary in its power and boundless in its simplicity. Steve’s Camp offers that to its young people, and Davante is there, always ready to lend an ear.
To donate, intern, or learn more about Davante and his work at Steve’s Camp at Horizon Farms, visit https://www.stevescamp.org/.