100 years of summer camp

YMCA of Dane County celebrates a milestone at a time when kids may need camp more than ever.
a group of kids playing outside in the grass at Lussier East YMCA of Dane County
Courtesy of YMCA of Dane County.
Summer camp kids "learning through play" at the YMCA of Dane County Lussier Family East location.

In 1921, the Olbrich family gifted 22 acres along the northwest shores of Lake Mendota to the YMCA of Dane County, in what would become Camp Wakanda. The boys-only camp closed in 1972 and the land is part of what is now Governor Nelson State Park, but summer camp programming has only grown. This year, the organization celebrates 100 years of summer camp in Dane County.

“I think the celebration, really, is that the fundamental core and purpose of camp has not changed a lot,” says Mark Westover, president and CEO of YMCA of Dane County, which is often simplified to “The Y” to perhaps signal a more diverse community than what began as the “Young Men’s Christian Association” in the United Kingdom in 1844, and in Madison in 1886. Early Camp Wakanda attendees may have fit that description but today’s campers represent a far broader cross-section of Madison area kids, Westover says.

“I like to think we probably have more ways that we’re outreaching to the community to include more kids into camp. I can’t imagine it was as inclusive back then,” he says, adding that YMCA of the USA’s organizational structure allows each location to be built and funded locally, adapting to the community it serves. “But the core of developing lasting relationships, self-confidence with people, and helping them become their best selves, that still remains. And fun with a capital F.”

An old sketched map of YMCA of Dane Countys original Camp Wakanda, which closed in 1972

Camp Wakanda, once located in what is now Governor Nelson State Park, closed in 1972 after 54 seasons.


Black and white photo of kids at the YMCA of Dane Countys summer camp back in the day

Camp Wakanda provided day camp opportunities for Madison boys, plus overnights on Thursdays.

An undated photo of past summer YMCA of Dane County campers.

With today’s Kindergarten Camp, Discovery Day Camp and Specialty Camps, kids ages 4-13 “learn through play” in a weekly roster of physical, educational and creative curriculum led by state-licensed childcare staff. In 2019, 3,500 enrollment slots were filled — about 350 kids per week. In 2020, that number dropped to 2,500, and camp looked a little different with daily temperature checks, masks and social distancing. But Westover says it also felt more important than ever to provide fun, safe, interactive camp programming to local kids. “We really tried to maintain a sense of normalcy for the kids last summer,” he says. Maybe it was catching crayfish in the creek, kicking the soccer ball or constructing an art project. Or maybe it was providing the only meal of the day.

As a 501c3 — and despite being the organization credited with inventing the sport of basketball in New York in 1891 — The Y has always been more than a place to exercise. With its after-school, preschool and 4-year-old kindergarten programs (developed in partnership with Madison Metropolitan School District and others), The Y is Dane County’s largest childcare provider. During the pandemic, its three Dane County locations (Lussier Family West, Lussier Family East and Sun Prairie) provided 538,348 free meals to the local community and launched a 24/7 emergency childcare program for health care workers.

Even before 2020, that outreach extended to summer camp programming, where spots are first opened to kids whose families may be struggling with homelessness or otherwise can’t afford the $125-$300 weekly tuition. Through strategic partnerships with the Salvation Army, Joining Forces for Families and Sun Prairie Community Schools, kids are offered partial or full scholarships and bag lunches that are packed and given discreetly to them ahead of time. After the scholarship spots are filled, registration opens to the public. For the 2020 summer camp season, enrollment may have been down 25% but that financial assistance was up 28%.

“The Y wants to make camp available to everybody, regardless of background or income level. We understand that diversity brings a better camp experience to everybody,” Westover says, adding that although most people are familiar with the basketball origin story, many don’t realize The Y also started the nation’s first known summer camp in 1885. And as we begin to emerge from the pandemic, Westover believes summer camp will be even more important this year — its 100th summer.

kids float on a rainbow unicorn floatie in Sun Prairie at YMCA of Dane County summer camp

YMCA of Dane County summer campers float in Sun Prairie.

A YMCA of Dane County summer camper floats in Sun Prairie.

“We’re starting to see some light at the end of the tunnel [but] what are the social-emotional impacts kids are going to be feeling?” he says. In addition to curriculum that fights summer learning loss, most Dane County kids have endured a year of virtual schooling and the loss of extracurriculars and even basic social interaction. “I think parents are very anxious for the kids to get out and re-engage with peers and develop those skills of peer interaction. Just engage and build self-confidence that isn’t all fueled by the family, however you define a family,” he says. At camp, “they’re able to develop in such a safe environment … a really accepting environment.”

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