Photos courtesy of Travel for Teens
Two teenage girls wend their way through the ropes at airport security. They’ve just left their parents behind after checking their luggage, and they’re ready to start a journey, disappearing into the moving crowd at Philadelphia International Airport.
Katie Kane is no stranger to travel. The 18-year-old West Chester resident has been to India and Fiji. This time, she’s headed to Thailand for summer camp—or something like it.
For years, summer camps have been a way for children and teens to socialize, learn new skills, and simply get out of the house. Now, there are numerous options to explore the world—be it a trip to New England or the Midwest for 10 days, or a monthlong sojourn across Europe. Future photographers, linguists and historians can hone their skills at an early age while establishing themselves as global citizens.
Travel for Teens’ 50 trips to 30 countries and five continents are open to students in grades 6-12. Kane signed up with a friend she’d been attending summer camp with for years, meeting the rest of her group in Los Angeles. “I was a bit nervous, but more excited, because of my prior experience with travel,” she says.
While in Thailand, Kane would make some close friends, especially with the help of social media. “You wake up with these people, spend the whole day with them, go to bed with them,” she says. “You live with them for three weeks. There’s no way to not form close relationships.”
Kane had initially signed up for Thailand in 2014. But when the U.S. government issued a travel warning due to civil unrest, TFT pulled the trip. Not all excursions are that adventurous, but TFT does offer experiences in such far-flung spots as South America and Asia. Safety is often a concern for parents, including Kane’s. “The question our president and vice president ask themselves is, ‘Would I feel comfortable sending my child there?’” says Keith Richardson, a trip director and business strategist for TFT. “If we’ve deemed it safe, from there, we look at what’s unique about this place.”
The following year, Thailand was cleared for travel, and Kane was eager to go. While there, she participated in community service—one of the many options offered. “We got to work with disabled elephants that had a hard time forming relationships with people because of the way they were treated,” Kane says. “It was really rewarding. It didn’t even feel like service because it was really interesting.”
“These kinds of trips are right up her alley,” adds Kane’s mom, Paula Ko. “She really gets to know the people in the culture.”
Even so, Ko wasn’t without her concerns. “I was worried,” she says. “But there’s a certain amount of faith you have to have that kids will be OK.”
It helped that Kane’s parents had the chance to meet Richardson, who happened to be director of the trip, ahead of time. “That made us feel a lot better,” Ko says.
Keeping in touch with kids is a big concern for many parents, since phone service isn’t always readily available or cost effective. To put minds at ease, the trip director emails the families every one or two nights and uploads photos to a private website.
Travelers also have access to Wi-Fi throughout the trip. But Richardson prefers that they stay focused on their surroundings, not their phones and other gadgets. “It’s a safety concern,” he says. “But also, we want them to be in the moment.”
The experience can have a profound impact on some travelers. Kane says it made her more independent. “It widened my scope on the world,” she says. “Thai culture is so different than what we’re used to. The people are so quiet and laid-back.”
Her mom has noticed a change, as well. “When you’re traveling, you’re independent, your parents aren’t telling you what to do, you have to make decisions on your own,” says Ko. “You get into situations that may be a little uncomfortable, and you have to deal with them yourself. There’s no question that she’s come back a little more mature, more confident.”
That’s just the sort of thing Richardson loves to witness. “I’ve seen kids that don’t feel comfortable or confident, maybe eating some street food that they never thought they’d have eaten before,” he says. “They just step outside their comfort zone, and it builds this confidence in them.”
Trips range from tours of major European cities to service-oriented jaunts. Wherever teens go, they experience it. “They’re not just going to snap photos—they’re going to really learn about a place, fall in love with it, revisit it, and share it with others to create a more involved culture,” says Richardson. “Teenagers are often written off a little bit, but they’re a lot more insightful and introspective than they’re given credit for. Theses trips affect them for years to come, which is our ultimate goal. We want to teach these kids to be travelers, not tourists.”
Travelers needn’t go abroad. Open to students entering sixth grade through sophomore year of high school, Blue Bell’s Sesame/Rockwood Camps offers a variety of domestic options that also foster independence. Young adventurers can explore New England or the Midwest, returning home at intervals. They spend as little as five days, or as much as seven weeks.
Riley Wexler, a 14-year-old Gladwyne resident, traveled with Sesame/Rockwood Camps for the first time last summer. It wasn’t his first overnight camp—he’d previously spent part of two summers in the Pocono Mountains at a more traditional camp his mother, Abbey, likened to “sending your kids to their grandmother’s house.”
Wanting to try something new, Riley approached his mom. “It seemed really fun because it was a combination of travel and day camp,” Abbey says of Sesame Rockwood. “He’s super-adventurous.”
Cricket Snearing oversees the travel component at Sesame Rockwood. “I think teens are looking at experiences,” says Snearing, who’s been there since it opened 25 years ago as a day camp.
Part of Snearing’s job is to visit the accommodations—primarily hotels—and attractions to ensure their suitability. In addition to her, four college-aged counselors accompany travelers on each trip, which is limited to 48 students. She understands that families may be apprehensive about sending kids away. “I look at everything in terms of safety. I also look at things in terms of what a parent would think,” she says.
Riley has ventured as far as Canada, on a 10-day trip, the farthest he’s been from home without his family. “I was so nervous at first. I didn’t know anyone,” he says. “After the first activity, we had so much fun that I didn’t even really think about [being homesick].”
Knowing her son was in good hands and having a good time put Abbey’s mind at ease, but it didn’t make the initial separation any easier. She watched as the camp van picked up Riley from their home and whisked him off. Campers travel to their destinations from Blue Bell by bus. “It was like watching him go off to kindergarten on the first day,” says Abbey. “I was hysterically crying after he left.”
And the sensitive, insightful boy she’d sent away returned changed—even after just a short time. “He was so much more confident; he was high-fiving people,” Abbey says. “He was a teenager.”