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North Hills Monthly

Camps Creating Special Programs to Pique Kids’ Interest

Mar 30, 2019 10:50AM ● By April Johnston

Camp Invention

Every August, when the last camp closes for the summer, Winchester Thurston’s Director of Programs Dionne Brelsford should probably take a well-deserved break. After all, she’s just finished hosting more than 2,000 students at 80 different camps over six weeks.

But she doesn’t. Instead, she begins planning for next summer.

“We want to keep everything fresh and new and exciting,” Brelsford said. “It would be so much easier to just change the date on the brochure and move on, but that’s not where our kids are or where our families are.

“We do everything we can do to create happy campers,” she continued. “The goal is to have kids leave and want to come back.”

Day camp and overnight camp coordinators across western Pennsylvania are engaged in the same effort, finding ways to stay fresh and relevant for a generation of kids who are increasingly tech-savvy, hyper-informed and well-traveled.  

Brelsford’s primary tactic is novelty. Each year, she aims for at least half of the camps to feature an original theme with new experiences and adventures. That’s about 40 new ideas every year for campers ages 3 to 18. This year, the new camps include blacksmithing, Chinese language and culture, and multi-sport adventures with L.L. Bean Outdoor Discovery Schools.

But Brelsford also knows that some kids thrive on continuity, and there are programs she runs year after year so that campers can hone or advance their skills.

“If I stopped Jedi Knight Training, I think I’d have petitions and picketers,” Brelsford laughed.

That same kind of devotion has driven Summer World Language Camp for the past 34 years. Though Director Helena Schaefers has retired from her full-time job as a German teacher, she can’t give up on camp, which will be held at Camp Guyasuta in Sharpsburg in 2019. 

She doesn’t want to disappoint the many repeat campers who return to her every August to learn German, French or Spanish. Case in point: Schaefers’ own grandson accompanied her to camp when he was just 6 years old and now serves as a counselor.

Schaefers believes that the camp’s unique and narrow focus has driven its longevity. Students from first through ninth grades spend one week immersed in their preferred language and participate in a range of cultural activities, including an Olympics night, a Carnival celebration and campfire singalongs.

“It’s almost like being in the country because they’re exposed to the language for so many hours of the day,” she said. “The kids take such pride in learning another language.”

Even the typical camp activities, like fishing, games of tag and group dinners, have an international flair, as students call to each other or ask for seconds in their language of study. “In some cases, they’re learning and they’re not even aware that they’re learning,” Schaefers said.

At Allegheny College, learning is central to its latest and already one of its most-coveted camps—Summer Academy for High School Students. Students must apply and be accepted to the program, but once they’re in, they get a range of premium benefits, including college credit, access to Allegheny’s faculty and deep dives into subjects like astrophysics, philosophy and art.

According to Senior Assistant Director of Admissions Jason Andracki, the best part of Summer Academy is the opportunity to sample the college experience and “alleviate some of the nerves.”

“We’re giving them college experience and exposure without the stress of actually being in college,” added Allegheny’s Director of Conference and Event Services Lynn McMannass-Harlan.

And each of the camping experiences—Winchester Thurston, Language Camp and Allegheny—offers another benefit that campers likely aren’t looking for, but that impacts them well after summer is over: exposure to kids and instructors who are from different economic, geographical and cultural backgrounds.

Last summer alone, Language Camp had a French instructor from Canada, and Allegheny welcomed students from multiple states, as well as from Pakistan and the Republic of Georgia.

Winchester Thurston also regularly hosts students from other states and countries and takes advantage of its urban locale to introduce its campers to the city it calls home. This year, that means using city locales as inspiration for art, exploring its unique neighborhoods, and collecting data as “citizen scientists” with the Allegheny Land Trust.

“My favorite comment is when parents say they want to come to camp, too,” said Brelsford.

Looking for a wide range of options, including camps for various ages, interests and abilities? 


Sewickley Academy Summer Programs: Offers opportunities for students in kindergarten through 12th grade to try new creative, academic and athletic adventures, including photography, robotics and soccer. For more information, visit

Old Economy Village: Art camp, history camp and architecture camp held in a historic village for ages 6-13.

Saint Joseph Summer Camp: Camps for arts, science and sports, for students grades 2-8.

Looking for a unique academic endeavor?

Summer World Language Camp:

Allegheny College Summer Academy for High School Students:

Westminster College Science Splash Camp: A week-long residential camp aimed at middle school students that immerses them in scientific experiments in the lab and in the field.

Carnegie Science Center Summer Science Camps: Everything from robotics to astronomy to nature and video game design.

Camp Invention: A high-energy, hands-on STEM camp.

Remake Learning Days: Hands-on learning festival for each and every child to experience the future of learning.