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Professional Development

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A Sense of Belonging

"I never saw this for myself."

Working with children and connecting with young people wasn't ever on Ben Matthews' radar. In fact, youth terrified them—until they took a leap and volunteered at a youth leadership retreat organized through Youth Services of Tulsa and Camp Fire Green Country, despite having no youth development background.

"I saw these kids having an experience that was nothing like what I had growing up," said Matthews, who today serves as the Camp Fire National Headquarters' first program consultant for diversity and inclusion.

"They had community, understanding and belonging."

Matthews, who identifies as transmasculine, grew up in a low-socio-economical household in rural Oklahoma and didn't have access to community resources that supported their identity. Their afterschool experience as a young person included faith-based camps and sports.

"I wanted to be a Boy Scout, but they wouldn't let me," said Matthews, noting that it's incredible being around young people today in an empowering environment they didn't get the chance to experience while growing up.

Camp Fire has a long history of diversity, inclusion, and equity, and Matthews' position takes things even further. Their role is supported by a CAMPER grant—a three-year initiative with a goal of better serving and removing barriers for three underserved youth populations:

  • Youth who identify as part of the LGBTQ+ community.
  • Youth with disabilities.
  • Youth from economically underserved backgrounds.

This past summer, Matthews traveled with an assistant to 10 camps to see what Camp Fire could improve upon and lend an increased focus, whether that's updates to camp facilities, overall camp accessibility, or something else. These efforts included conducting youth focus groups so campers could make their voices heard—something Matthews finds integral.

"The most important thing you can do and the best way you can serve youth is to ask them something and allow them to have some ownership and leadership within their own programs.
"I can honestly say the majority of information and skills I have to do this job successfully I learned from 13- and 14-year-olds, and that was because they had the space to teach me."

Another point of importance, Matthews said, is training and education.

"When we're working with underserved populations who are often marginalized—if we're not of a similar experience—training can help you change your lens and know what to be sensitive to. Youth are able to thrive when they can see parts of themselves in the adults they're working with," said Matthews, noting representation matters.

"It's not just saying 'It gets better.' It's showing them that it actually does and that they can be still be successful, even if they're struggling."

Matthews is now the adult they wish they could have known as a young person: an adult helping youth thrive in their individual truths.

Ben Matthews is the first program consultant for diversity and inclusion at Camp Fire National Headquarters. Preferred pronouns: they/them/theirs.

Written by Sarah Suydam, Staff Writer for AfterSchool Today.

This article originally appeared in the fall 2019 issue of AfterSchool Today.