Converting Volunteer Passion to Youth Empowerment

Group photo of campers

In the spring of 1974, a 23-year-old history student at the University of Minnesota named Craig Luedemann was working part-time as an intern in the Northern States Power (now known as Xcel Energy) Consumer Affairs Department. It was in that position that Craig changed his plans for a future as a lawyer. For on June 1, 1974, NSP and the Center for Community Action (CCA) established the Wilderness Work Camp – a summer camp for low-income youth. NSP provided seed money, land on the St. Croix River, and the participation of 20 NSP employees as summer camp counselors that first summer.

After four successful summers (1974-1977), the program had grown enough to become incorporated as a nonprofit, tax exempt organization and changed the name to Camp Sunrise in 1978 thanks to the leadership volunteers like Jerry Anderson, Wally Borchert, Bruce “Bud” Palmer, Jack Sutter, and Craig.

Jack Bud and Craig

During those early years as a nonprofit, Camp Sunrise established many key partnership with the Minneapolis and St. Paul Summer Youth Employment Programs, the National Park Service, St. Croix River, just to name a few. The most important role though, was played by volunteers and their passion for cultural diversity, an emphasis on helping youth develop a respect and appreciation for others, and building long-term relationships that help young people stay connected.

From that humble beginning, YouthCARE (Youth for Cultural Appreciation and Racial Equality) was formed in 1993, not only continuing the Camp Sunrise program, but also adding a Young Women’s Mentoring Program and YouthLEAD (Youth Leadership, Education, and Diversity) after school programs. Although the programs are some overlap, YouthCARE continues to focus on building skills and giving youth the chance to form strong cross-cultural bonds.

The Young Women’s Mentoring Program (YWMP), formed in 1990, provides a wide base of training and education every school year to 8 young women ages 15-18 who then provide out of school activities for 120 girls ages 6-12. The mentors have a chance to be a positive role model for girls who live in the same low-income communities that they do, Little Earth United Tribes in Minneapolis, and McDonough Townhomes in St. Paul. The mentorship program not only inspires young girls to achieve but also gives them a safe place to continue their education outside of school learning leadership, employment readiness, and life skills.

YouthLEAD helps teens in their transition through adolescence by providing out of school education, support and building cultural and social skills. The teens in the program get the opportunity to do college visits and learn from specialists but also to give back to their community through volunteerism.

The beautiful part of all of YouthCARE’s programs is the focus on youth-led activities. Youth who have gone through their programs and shown leadership skills, are hired on as the next group of YWMP mentors and camp counselors or serve on the Youth Advisory Council. These programs aren’t simply adults telling youth how to do things, they train youth to inspire their peers, celebrate their diversity, and to strive for success.

Sue Wagner, YouthCARE Coordinator of Development & Marketing, was once a camper at Camp Sunrise and eventually moved back to MN because of YouthCARE. She says that this model could and should work across the US but the key to their success is passion, partnerships, and belief. “Everyone who works at YouthCARE firmly believes in the mission and has a passion for these programs. Many of us have been through the programs ourselves and we want these youth to have the same life-changing experience we did. It’s not a job for me, it’s a calling”

After 43 years, YouthCARE is still partnered with Xcel Energy and relies on volunteers to help get Twin Cities youth out of their comfort zone to a place that will set them on a path to success. Whether it’s in the woods at Camp Sunrise or in the after school programs and mentoring. The success of the programs is obvious in the passion of the employees and the youth involved. And if you come to Camp Sunrise this summer, there’s a chance you might meet Craig, Wally, Bud, or Jack working on a project or talking with camper around the campfire.