Tucked in the mountains of Massachusetts, the Rowe Center sleep-away camp is every teenager’s dream. Each summer, the camp enrolls hundreds of campers between 12 and 18 and affords them nearly unlimited freedom.
From the activities they do to whether or not they go to sleep, teenagers are empowered to make their own decisions and exercise their independence. Adult supervision is practically nonexistent.
Photographer Jennifer Loeber attended the camp during her teenage years and recently went back to document the camp and the many characters who attend. The resulting project is called “Cruel Story of Youth,” which she says refers to the world that the campers must return to after leaving the camp.
Loeber shared a number of photos with us here, but you can check out the rest at her website and follow her on Instagram.
Rowe Camp was founded in 1924 in the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts by members of the Unitarian Universalist Church. For 90 years, the camp has sought to make kids of all different types and creeds feel at home. In the 1960s, the camp found its place as a haven for the counter-cultural, which it has continued in spirit ever since.
Loeber first visited the camp in the 1980s, when her father enrolled at the suggestion of a friend, who served as the camp's director in the 1970s. Despite Loeber's protests, she attended the camp that year and continued to attend every summer from 12 to 17. She calls her experience 'life-changing.'
The camp operates today in nearly exactly the same way it did during Loeber's time. There is no schedule, no curfew, and minimal adult presence. Campers make up their own schedules and arrange their own activities with other campers, whether that's going swimming or making arts and crafts. 'It's like 'Lord of the Flies,' but not dangerous,' says Loeber.
'It's not a typical teenager experience,' says Loeber, and she means it. The goal of Rowe is to empower kids to pursue whatever interests they have, especially those that may fall outside the high school norm, like the arts.
Everyone seems to have an artistic focus, says Loeber, who likens it to attending a specialised arts school like Julliard.
The camp attracts a certain type of kid, many of whom don't quite fit in at their junior high or high school. According to Loeber, a lot of the kids tend to be those in the art or punk rock crowds.
While one might expect that giving teenagers unrestricted freedom would lead to chaos, Loeber is adamant that the opposite is the case. 'A lot of the kids have been bullied, so they tend to be mature and take on the challenge,' says Loeber.
Adults are around the camp area, but they only intervene if something particularly dangerous is happening. The only direct supervision comes in the form of the oldest campers, who can be elected by the campers as 'spirits' -- essentially counselors. At the end of each summer, the campers vote on who the 'spirits' will be for the next summer. 'You just have to make sure no one dies,' Loeber says about the role of a 'spirit.'
Despite the freedom, nothing too dangerous has ever happened. The worst thing that Loeber ever saw happen was that a camper left a candle burning in a tent, which then caught on fire. They were able to put it out, but in such a heavily wooded area, it could have been much worse.
Drugs and drinking are nonexistent at the camp, but sex is obviously present. These are teenagers, after all. More than a few can be found having their first romantic experiences.
The freedom is so complete that if you don't want to eat a meal, you are welcome to sit it out. If you don't want to sleep, stay up all night.
The campers at Rowe are diverse, but tend to skew white, according to Loeber. Economically, kids come from all sorts of backgrounds, thanks to scholarship funds available for campers.
Loeber says the saddest part of the summer for the campers is when they have to go home and leave behind Rowe's accepting and independent atmosphere. While they're there, however, the kids are having the time of their young lives.
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