SNJ Summer Camp

Sierra Nevada Journeys Inspires Student to Pursue Outdoor Education as a Career

Melissa Mazzuca, a 3-year employee at Sierra Nevada Journeys, was the 2016 Senior Scholar recipient for the College of Agriculture, Biotechnology and Natural Resources at the University of Nevada, Reno. This is one the most prestigious awards at the University. It is given to students from each school or college who meet exceptional program standards. During the reception, Melissa spoke about how Sierra Nevada Journeys inspired her to pursue outdoor education

We were able to connect with her during finals (of all time) to talk about her Sierra Nevada Journeys experience.

You just received your BS in Environmental Science. What's next?
I am excited to take a much needed breather for a few months this winter and spend some quality time with my family at home. I am also taking a trip to the east coast to visit friends and explore! In April, I am extremely excited to be moving to Oregon to continue my work in environmental education at Camp Tamarack Outdoor School.

How were you introduced to Sierra Nevada Journeys?
One of my freshman professors required our class to attend a natural resources career fair. It was there that I met Sean Hill, the Education Director for Sierra Nevada Journeys. I immediately applied to work as a counselor at Grizzly Creek Ranch.

How long have you been involved with Sierra Nevada Journeys and in what capacity?
I have spent an incredible three years with Sierra Nevada Journeys in numerous roles. I started up at campus as a cabin counselor for summer camp. I immediately knew that a few weeks of summer camp was not enough for me and reached out to Kristen Fenstermacher, the campus director at the time, and asked her how I could get more involved. She brought me on for the fall as a part-time instructor where I got to come to campus on the weekends and facilitate the challenge course with leadership programs. Still seeking more involvement with such an amazing organization, I applied for an internship in the Reno office for the following spring. For the next few years I worked with the Classrooms Unleashed program as a field instructor.

My second summer with Sierra Nevada Journeys I took on two new roles. First, I was able to move up to campus a month before summer programs began to finish out the outdoor school season as a Residential Outdoor Science Instructor. Then once summer began, I had the pleasure of being the Arts and Crafts Specialist for all summer programs. I had such an incredible second season with Sierra Nevada Journeys that I went ahead and continued my same roles for a third!  

What were some of your favorite moments with Sierra Nevada Journeys?
I absolutely loved being the Arts and Crafts Specialist over the summer. One of my favorite parts of the position was when the older girls would come and we would all craft together and sing Taylor Swift; it was beautiful. It also gave me the opportunity to get to know all the campers really well, not just one cabin.

I also really enjoyed working the registration table at check-in. I loved getting to experience camper’s very first impression of Sierra Nevada Journeys or seeing how excited the returners were to be back at camp.

A specific favorite memory was during a very stormy day of summer 2015. The campers probably spent more time inside than out due to the weather that week, but you'd never be able to tell based on their spirits. As a special rainy day activity, a few counselors planned a lip sync battle. No one anticipated how into it all the campers would get with elaborate dances and costumes. I even got to take on the role of Katniss Everdeen as a judge. Every camper and staff member had an incredible time despite the weather and it is one of my favorite summer camp memories to date.

How has Sierra Nevada Journeys helped you personally and professionally?
I have grown so much since I started with Sierra Nevada Journeys in 2013. I am more confident, social, and open to trying new things. Sierra Nevada Journeys is like a home to me and I feel like it’s where I really found myself. It’s also where I found what I like to call “my people.” From my incredible mentor Kristen, to my camp mom Debbie, to all my amazing friends, I have never felt a greater sense of belonging. I believe this sense of belonging is what really made me feel and act like my true self.

I have also gained a long list of professional skills to grow as an environmental educator. My growth is due largely to the amazing people that I have been surrounded by at Sierra Nevada Journeys. I have received an incredible amount of guidance and support for the last three years. I have had the pleasure of learning a ton about teaching, challenge course facilitation, and just working with children in general from observing and being in the company of my fellow instructors. I genuinely loved being the baby of the staff because I had the opportunity to learn so much from my peers.

If I haven't already communicated it, Sierra Nevada Journeys really has meant the world to me. I’m sad to be moving on, but I am incredibly thankful for the growth that I have experienced through Sierra Nevada Journeys and am eager to apply it to my next adventure.  

Let’s Make Nevada’s Big Give Bigger in Northern Nevada

Join thousands of Nevadans in supporting your favorite nonprofit organization on Thursday, March 23 for the 6th annual Nevada’s Big Give. Nevada’s Big Give is a statewide 24-hour online giving initiative to raise awareness of, and funds for, all nonprofits and schools that improve the quality of life for Nevadans.

The concept of Nevada’s Big Give was developed and initiated by NevadaGIVES board member, Stacey Wedding, a lifelong Nevadan who has committed her professional life and much of her personal life to the philanthropy sector. Wedding presented the concept to the NevadaGIVES board in early 2011. Soon after, Nevada was celebrating the first ever Nevada’s Big Give. In just the first year, online donations totaled $413,048 from 2,063 generous individuals throughout our great state. Fast forward to 2016. Nevada raised over $638,000 from 5,567 individuals. That’s a 35 percent increase in funding in five years. These numbers show that Nevadans have big hearts when it comes to giving.

So far, there are 33 Northern Nevada nonprofit organizations that you can help support on Nevada’s Big Give – including Sierra Nevada Journeys, Note-Able Music Therapy Services, Immunize Nevada, Reno Philharmonic Association, Nevada Humane Society, Nevada Coalition to End Domestic and Sexual Violence, and United Way of Northern Nevada and the Sierra, to name a few. Some organizations have even partnered with each other to double their impact in the community.

For example, Sierra Nevada Journeys is partnering with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Northern Nevada for the second year to send 20 Littles to Sierra Nevada Journeys’ Summer Camp at Grizzly Creek Ranch in Portola, Calif. Summer camp immerses children in outdoor learning, teamwork and leadership, promoting achievement well past the campfire. To send 20 Littles to summer camp, Sierra Nevada Journeys has set a fundraising goal of $11,980. Donations will be matched up to $3,000 by a generous donor.

Note-Able Music Therapy Services is seeking $5,000 to provide weekly music therapy at The Eddy House, helping engage at-risk youth with music. Music has shown to be a powerful way for people to express difficult emotions, while experiencing the joy of expression and creating art.

The Reno Philharmonic Association wants to offer a free children’s concert at Wingfield Park, Beethoven Lives Upstairs, to Artown this July. This event will help introduce children in our community to classical music in an engaging setting. In order to bring the performance to Reno, the Reno Philharmonic Association needs to raise $7,500.

These three examples are just a glimpse of what organizations are fundraising for during this year’s Big Give.

Seek out your favorite nonprofit organizations or learn about new ones that match your passions, be it education, arts and culture, children and family, or the environment. Visit and make Nevada’s Big Give even bigger in Northern Nevada by participating and donating on March 23.

- Written by Megan Duggan, Marketing and Communications Director for Sierra Nevada Journeys

Summer Camp Testimonials from Parents

This has been such an amazing experience where my son has met new friends, learned a lot about science and nature, and has just had incredible amounts of fun. His very first year we had him go with his older brother which I thought would help since he didn’t know anyone but that was not needed he had a blast regardless. Each year he goes whether or not he has friends from home going as everyone is so wonderful. He is signed up for two weeks this summer and cannot wait!
— Parent, Michelle Sanchez-Bickley
He waited anxiously to be old enough for SNJ, and it has absolutely exceeded our expectations! Last year he attended two sessions. This year he’d like to stay ALL summer. Now his goal is to be old enough to be a counselor!
— Parent, Carolyn Raydon
My daughter will be returning for her 2nd year. Last year she wanted to try a horse camp in the wine country. What a disappointment. The cost was twice as much, and it didn’t compare to SNJ on any level; cleanliness, organization, communication with families, or fun! Why would we go anywhere else!?
— Parent, Anonymous
My child loved SNJ. He is a reserved kid and went to camp for the first time last year with a friend. But after camp, he said he wanted to go every year and it didn’t matter if a friend went with him. He was very comfortable and eager to sign up this year. It’s important to me that he felt welcomed and included as he’s not a self-promoting kind of guy; so this camp clearly has some good counselors!
— Parent, Nanda

Benefits of Summer Camp for Youth of All Ages

Youth of all ages benefit from camp. “For years, campers' parents have reported that when their children return home from camp they are more caring, understand the importance of giving, are more equipped to stand up for what they know is right, and are willing to be more responsible,” (American Camp Association, n.d.).  However, camps that serve a vast age range (ages 7 – 17) must recognize the developmental differences of these ages and plan their programming accordingly.

Like most camps, Sierra Nevada Journeys groups campers by age when determining cabin assignments. This helps campers achieve the skills stated above.

Become more caring.
Children of similar ages are often going through similar experiences at home, school and developmentally. These similarities help spark sharing, caring and empathy among campers in the cabin group. They can also learn more strategies from their peers on how to celebrate successes and cope with challenges, which makes them more caring individuals.

Understand the importance of giving.
“Giving” means different things to different ages. For younger campers, it may mean actually sharing a stuffed animal or a pair of scissors with someone in their group. For older campers, it may mean listening to a friend in need or stepping back in order to let someone else shine (without being prompted to do so by an adult).

More equipped to stand up for what they know is right.
Younger campers are very dependent on their family to establish ground rules that determine how they view “right vs. wrong”. As they grow, they seek some adult guidance until eventually they spend more time with friends and this influences their values. When campers are grouped with their peers, staff can offer more effective support and strategies.

Willing to be more responsible.
It can be a lot of responsibility for an 8-year-old to get all the things they need together to go take a shower. Counselors can assist by having posters on the cabin wall indicating what they need to bring and giving a friendly remind. As the week goes on, the counselors might challenge the campers to do this on their own without reminders, hence increasing their responsibility. A 14-year-old is more likely to be able to gather their belongings to head to the shower with little reminders / instruction. This would not be a challenge for them. With older campers, counselors can create age appropriate challenges, like completing a service project that will benefit the camp and future campers.

At SNJ, the campers travel to most activities with their cabin groups. The staff is trained to accommodate differences in skill level at each activity, but we place high value in our campers spending most of their day with their peers. However, we also value being a large community so all campers do interact throughout the week: at meal times, large group activities and evening programs. It is great to watch a group of campers ranging in age from 8 – 17 go out to complete a counselor hunt and rally around their team when we gather together to share results. Those campers have a shared experience and are likely to be found sitting together at meals or signing up for the same “free choice” block to see each other again.

It is very important that our staff understand age group characteristics in terms of the camper’s cognitive, social, emotional and physical development and thus this is a key component of staff training.  We also discuss how their independence develops with age as this impacts the relationships they have with the adults in their lives, including camp counselors.  Although it is essential that staff understand this and use it to develop an appropriate curriculum, it is most important that they are always thinking about the uniqueness of every child.  Meeting each child where they are, despite his/her age, and setting them up to be successful and challenged is the ultimate goal of the camp experience.


American Camp Association.  (n.d.)  Benefits of camp.  Retrieved from

Coutellier, C.  (2007).  Camp is for the camper.  Martinsville, IN;  American Camp Association.

How Children Develop Independence at Summer Camp

Camp is a place where kids can develop who they are and grow more independent. They can manage choices and decisions in a safe, nurturing environment and develop new interests. “Camp is the perfect place for kids to practice making decisions for themselves without parents and teachers guiding every move,” (Rockbrook Camp for Girls, n.d.). They can explore their own identities and develop a deeper sense of self.

Let’s explore some of the ways campers develop independence at SNJ:

Getting along with a new group of peers.
Because SNJ places tremendous focus on building community, campers learn to support others who are trying new things. Also, the pressures of who they are at school or home tend to fall away and they can really discover who they are. The quest for self-discovery in a strong community leads campers to have a peeked interest in their peers, which creates deep, lasting friendships. Many of our campers exchange email addresses or become friends on Facebook so they can stay connected during the school year. They leave camp with a peer support system that stays strong all year long!
Camp is a place to take manageable risks.
Parents want their children to develop a “can do” attitude. That can only be done if they are faced with challenges they can complete. SNJ has plenty of age and skill-level appropriate challenges for our campers to conquer every day. For some of our campers, they feel comfortable stepping out of their comfort zone because of the peer and counselor support they receive at SNJ. For some, being in a new setting (our remote 1,500 acres of yellow pine forest) helps them feel relaxed and readies them to try new things. We also seize every opportunity to celebrate successes, big and small!

They are responsible for their own needs.
At camp, campers do things for themselves. When it’s time to go swimming, they gather their bathing suit, towel, sunscreen and goggles. When swimming is over, they take those things back to the cabins. When they feel responsibilities are delegated to them regarding things like hygiene, getting ready and eating meals, they rise to meet them. Of course, the staff are always there if they need help, and asking for help also builds independence.  
Camp helps kids find balance in their lives.
At SNJ, campers have a jam packed schedule, from heading off to morning activities, signing up for camper’s choice activity blocks, practicing their skit for the last night campfire, to gearing up for a game of capture the flag. They know their schedule and responsibilities and this helps them feel in control. Because we build a strong community, campers also learn to balance the different personalities and backgrounds of their fellow campers in a respectful manner. These skills will help them be independent in their young adult lives.

It can certainly be difficult for parents to send their child away to camp, but there are so many opportunities for growth during their time away, like developing independence. Upon returning home, parents will notice changes in their campers that make it worth what can be some challenging days apart. Through every step of their camp experience, our campers are guided by highly trained and qualified staff. These individuals are not quite seen as teachers, but not quite seen as peers. They strike an important balance in between that allows them to support our campers while fostering their independence.


Borelli, L.  (2013).  How summer camp helps develop your child’s mental health and resilience.  Retrieved from

NYMetro Parents.  (2013)  How camp helps kids gain confidence and independence.  Retrieved from

Rockbrook Camp for Girls.  (n.d.).  Why camp is great for children.

Sierra Nevada Journeys' Grizzly Creek Ranch Campus is ACA Accredited

Sierra Nevada Journeys’ Grizzly Creek Ranch has been ACA accredited since 2011.

For over 50 years, the American Camp Association (ACA) has been offering many services to camps; one of which is an accreditation program. “The main purpose of the ACA-accreditation program is to educate camp owners and directors in the administration of key aspects of camp operation, particularly those related to program quality and the health and safety of campers and staff. The standards establish guidelines for needed policies, procedures, and practices. The camp, then, is responsible for ongoing implementation of these policies.” (American Camp Association, n.d.)

The standards address all aspects of camp operation and are organized into six categories:

  1. Site –  Food service, maintenance
  2. Transportation – Drivers, vehicle safety
  3. Health and Wellness – Medication distribution, staff qualifications
  4. Operational Management – Safety regulations, emergency communication systems
  5. Human Resources - Staff training, supervision ratios
  6. Program Activities – Aquatics, trips, horseback riding

This is just a sample of the specifics covered in each category.

How does a camp become accredited? First, the camp submits an initial application. The director(s) then attend (or take the online version) a standards course. They review and evaluate each area of camp according to the standards using the ACA’s Accreditation Process Guide. The directors prepare documents and written materials required by the standards. ACA trained visitors then visit the camp for a day during the camp season. They observe camp and work with the directors to determine compliance with the standards. To maintain accreditation, the camp must demonstrate ongoing compliance by submitting an annual narrative report (Annual Accreditation Report) and hosting ACA visitors at least once every five years.

There are many benefits to being accredited. All accredited camps are listed on the ACA Camp Database, which is a valuable resource for the public to use in selecting a camp that meets industry and government standards and regulations. There are endless resources available for camp staff. The ACA offers the monthly magazine, “Camping Magazine”, national and local conferences, round-the-clock support during the summer season via the Crisis Hotline, and research on camp practices conducted with experts in the field (American Academy of Pediatrics and American Red Cross).  It is a great way to connect with others in the industry regarding new training and program ideas or new challenges camps face. The website offers specifics on state-by-state regulations and lists local authorities who can help ensure legislative compliance. “The American Camp Association (ACA) accreditation process has grown to keep pace with changes in the camp industry, expectations of the public, and the challenges of operating a business in today’s highly regulated society” (American Camp Association, n.d.)

Sierra Nevada Journeys' Grizzly Creek Ranch has been accredited since 2011. Our Campus Executive Director, Program Director and Director of Operations diligently maintain this accreditation and use the standards as a means to establish best practices for all our programs.


American Camp Association.  (n.d.)  American Camp Association accreditation…tell me more.  Retrieved from

American Camp Association (n.d)  Accreditation. Retrieved from

How Do Children Benefit From a Summer Camp Experience?

How do children benefit from a summer camp experience? If you ask campers or their parents/guardians, you would surely get an array of answers. But they would all fall under one of two categories – developing activity skills or life skills. How they really benefit in one (or both) of these ways comes down to one thing: the STAFF. These individuals instruct archery, have toothbrush parties, sing songs, make sure the pickiest eater is full after breakfast, supervise cabin clean up, care for bumps and bruises, and search for a backpack left in the woods on a hike. And the role goes on and on! How does the staff wear so many “hats” that help campers attain the many benefits of camp? It’s pretty simple – effective training AND the internal motivation that is found within people who have a true passion for providing youth with a transformative experience!

Staff training is as diverse as the many hats they wear. They are trained on “hard skills” such as archery, lifeguarding, ropes course facilitation, age group characteristics and risk management. They are trained on “soft skills” such as debriefing, positive behavior reinforcement, homesickness and sense of place.  We place a high value community building and train on this as well. One way we do this is by modeling it throughout our staff training. We create goals for the summer, do daily debriefs, share our successes and fears as we try new activities, find our commonalities and celebrate our differences, and have fun and create memories together. All of these staff skills contribute to the camper experience. Let’s take a look at a few!

Archery is often something new to many campers (and something our returners want to improve on each summer). Our staff is trained in the “hard skills” – safety, equipment use and storage, history of the sport and proper technique. They can help a first-time archer understand the basics or offer advice to an experienced archer on how to sharpen their aim. Enter the “softer skills”.  The activity is set up to be non-competitive to remove some of the pressures campers might face with things like school academics and sports. Campers are encouraged to set personal goals, but there are no stressful contests. This set-up is intentional to help build confidence. Staff is also very intentional about celebrating successes. “Success” takes on many meanings at camp – it could mean hitting the bull eyes, or hitting the target, or trying archery even though the camper was nervous about it, or learning about the history of the sport. Whatever it is, we are purposeful about having campers vocalize and appreciate these successes, which build confidence. If a camper doesn’t meet their goal initially, camp is a safe space to learn about perseverance and process the emotions that sometimes come with facing a setback. Establishing community early on creates a supportive environment for campers during challenging times and one where their peers can offer support and share any similar experiences they have had.

Camp is definitely a place for campers to build social skills, especially in their cabin group. There will be some “hard skills” involved with the cabin group – daily cabin clean-up jobs and times where the cabin group is responsible for set-up or clean-up in the dining hall. They will have to exercise their “soft skills” such as cooperation and working together to complete such tasks. There could also be disagreements that arise. This is common when any group spends a lot of time together and conflict is an important part of even the most successful communities. The key aspect is teaching campers how to respectfully address disagreements, such as deciding what to do for the final night skit performance. Staff will use and model the skills they learned in training to help the campers resolve disagreements in an appropriate manner and learn ways to be respectful of other campers whose opinions may differ from their own. Doing activities such as icebreakers, a community contract, teambuilding activities, and nightly debriefs builds a strong community that helps campers successfully build social skills and develop an understanding of one another.  

These are just a few ways staff training skills are utilized during the summer. As a camper, my favorite memories weren’t of what we did, but of who I was with. My counselors helped me feel confident, face challenges, and connect with my peers in a way I didn’t experience in day-to-day life. Camp and its activities will certainly continue to change over time, but at the core of every successful camp will be the people who genuinely feel fortunate to wake up and do their job every day. That will remain unchanged.


Rockbrook Camp for Girls.  (n.d.).  Why camp is great for children.

Sharing Her Roots: One Big’s Experience in Fostering a Little’s Love of Nature

Kristin and Lacee at SNJ's Open House at Grizzly Creek Ranch in the summer of 2013.

Kristin and Lacee at SNJ's Open House at Grizzly Creek Ranch in the summer of 2013.

Lacee and I have been matched through Big Brothers Big Sisters of Northern Nevada (BBBSNN) for five years. We just celebrated our anniversary—or matchiversary, as we like to call it—on Feb. 8, 2016. We get together every couple of weeks and over the years have done a wide range of activities. Some of our favorites are game night at the library, crafty-type activities, window shopping at the mall, archery and going out for sushi. 

We learned about SNJ’s camp program during an open house at the Grizzly Creek Ranch Campus in the summer of 2013. Lacee and I had a great day at the open house. When we first arrived, we toured the camp and after the tour, we were allowed to wander and participate in camp activities. We climbed the Alpine Tower, did archery, worked a little in the garden, did science experiments, kayaked, and had lunch in the cafeteria. At the end of the day, Lacee was excited at the possibility of going to summer camp there. 

Attending the open house brought back many great memories for me of going to “Outdoor Ed” and summer camp when I was Lacee’s age. Based on Lacee’s enthusiasm, I wanted her to have similar experiences, make life-long memories, and learn about science, nature, and protecting the environment. I have loved nature and the outdoors since I was a little girl, and I hope to instill a little of that into her as her Big Sister and mentor. 

SNJ has been so very generous to Lacee and her family, providing partial scholarships for her in 2014 and 2015. She had a ball at camp in 2014 (her first year) and said she wanted to go back every year that she could. She went back in 2015, and is looking forward to 2016 as well.

Please consider donating to SNJ during Nevada's Big Give this year to help send other youth from BBBSNN to summer camp. It has been a life-changing experience for Lacee.

- Kristin Szabo, Big Sister and Mentor

Jake's Story

“I showed up late and don’t have any friends yet.”

What a worrisome phrase for any camp staff member to hear but in this case it gives insight into why we all should value outdoor experiential learning.

At Sierra Nevada Journeys’ campus at Grizzly Creek Ranch located in the Sierra Nevada just outside of Portola, CA, we host youth groups, the majority of which are among the underserved.

The staff at Grizzly Creek Ranch had the privilege of spending time with children sponsored by the Reno Housing Authority for a week-long overnight outdoor learning program that started on Monday. During lunch the next day, I met Jake (not his real name). My custom is to wander among the children while dining and ask how they are enjoying the program, the food, whether they’re making friends and, in general, if there is anything we can do to improve their stay. That’s when Jake spoke up and said that he had only just arrived and hadn’t made any friends yet.

“Well, Jake…where have you been that you’re only here this afternoon?” I asked.

“I was in court,” said the 8-year-old, blonde-hair, blue-eyed boy.

I gulped but plowed ahead, “Jake, why were you in court?”

It was adoption court and I now have parents, a brother, uncles and aunts and an entire family. It’s great!”

Everyone at his table was suddenly transfixed.

Blown away and with a huge lump in my throat I said, “How absolutely wonderful, Jake. I am so happy for you! What a terrific and huge morning for you but I have to ask, why are you here rather than spending time with your new family?”

“I had a chance to come to camp and just couldn’t miss it,” responded Jake.

Overwhelmed and with tears, all I could muster was a smile and some mumbled words.

Jake and children like him are why Sierra Nevada Journeys serves to bring outdoor, experiential science-based learning to the next generation of Americans. We give experiences that build critical thinking skills and awareness required for future environmental stewards. The Sierra Nevada Journey mission is important to Jake’s success as well as the future prosperity and strength of this nation.

Join us. Contribute to the Sierra Nevada Journeys’ mission and goals. You can make a profound difference in children such as Jake who is but one of 80,000 (and counting) whose lives are influenced by experiencing the outdoors and being exposed to nature’s inherent science principles.

- Mark Owen, Campus Executive Director