For the past three years, nonprofit organization Girls Rock! Phoenix has hosted a weeklong summer camp, and each time no one has been turned away — until now.
This is the first year the completely volunteer-run organization, which is part of an international alliance, has had to put girls on a waitlist for the event, which runs from June 10 to 14. Campers spend the week learning to play an instrument and attending workshops with their fellow students.
The culmination of the week is the Camp Showcase, where each of the bands formed during the week will perform. This year’s concert will be held at The Pressroom at 1 p.m. on Saturday, June 15.
According to the organization’s founder Sarah Ventre, this year’s camp will have in the neighborhood of 68 campers attending, with over 30 waitlisted applicants, mostly in the third and fourth grade, hoping that a spot will open up for them.
It has been painful for Ventre, who is an independent podcast producer, to turn girls away from such an empowering experience. Volunteer, local musician, and Phoenix New Times contributor Amy Young says her eyes do the talking when she has to say no to someone who wants to attend camp.
“There are tears shed,” she says.
There are a number of factors that have contributed to Girls Rock! Phoenix’s growth in the last several years. The biggest is word of mouth — attendees rave about the camp experience, and parents will state on comment cards that it has changed the life of their child.
Girls often come to camp shy and nervous their first year, only to come out of their shells when they take the stage at Camp Showcase. When they return next year, they want to set the world on fire with their talent.
This isn’t the female version of the movie School of Rock. What sets the summer camp apart from other programs is that it is completely staffed by those who identify as women, trans, and gender-nonconforming. They aren’t just local musicians, but passionate teachers, therapists, and even baristas who believe in the organization’s mission of strengthening girls “through music education, creation, and performance.”
The attendees, who are between 8 and 17 years old, form a band, learn to play an instrument, write a song, and work as a team. But there’s more going on at camp than just music. There are also workshops throughout the day with topics ranging from songwriting, the history of women in music, self-defense, and body positivity. They learn DIY skills and to see each other not as competitors, but as collaborators.
“Our program isn’t about being a rock star,” says teacher and Girls Rock! Phoenix board member Sammie Aasen. “It’s about the empowerment and feeling you are enough.”
Some attendees who came to the first summer camp are junior counselors this year. Ventre says she wishes every interested girl could attend so they could feel the excitement, but the grassroots organization runs entirely on grants and donations and is limited in size as a result.
Sometimes this means bargain shopping for gear or asking local businesses and organizations for donations, but the organization doesn’t typically fall into a company’s philanthropic plan. The local community shows its support with free meals, donated instruments, and a venue to perform, but there is only so much space, money, and volunteer assistance to go around.
Ventre has big plans for the organization but often has to temper her expectations. Next year, she would like to be able to rent a space for two weeks to accommodate everyone who wants to attend. Eventually, she wants Girls Rock! Phoenix to have a space of its own staffed by paid volunteers so it can offer after-school programs, an instrument lending library, and workshops throughout the year.
“We try to dream as big as possible,” she says. “I think the challenge now is doing as much as we can with what we have.”
“We’re careful about how we spend our money,” says Young. “We’ve been around long enough to be considered for more grants, corporate sponsorships and individual donations, but we’re trying not to get ahead of ourselves. We want campers to have the best experience they can have.”
Everything comes together at Camp Showcase, which is bittersweet for both the participants and camp counselors. For the girls, it means playing in front of a huge and enraptured audience. For the volunteers, it means saying goodbye and going back to their normal lives.
“It’s really magical,” Ventre says. “This is the moment they make it happen. There is glitter all over their faces and hair chalk. Once you hear someone start clicking off numbers behind the drum, it’s hard not to feel overwhelmed. You see kids being themselves in the best possible way. You look at the vast experiences these kids are coming from.”
Ventre says they are already starting to plan for next year’s camp to accommodate the anticipated demand. If you are interested in helping Girls Rock! Phoenix, its website has a donation page, Amazon wish list, and volunteer forms.
Girls Rock! Phoenix 2019 Camp Showcase. 1 p.m. Saturday, June 15, at The Pressroom, 441 West Madison Street; 602-396-7136; girlsrockphoenix.org. Tickets are $10.
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