Every year, transgender children and their families gather at a unique summer camp for a weekend of bonding, learning and of course, fun and games. The experience – transformative for kids and their parents alike – is the subject of a new documentary, Transgender Kids Camp.
Featured in the film is a mom named Sabrina and her husband Chris, who have attended for seven years in support of their 13-year-old transgender daughter Ryan. In fact, Sabrina was so moved by her initial experience that she is now a parent coordinator at the camp.
“The camp was so impactful for us, and it was impactful for Ryan to see and experience that she wasn’t alone,” Sabrina, 46, tells PEOPLE. “That was huge.”
“[And the camp] is a loving, welcoming environment,” adds Chris.
During the four-day experience, parents attend workshops while kids partake in gender-neutral activities such as swimming and obstacle courses, and everyone comes together at night for campfires. The weekend’s main event is the “Free to Be Me” fashion show on the last night.
Ryan says it’s the highlight of camp.
“It’s different than just wearing feminine clothes every day at school,” says Ryan, who has lived her life as a female since kindergarten. “It’s full-on, blow-out, gung-ho wearing dresses, changing [outfits]. It’s really magical for me. The atmosphere is really fun and electric, and it’s awesome to be a part of that.”
“It’s more than just getting dolled up,” adds Sabrina. “If you could see the joy on their faces, it’s because we really are celebrating them, and they get to enjoy being celebrated and being seen and being free.”
While Ryan has fully transitioned, others at camp have not. For these attendees, camp is the one place they can truly be themselves.
“For some of these kids, the only time they get to express themselves is inside their homes because there aren’t resources for them, or the community isn’t accepting, or because of their own fears,” says Chris, 57. “They’ve never had a chance to express themselves publicly.”
It’s an especially significant experience for first-time campers and their families. Sabrina recalls talking to a parent of twins – one of whom is transgender – who had attended camp for the first time last year.
“She came up to me and said, ‘Our lives will never be the same,’ ” says Sabrina. “She shared this moment when her transgender daughter came up to her and said, ‘Mom, this is like heaven here.’ ”
“You see these kids coming as the camp starts and they’re shy and timid, and by Saturday night, the transformation in them is incredible,” adds Chris. “You have to see it to believe it.”
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“What I noticed at camp was how huge a difference acceptance and understanding from parents makes,” documentary director Nick Sweeney tells PEOPLE. “I was also blown away by how extraordinarily articulate the young people were about their experiences and gender identity.”
Sabrina hopes the documentary will make people more accepting of kids who are transgender.
“It’s not weird, it’s not strange, it’s not abnormal,” says Sabrina. “This is who these kids are, and it’s okay.”
Transgender Kids Camp premieres June 1 at 9/8CT on TLC.