Chance Johnston’s experience at school in Lawton, Oklahoma, was getting beaten up, being told to toughen up, and feeling like he needed to constantly hide the person he really is. Last week, the 18-year-old was able to put that all aside for one week – finding a place that he says “feels like home.”
Johnston was one of 43 young people who attended the first-ever session of Brave Trails, a leadership camp for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning youth and their allies held in Wrightwood, California. There, young people from around the country gathered to develop the leadership skills that would empower them to change their communities. Nestled in the bucolic mountain campus, many campers said they found what they needed more than anything – hope.
“As a child, I was beaten up for being basically the first openly gay guy in my town,” Johnston tells PEOPLE. “Now, I’m starting to see that things are actually going to get better. Brave Trails just gives me this feeling that I thought I’d never feel, it makes me feel open, makes me feel like I don t have to be afraid to speak.”
Los Angeles couple Jessica Weissbuch and Kayla Ryan founded the camp – the first of its kind in Southern California and one of only nine in the United States – after seeing a need for a space where LGBTQ youths could feel proud and empowered.
“We really saw that there were a lot of spaces to sort of be upset or to cry about being a queer person and there were very few spaces that encouraged young people to be leaders,” Weissbuch tells PEOPLE.
“As young queer people we’re told that we’re less than and that these problems are too big for us,” Ryan adds. “We really wanted to help campers to identify that there is something you can do for your community, no matter how big or small.”
To make that vision a reality, Weissbuch and Ryan began planning for a week-long summer camp in February 2014. They enlisted two additional founding directors, Matt Marr and Coby Pfaff, and together, the group founded a non-profit, raised $55,000 and planned and organized every aspect of the camp – all outside of full-time jobs.
Following a successful social media campaign, Camp Brave Trails received applications from would-be campers around the country. The four directors interviewed every prospective camper by Skype – handpicking young people who would embrace the camp’s values of leadership, kindness and inclusiveness. While reviewing applications, the need for the camp became even more evident.
“I’m a crier so every time I saw a video or heard one of [the campers’] stories, I instantly started crying,” Weissbuch says.
“I don t even think we anticipated how much people really needed this space to celebrate who they are,” Ryan adds.
Parents of prospective campers even called in to explain the feelings of isolation and despair their children were facing in their daily lives.
“One camper had three different friends kill themselves within this year,” Marr tells PEOPLE. “His mom called me and said this is what she thought made him a leader – at this last funereal he got up and spoke. She said he just needed a positive space.”
Thanks to a successful round of fundraising – which included a camp-themed benefit and dance showcases – Brave Trails was able to provide scholarships to 60 percent of the campers. Next, they found 20 college students and young professionals so inspired by their mission they volunteered to serve as counselors for free.
The week-long camp was filled with traditional staples like archery and swimming alongside leadership workshops on everything from “How to Start a Gay-Straight Alliance At Your School” to “The Art of Drag.”
Pfaff admits he was a little nervous about asking teenagers to sit through workshops every day for a week. However, he was overwhelmed by the enthusiasm the campers showed for these programs.
“They’re just hungry for the information and the sharing and the learning,” Pfaff says. “Sometimes they come out of the workshops and they have tears coming down their faces, and not in a sad way but in a like transformational way or they were just deeply affected, it’s amazing.”
The transformational aspects of camp stretched far beyond workshops. For many campers, this experience provided the first evidence that the adage “it gets better” – a slogan for and promise made to bullied youths everywhere – is actually true.
“A lot of campers said they’d never met an older queer person who is successful and happy,” Ryan tells PEOPLE. “So to see them meet 20 queer people who identify in all kinds of different ways who are graduating from university and the heads of their departments is really powerful – for them to really see futures for themselves.”
Lack of role models notwithstanding, many campers were acting as leaders long before they arrived. The founders of Brave Trails recruited Chance Johnston and classmate Ryan Huffman after seeing posts on social media about the Gay-Straight Alliance club they fought to establish at their public high school.
“We were determined to create this club not just for ourselves but as a safe haven for many students who were in the closet,” Johnston says. “For those who didn t feel comfortable with who they were.”
“It’s almost like a support group that everybody can come to and know that when they walk through those doors, they can be who they want to be,” says Huffman, 17, who is transgender. “They don t have to be afraid of being judged or hated for who they are, their sexuality is valid, them as people, they’re valid.”
The pair says the skills they gained at Brave Trails will prove invaluable in helping students at their school and beyond.
At the camp’s closing banquet, campers surprised the staff by standing up and speaking about how camp had changed them.
“One camper said that he realized he didn t need to cut himself anymore because he had too much stuff to do, he had too many things he wanted to do for people, and he really felt empowered by the cause,” Marr tells PEOPLE.
When camp came to an end, many campers described their fears of returning to environments where they felt judged. But in some ways, the camp will go with them. “Our goal was that each kid left with one adult and one peer that they could call on when they were feeling down or wanted to share something,” Ryan tells PEOPLE. “I think we far exceeded that.”
That support system is important because the world these kids are returning to may not be hostile, but it’s also not always accepting.
Marr recalls reading a card written by one camper that said “I’ve never felt so accepted by a community in my whole life, I’ve never felt more loved.” The final day of camp, Marr found the young man back in preppy clothes, trying to get nail polish off of his fingernails before returning to his family.
“The way he was scrubbing I will never forget, because I could already tell he was scared,” Marr says. “So I came up to him and I said, ‘I’m sorry you have to do that. You know, I’m going to work on Monday and I’ve got to take my nail polish off too. Remember that in your heart we know who you really are, and you’re going to be back here next year, and painting your nails and being who you want to be.’ And he hugged me and cried.”