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Free to Rock Out

No fires at these summer camps for girls, but plenty of guitars, drums, keyboards and a whole lot of ambition.
"I like to sing, but I'm not doing that this year," said Hugo Orozco, 10, of Brooklyn, New York, a member of the bands Hellish Rellish and Magnolia. "I'm doing drums this year."

A native of Austin, Texas, Orozco first found out about rock girl camps last year when a family friend who worked at the Rock and Roll Camp for Girls in Portland, Ore., paid a visit. Orozco was all ready to rock out in Portland, but her family moved to New York. Luckily she found out about the Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls in New York City. And now Orozco will be attending the camp for her second summer.

"I got a letter two weeks ago saying that I got accepted. Yay!" said Orozco.

Thanks to the work and inspiration of the Portland Rock and Roll Camp for Girls founded in the summer of 2001, one-week-long summer rock camps for girls (ages vary between 8 and 18) have been sprouting across the United States and around the world. The camps have encouraged and taught thousands of girls to sing and play guitar, drums and keyboards, as well as tutored them to perform and record music.

Girl rock camps -- which are inclusive of music genres from hip hop to country -- have now spread to the South and the Midwest in the United States. There are also rumors that there will be a girl rock camp in Hawaii soon. As for the world, Canada and Sweden now have girl rocks camps of their own.

Karla Schickele, director and one of the founders of the Willie Mae Rock Camp, was a volunteer at the Rock and Roll Camp for Girls in Portland for two summers before she thought New York City should have a rock camp for girls of its own.

"A lot of my friends are musicians who are women, and I knew there would be a ton of women who could get into something like that," said Schickele. "And obviously there are a zillion girls in New York who would be interested in rocking out for a week. It just seemed like a good idea that made sense."

Like many rock girl camp volunteers and leaders, Schickele has a 9 to 5 job and gigs with her bands Ida and K, to balance in conjunction with her volunteer work with Willie Mae. But these commitments don't stop her from wanting to expand the camp.

Approaching her second summer camp session, Schickele is hoping to draw 200 girls to the camp -- more than three times as many girls as the camp had last summer. Schickele is also looking to create a Girls Rock Institute similar to the one at the Portland Rock Camp, a yearlong after school program "so the girls can have a chance to play music and work with other girls on a year-round basis. Not just one week in the summer," said Schickele.

Rock girl camp isn't free, but all the camps offer some type of financial aid. According to Schickele, more than half of the campers at Willie Mae last summer got full or partial scholarships. In addition, some of the families that can afford to, have given a little bit extra to help offset the cost for some campers.

According to Alexa Weinstein, board member and long-time volunteer at the Portland Rock and Roll Camp for Girls, it costs their camp $700 per girl.

"We charge $300 and offer financial aid to a large number of the girls who apply, so it often costs $500 or $600 with the financial aid or donations we get. But it's really important that we do this because we want to make sure it is accessible to everybody; that no girl is turned away because she can't afford tuition," said Weinstein.

"The hardest part is fundraising," added Weinstein. "The economy is not so great, and most people don't have the extra money [to give]. It's also tough because people are starving, people are dying in Darfur, and from Hurricane Katrina ... There are really terrible, undeniably horrible things that are truly leaving people in desperate need, and I think sometimes people think why should they give money to a rock and roll camp when they could give money to an organization that is working on hunger? It's a really tough question to answer. I can't tell people what they should do with their hard-earned money."

But what she can do, and what many of the camps do, is prove that the camps really do make a difference in the lives of young girls.

"There are so many girls who don't fit in the mainstream at school ... A lot of girls feeling like they have to join and can't fit in," said Weinstein. "They might not fit in because they're queer and out in high school. They might be big girls. There are a million things that cause them not to be a part of mainstream groups at school. But here, they can work with four other girls who they've never met before and have nothing in common with and can write a song with them in a week, get up on stage and play it, and truly have an amazing experience. It really helps them to blossom, and to change, and to come out of their shells."

Kelley Anderson remembers what it was like to not have a community to call her own. Growing up in South Carolina, there were only one or two girls in her entire town that played music for a live audience. She then went away to college in Tennessee in hopes of finding a women's music scene. She didn't find one there either.

"I just thought it was my town that sucked," said Anderson. "But I ran into the same thing here [Murfreesboro], and it was disappointing. There were a lot of girls at the shows, but there weren't many girls on stage."

So in hopes of changing all that, Anderson founded the Southern Rock Camp for Girls (SGRRC) in Murfreesboro while a sophmore at Middle Tennessee State University.

In addition to following many of Portland's Rock and Roll Girl Camp's curriculum workshops such as media literacy, song writing, zine making, merchandise making and learning about sexism in the industry, Anderson also wants to make sure the girls know that there are a lot of opportunities in the music business for them besides being the lead performer.

"We want to encourage girls -- let them know -- that you really don't have to be the guitar player out in front all of the time," said Anderson. "Not everybody can do that, and you can still be a very valuable member of the band. Promoting a true music community is just as valuable and important as being a drummer in band."

Anderson is currently working with her co-directors at SGRRC to develop a youth arts organization -- Youth Development Through Art and Community -- that would sponsor different programs for girls and boys. So far, they're sponsoring SGRRC and simultaneously working on having an afterschool camp.

"One thing we're seeing is that we nurture the girls to a certain point. They form a band, they learn instruments -- they're doing all this cool stuff, and there's nowhere for them to play," said Anderson. "We want to provide a really healthy, positive environment for them to perform in. [Because of their young ages], they're completely cut off from the local music scene. It's just one of the discriminations against young people."

Now facing its third year, the North Carolina Rock and Roll Camp for Girls, led by Amelia V.B. Shull, is looking to expand the summer camp in the heart of North Carolina between Chapel Hill and Durham to more than one week per summer.

"After the first year, we had such a great response that we added a second week last year," said Shull. "So this year, we tried to find a way to keep growing, and rent or lease a building that would allow us to accommodate more girls, over more weeks. We couldn't find anything! It was frustrating!"

Maria Cincotta was there in 2001 when Portland's Rock and Roll Camp for Girls made history. She is now in New York volunteering at Willie Mae and keeping all the girl rock camps in touch through an electronic list serve she organized. She hopes the rock camps expand in size and reach as well.

"I hope that the rock camps will continue to connect and share resources, and I would be totally excited if there was ever a rock camp for girls conference in which the ladies from all of the rock camps could meet each other, share resources and ideas face-to-face, and share experiences," said Cincotta. "I hope that rock camps for girls will continue to grow as a global movement."

Rachelle van Zanten is working on it. A volunteer for the Rocker Girl Camp of Canada in Central Alberta now in its second year, van Zanten emailed me while on tour for her latest CD, "Back to Francois," in Germany.

"This is a very cool concept, and I see it catching on like wildfire," said van Zanten. " I am going to do what I can to make it happen in the Western provinces Hopefully someone will do it in the East and let those girls have a chance to attend."
Celina R. De León, based in Brooklyn, N.Y., is a contributing writer for Wire Tap Magazine.