YMCA’s Camp Kon-O-Kwee Spencer immerses Western PA students in environmental education


For many students, summer camp is a rite of passage. Spending time away from home can build confidence, teach valuable life skills and leave kids with lifelong friends and memories. But it also can be an opportunity for immersive environmental education. 

“We have an incredible opportunity with biodiversity that is in many ways far more pristine than other places kids have been,” says Karla Schell, associate executive director of the YMCA’s Camp Kon-O-Kwee Spencer, a 550-acre residential summer camp nestled along the Connoquenessing Creek in Fombell. 

The environmental education classes offered are based on state standards and include topics like watersheds and wetlands, ecosystems and humans in the environment. At Kon-o-Kwee, students can catch microinvertebrates in the pond and look at them under a microscope, learn about habitats in the meadow, or observe biodiversity along the hiking trails.

“A few years ago we had eagles that built their nest here, which was an incredible opportunity for us to talk about birds of prey and for kids to actually see eagles build their nest close-up,” Schell says.

“The Conoquenessing Creek frequently floods,” Schell adds. “We want kids to think about what causes the flooding. How do weather and floods and environmental impacts affect us? We want to allow kids to explore these things.”

Jeff Anderchak, principal of Franklin Elementary School in the North Allegheny School District, has been with the district for 18 years and has attended Kon-O-Kwee almost yearly. Franklin’s fifth-grader students recently returned from a two-day, one-night stay at Kon-O-Kwee where they participated in a variety of hands-on environmental and outdoor education classes. 

“There’s a lot of content that the kids can learn in the field that they can’t learn in the classroom,” Anderchak says. “We dissect pellets, we look at adaptations that plants and animals make out in the forest to survive. When you are surrounded by nature, you can connect learning to the actual environment.”

“We’re getting kids that live in the city out to the woods,” says Tracy Theobald, a science teacher with Pittsburgh Public Schools. “They’re getting dirty and doing different activities that a lot of them have not had an opportunity to do before.”

From learning about water ecology and habitats to canoeing and obstacle courses, students are fully immersed in outdoor skills and environmental learning the entire time they are at camp.

Teambuilding activities and life skills are also a focus of the program. The Trail of Courage experience challenges campers to conquer a miniature zipline, a balance wire, monkey bars, and a rope swing.

“We always call it, ‘Camp Magic,’” Wes Chismar, a fifth-grade teacher at Highland Middle School in the Blackhawk School District, says. “Kids that can struggle a bit in the classroom really tend to shine out there. It’s their element: they’re engaged in experiential learning; they’re involved in the class.”

“Being out there in our natural world and learning how to be an environmental steward — students learn the importance of taking care of the earth because it takes care of us,” Chismar says. 

For some schools, going to Camp Kon-O-Kwee is also a longstanding tradition. Some students’ parents and even grandparents remember their trip to the camp, which dates back to 1926. 

“We go there for a week and it’s amazing to see the kids that show up a bit nervous on day one returning home a confident, self-assured, student,” Chismar says.

“The YMCA staff has always been incredibly knowledgeable and patient with our kids,” Theobald says. “They play games with them and it’s very engaging. Our kids love it.”

“Camp is a safe space, it’s an educational space, and it’s a place where they can not only explore the land, but their own interests,” Schell says. “We’ve got a great relationship with these teachers and we hope we can continue these partnerships for years to come.”

Along with its summer programs, the camp is a full retreat and conference center. Camp Spencer is one of the only outdoor camp programs in Pennsylvania for adults with special needs.