Originally published with AgriLife Today; written in partnership with AgriLife's Kerry Halladay, Texas Brigades Executive Director Natalie Wolfe, Ducks Unlimited Inc. Biologist Taylor Abshier and NRI's Amanda Gobeli
Summer is fast approaching, and that means summer camps are on the horizon. But not all summer camp experiences are created equal.
Texas Brigades hosts a series of eight statewide summer camps open to youth ages 13-17 interested in science and the outdoors.
Dale Rollins, Ph.D., retired Texas A&M AgriLife Extension wildlife specialist, developed the initial Bobwhite Brigade — now the name of two of the camps — in 1993 to expand AgriLife Extension’s educational efforts. Texas Brigades has since evolved into a nonprofit organization that works in partnership with numerous Texas groups interested in wildlife and youth leadership development.
Each of Texas Brigades’ summer camps is five days long and themed around a wildlife or natural resource topic. Topics include quail, deer, waterfowl, fish and cattle. Each camp allows cadets to go on a deep dive into the conservation science of the theme species.
Applications for the 2021 Texas Brigades summer camps are due online by March 15.
Texas Brigades opens doors
One Texan wildlife biologist credits Texas Brigades summer camps in part with where he is today.
“Texas Brigades has afforded me many opportunities and opened doors from internships to presenting at the Texas Capitol, and has led me to where I am today,” said Taylor Abshier, a biologist with Ducks Unlimited.
For Abshier, the Texas Brigades camps are not only an opportunity for students to learn about wildlife but also to build life skills.
“Brigades is a fun, interactive and intensive five days of camp that gives cadets the opportunity to dive into wildlife conservation while providing opportunities for them to learn and to find out where their passions lie within nature.”
Abshier first attended a Texas Brigades summer camp in 2007 as a freshman in high school. It was a completely new experience, and he didn’t know what to expect.
“I kept putting off the application process, uncertain of what the summer would bring. The last day applications were open, I sat down, bit the bullet, and completed the application,” he said. “Sure enough, I got accepted into the Buckskin Brigade.”
Abshier described his first day at camp as a whirlwind of activity.
“When I arrived at camp, we barely had time to put our bags down and eat lunch before we got placed into our group and dove into the anatomy lesson,” Abshier said.
He and his fellow cadets started learning about deer inside and out — literally.
“They had a white-tailed deer, and we started the necropsy. We went through the four chambers of the stomach, the intestines, the lymph nodes, learning every step of the way,” he said. “Instructors really challenge cadets to get involved learning about the species right off the bat. Camp is not about watching PowerPoint presentations. They give you a pair of rubber gloves and it is hands-on learning.”
Camp fun builds career skills
That first experience was transformative for Abshier.
“I was pretty young and timid going to camp. But let me tell you, by the end of camp, I was talking to everybody,” he said. “The program really taught me, as a young person, how to get out of my comfort zone. It also gave me the opportunity to interact with wildlife professionals and participate in fieldwork at a fairly young age. I firmly believe that Brigades is what got me to where I am, career-wise.”
A poignant example of this might sound familiar to many high school kids.
“On day two or three of camp, we had the opportunity to be interviewed on camera. I wanted no part of that as I stood in the back of the group thinking, ‘Please don’t pick me,’” Abshier said.
“Little did I know that all these years later, interviews and public speaking would be part of my job,” he said. “Since then, I have presented wildlife topics at events, have been interviewed several times for news articles and even been videoed for TV shows.”
Getting cadets to come out of their shells and stretching their comfort zones is a big part of camp. But, according to Amanda Gobeli, project coordinator at the Texas A&M Natural Resources Institute and a camp leader for the Rolling Plains Bobwhite Brigade, camp is also about leaders sharing their energy and passion.
“One of my favorite parts as an instructor is getting kids really interested in quail or bugs or whatever it is we’re talking about that day,” she said.
“There’s always at least one kid who doesn’t have a strong background in any of these things, and they’re not super excited about it when they get there,” Gobeli said. “But our passion is almost contagious, and we can usually get them pretty invested in some element.”
Gobeli said it was through the passion and energy of the adults in her life as a young child that helped get her to where she is now.
“When I was that age, we did all that cool stuff outside, and that’s exactly how I got into this as a career path.”
Unique camp experience
There are many summer camps out there. To Abshier and Gobeli, the breadth and depth of topics Texas Brigades summer camps cover sets them apart.
“It is an exciting week very focused on that species and what it takes for that species to thrive in its environment,” Abshier said. “But it’s a lot broader than that theme species. It’s about learning habitat management and the history of conservation in Texas. And it’s about helping cadets see their full potential by providing them opportunities and skills to make a difference in their own future.”
Gobeli echoed this emphasis on life skills.
“The thing that really makes camp unique is the growth we see in the students. They come in and a lot of them are afraid of public speaking or the outdoors,” she said. “Pushing their boundaries and learning what they are really capable of is what makes these camps stand out.”
For Natalie Wolff, Texas Brigades’ executive director, it is all that and more. The melding of wildlife understanding, life skills lessons and the passion of the leaders means cadets will understand themselves better. And that makes these summer camps particularly special.
“You’re going to get all the summer camp feelings and friendships, but you’re also going to build your network and understand your passions better,” Wolff said.
“You’re going to find out what makes your heart tick to Nature.”