Tending an Oasis by Wesley Combs
When I tell someone I am on the board of CAMP Rehoboth, there are two types of responses. For those who are unfamiliar with the center, they usually ask, “What’s that?” This is my favorite one because it gives me an opportunity to talk about the amazing services CAMP Rehoboth provides to LGBTQ+ people as well as those living in greater Sussex County.
If they know CAMP Rehoboth, most times I hear “That’s great. CAMP is the heart of our community.” This immediately brings a smile to my face because this describes the very vision co-founders Murray Archibald and Steve Elkins had for CAMP Rehoboth from the beginning. In fact, our logo—a big red heart inside the outline of a home sitting on what looks like a foundation of rainbow building blocks—embodies this theme perfectly and was designed by Murray himself. To me, those blocks are our donors, volunteers, staff, board, and many other supporters who are working together to make this house a home.
I googled the old proverb “home is where the heart is,” and learned variations have been in use since ancient times. The definition on theidioms.com resonated with me the most: “The phrase means that no matter who you are with or where you are in the world, your family and home always have the deepest affection and emotional pull. It is the place where you have a foundation of love, warmth, and happy memories. It might not always be the building itself but being near your loved ones.”
When I first started coming to Rehoboth in 1987, it was a refuge for LGBTQ people where we could escape discrimination and rejection to find serenity alongside others going through the same thing. This is also when CAMP Rehoboth as we know it became more than just a dream.
In 1991, CAMP Rehoboth purchased a building located at 39 Baltimore Avenue which is the structure on the left side of the courtyard. Not only did it serve as CAMP’s office, but founders Steve and Murray lived in an apartment on the second floor.
As you might expect, it became a place where their friends congregated to socialize, celebrate, and support each other. It is important to remember that the AIDS epidemic was ravaging our community at the time, so this core group also came here to provide care for the sick as well as to mourn those who lost the battle.
To understand what drew LGBTQ people to our nation’s summer capital, all you had to do was drop in and look around. You would immediately feel welcome among a few staff and lots of volunteers involved in a flurry of activities with a shared purpose: creating a more positive Rehoboth inclusive of all sexual orientations and gender identities.
Remember those building blocks? While we had yet to purchase the property next door and create a true community center, we had already accomplished an important goal: turning a so-called house into a home, where people felt safe and where they belonged.
What had been a disparate collection of souls who shared similar values, customs, norms, and identity had now become a community composed of individuals from all walks of life and with unique expertise. When you have a bunch of people who feel a sense belonging and connection, there is nothing they will not do for each other.
Fast forward to 2022, and the upcoming Women’s FEST is a perfect example of how our staff and a group of passionate supporters come together to help fulfill our purpose—promoting community well-being on all levels. This is what a community center is all about.
What began in 2001 as a half-day event attended by 75 women is now a four-day celebration attracting close to 2,000 participants. There is truly something for everyone, ranging from informative keynote presentations by speakers like Delaware State Senator Marie Pinkney; the new Director of Statewide Equity Initiatives for Delaware, Saundra Johnson; and another friend and pioneer, Selisse Berry, the founding Executive Director of Out and Equal Workplace Advocates.
Of course, I will be cheering on the competitors at the pickleball and cornhole tournaments as well as checking out the Women’s FEST 2022 art exhibit featuring works by local women artists. I may even brush off my cowboy boots when country superstar Chely Wright takes the stage at Friday night’s headline concert. Tickets are selling fast so make sure to visit the CAMP Rehoboth webpage for the complete schedule and more information.
None of this would have been possible without an amazing committee composed of staff, volunteers, and board members under the leadership of co-chairs Lisa Soens, Hope Vella, and Teri Seaton. On behalf of the board of directors, thank you for the time and energy you have given to help CAMP Rehoboth make this year’s Women’s FEST one to remember. ▼
Wesley Combs is CAMP Rehoboth Board President.