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Born This Way Foundation Prepares Young Activists

by Maya Enista Smith and Ross Szabo

When Lady Gaga was a young girl she used to love to escape to a camp in the Berkshires to connect with other people her age and find solace in having her differences understood. Now her foundation is giving youth from around the country a chance to do the same. Last week, Born This Way Foundation partnered with Camp Hi-Rock YMCA to host their first ever Born Brave Retreat.

Students ages 14 - 18 were chosen based on their experiences, volunteer activities and commitment to making a difference in their schools. Born This Way Foundation was looking for young people who could benefit from a chance to learn new skills to enhance their advocacy and find strength in a new community of peers.

Campers had a full week of exploring self-compassion, finding their voice, learning how to tell their story and becoming ambassadors for change. They also got a chance to enjoy the beauty of the Berkshires and get out of their comfort zones on a high ropes course, playing water sports or other activities. However, there was a large focus placed on helping them share their stories to empower others.

A workshop developed by Marc Brackett, director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence explained why “emotions matter” and helped participants to develop a “Charter” to create norms for the week. Marc feels social and emotional learning is as important as academic learning. He said, “How our youth feel influences just about everything – from learning to decision making to the quality of their relationships to their mental health. Training youth in the skills of social and emotional learning can help to ensure they reach their full potential.”

The campers utilized the Behind Happy Faces Mental Health Curriculum, created by the Human Power Project. The curriculum teaches vital lessons about how to manage mental wellness while taking on leadership roles. One of the most overlooked parts of being an effective leader is taking care of oneself. Ross Szabo and Zachary Kerr worked with the campers to help them decrease the stigma of mental illness, better understand their coping mechanisms and guide them on the best ways to share their personal stories. 

Microsoft conducted a workshop about online safety and the most up to date tips on how young people can protect themselves. The knowledge and stories campers shared was impressive as they face the realities of what can be a challenging new world dominated by social media.

The camp meant a lot to all of the participants. One camper from New Hampshire shared, “Entering the Born Brave Retreat I was nervous. Nervous that I would be the odd one out. Nervous that no one would understand me. Nervous that I would not be able to share my story. But after just one hour spent with the 29 other amazing individuals who were selected to attend camp all my fears went away. Over the past week I have made friendships that will last a lifetime and finally found my voice.”

Born This Way is looking to continue this retreat next year to help the next wave of advocates create a braver, kinder world.  To sign up and receive more information about next year’s camp, please email

Being online is a part of our daily lives. But are we doing all that we can each day to build a kinder, braver and safer (digital) world? Share your ideas and good habits #BTWFStories. 

Our Summer Born Brave Tour has started. Come join us:

  • August 16-17: Annapolis, MD, Westfield Annapolis
  • August 21-22: Massapequa, NY, Westfield Sunrise
  • August 23-24: Trumbull, CT, Westfield Trumbull
  • August 27: Syracuse, NY, NY State Fair
  • August 30-31: Philadelphia, PA, Made In America Festival
  • September 3: Columbia, MO, Take Action Festival @ U of Missouri College
  • September 19-20: Atlanta, GA, Music Midtown Festival

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