YMCA Camp Duncan: A century of fun, learning and global connection

Topic: Vision 2030 - Community Wellbeing

Date: 09 April 2024

The century-old camp participates globally through Campacity event


At the heart of YMCA Camp Duncan, just an hour north of Chicago, Illinois, USA,  lies a philosophy that transforms the traditional camp experience into an unforgettable adventure. 

Under the leadership of Bobby Thomas, who prefers the title “Expert Fun Haver” over Camp Executive Director, the camp has prioritises character-building, skill-learning, and pure enjoyment. Celebrating 103 years in operation, Camp Duncan has been where children and teens embark on the adventure of a lifetime within its expansive 700-hectare campus.

“Why do we do what we do”? Thomas asked. “Because we care. And we are making a difference.” 

This sentiment fuels a summer experience designed to leave kids and young people with a deeper respect for nature, enhanced self-esteem, and memories of new experiences. 

Camp Duncan up close

As a part of the YMCA of Metro Chicago, Camp Duncan offers day and overnight options for children aged 5 and up, featuring activities like canoeing, swimming, archery, and high ropes challenges. With 487 beds and more than 400 campers attending each week during summer, the camp’s growth is a testament to its enduring appeal. 

Camp Independence, which is now in its 11th year, shares the same campus alongside Camp Duncan. It provides overnight camping opportunities for people of all ages with spina bifida, a condition that affects the spine and is usually apparent at birth.

“Part of that programme is finding ways to get kids who may be in a wheelchair or have some mobility challenges out into nature and experiencing different things they might not have where they are from”, he said. “Being a part of large group activities with hundreds of people is very impactful for our campers. Everyone learns we are more alike than different”. 

Movement strengthening through international collaboration

In March 2023, Camp Duncan showcased its commitment to the global YMCA movement by hosting the Campacity International Conference. This event, organised by Y-USA and aimed at enhancing the YMCA camping movement in Europe with a focus on Ukraine, brought together participants from various US camps and six European YMCAs – Netherlands, Romania, Slovakia, Georgia, Spain and Ukraine. This initial event set a strong foundation and led to the implementation of 16 projects across Europe.

Building on the success of this initiative, the upcoming Campacity event in Toledo, Spain, held 15-21 April, promises to foster further international collaboration and knowledge sharing among up to 60 camp leaders. 

Learn more about this year’s event.

Additionally, Camp Duncan’s participation in the annual Mid America Camping Conference underscores its role in strengthening the YMCA Movement through community and global outreach.

Bobby recently accepted the role of Executive Director at YMCA Camp Cullen, part of YMCA of Greater Houston, which also supports refugee and international work. And he maintains his commitment to global collaboration.

“We’re proud to support camping not just in our backyard but worldwide,” Thomas shared, emphasising the importance of sharing the rich camping heritage of the US with the broader YMCA community. The goal is to extend the benefits of camping to youth and children worldwide, drawing on over a century of experience to assist regions with less established camping traditions.

Reflecting on the YMCA’s global impact, Thomas said, “I love that the YMCA seems to have something for everyone… you’d be hard pressed to find an age range that a YMCA doesn’t offer something.”