CAMP Rehoboth Reaches Milestone Anniversary

A town for all families: CAMP Rehoboth celebrates 25 years of opening doors for gays at the beach.

In 1990, Steve Elkins and Murray Archibald noticed a number of bumper stickers around Rehoboth Beach that read: “Keep Rehoboth a Family Town!” The couple, who’d been coming to the beach town for more than 10 years, read between the lines. Rehoboth was becoming a destination for gays from D.C., New York and Philadelphia. “We wanted to point out that we, too, wanted it to be a family town, but…families come in all shapes, sizes and orientations,” Elkins says.

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The partners founded CAMP (Creating A More Positive) Rehoboth to improve relationships between merchants, residents, tourists, politicians and police officers. They wanted to “build a safer and more inclusive community with room for all,” according to their mission statement. Rehoboth, which is from the Bible and means “room for all,” was originally founded as a Methodist camp meeting site. In the past 25 years, CAMP has grown from a one-person staff with an annual budget of less than $50,000 to a staff of seven with an annual budget of more than $1 million. It’s expanded from a tiny space on Baltimore Avenue to a community center complex. And its publication, Letters from CAMP Rehoboth, has swelled from four pages to more than 120.

“It’s been interesting to watch them evolve,” says state Sen. Karen E. Peterson. “They are not in your face—that’s not how they operate. They respectfully approach those who might not agree with them. They’re effective advocates, and as Rehoboth has grown, they’ve grown with it.” That growth, however, has presented CAMP Rehoboth with both opportunities and challenges.

An island of tolerance

CAMP Rehoboth was once an “island of tolerance in a sea of homophobia,” Elkins told The Advocate, a national news magazine. He recalls when men once ran into the Blue Moon restaurant, known for its gay clientele, to savagely rip a sink off a bathroom wall. That vandalism was minor compared to a spring night in 1993, when five men attacked gay men on the boardwalk. Taunts quickly turned to violence, leaving one of the victims with only partial use of one arm and a hole in his head. “It was one of those defining moments,” says Elkins. “We were fortunate to have a police chief [Creig Doyle] who was willing to stand up with us to tell the Chamber of Commerce and the City Council that we were not going to sweep this kind of crime under the covers.”

Elkins—who became CAMP’s executive director in 1993 when the original director, Jim Bahr, moved to Australia—began conducting sensitivity training sessions for city and park police. Fay Jacobs, a frequent writer for Letters from CAMP Rehoboth, later joined him. “When we first asked people how many in the room knew someone who was gay, hardly anyone raised a hand,” she says. “Now some young recruits not only raise a hand, they say that they’re gay.”

In the early days, the recruits had a lot of questions. What should they do if a gay man whistled at them? “Take it as a compliment,” Jacobs told them. And if someone complained to them about two women holding hands? “There’s nothing illegal about what they’re doing,” Jacobs replied. “Treat us like everyone else. If we need help, help us. If we are doing something wrong, cite us. We’re no different than you are.”

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Along with equality, AIDS topped the organization’s agenda. Services still include health testing (in partnership with Beebe Healthcare), HIV prevention, education and sexual health counseling. CAMP also sponsors a candlelight walk and service on World AIDS Day (Dec. 1). Participating for the first time meant a lot to Kathy Wiz, whose brother died of AIDS. In 2011, Wiz, now a board member, helped start the Broadwalk on the Boardwalk to benefit the Delaware Breast Cancer Coalition. The event is part of CAMP’s Women’s FEST, a conference with workshops, activities and entertainment, which has helped introduce more women to CAMP Rehoboth, she says.

Photograph by Maria Deforrest

Partners Steve Elkins (left) and Murray Archibald founded CAMP Rehoboth 25 years ago.


This year’s Sundance benefit will be held Sept. 5-6.

Active, patient advocates

CAMP representatives are familiar faces in Dover’s government buildings, and their efforts have been rewarded. On July 2, 2009, Gov. Jack Markell signed a law to guarantee civil rights for all Delawareans, and he did so at CAMP Rehoboth. Elkins had been working with others for the passage of the legislation since 1997. “It was one of the highlights of my career,” he says of the ceremony.

CAMP, along with other organizations, lobbied for civil unions, which led to the same-sex marriage bill. Chris Beagle, now vice president of the board, became an active volunteer during the lobbying. He wrote a column on the civil union effort for Letters from CAMP Rehoboth, ran phone banks and accompanied Elkins to town-hall meetings. “I talked to hundreds if not thousands of people,” he says. “It was encouraging.”

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When the law allowing same-sex marriage was passed in 2013, Beagle and Eric Engelhart, who met in college, became the first gay married couple in Sussex County at CAMP Rehoboth. The men were interviewed on TV and for print. “I get very emotional about it,” Beagle says. “We never thought we’d have this right in our lifetime.”

Facing the future

Few would argue that relations between the LGBT and general communities have greatly improved in 25 years. While AIDS is still a real concern, there are people living full lives with HIV, and that stigma has eased. Along with an increase in women, the organization has attracted heterosexuals, both as members and event attendees. That’s particularly true of the CAMP Rehoboth Chorus, which recently celebrated its sixth season and now has 80 members. (The new CAMP Chorus Ensemble is an 18-member auditioned group.) 

CAMP Rehoboth works with other organizations on such issues as poverty and bullying, which cross genders, incomes and sexual orientations. “We help with church projects, Habitat for Humanity, library book sales—whether it’s with volunteers and physical support or advertising in Letters from CAMP [Rehoboth],” says Natalie Moss, who’s been involved with the organization as a bookkeeper and board member for more than 20 years.

Beagle, a real estate agent who books CAMP’s space for meetings, says the organization is now “a community center in the truest sense of the word.” Yet, there are still concerns. “We’ve accomplished more than we ever thought possible, but things can change fast,” Elkins says. He points to legislation in other states that would require blood tests before marriage, possibly to target people with HIV.  Businesses that use religion as a means to discriminate are another worry. Lately, transgressions against the transgender community have made national press.

CAMP also is looking to youth, not only to help teens and twentysomethings with coming out, but also to swell its ranks. Many CAMP volunteers and members are over 40. Someone has to carry on the torch, Beagle says. Moss agrees. “We’re all getting older, and we want people to take over the reins. Wiz would like to see more ethnic diversity in the group. It would benefit from every color in the rainbow, she quips.

Wiz first visited Rehoboth in 1997, when she and her wife were en route from Rockland County, N.Y., to Myrtle Beach. They made a pit stop upon a friend recommendation, and they fell in love with Rehoboth and CAMP Rehoboth. They moved there full time in 2008. The environment in which CAMP was created was pretty much one of hate and fear, she says. CAMP responded with love and inclusivity. CAMP is one reason why Rehoboth is unique…it’s beautiful.

Celebrating 25 Years

CAMP Rehoboth is holding a number of events this year to celebrate its 25th anniversary.

Well-Strung, a singing string quartet, will perform on July 25 at the Rehoboth Convention Center.

The Sundance benefit, an auction and dance, is scheduled for Sept. 5-6.

CAMP Rehoboth’s 25th Anniversary Gala is on the calendar for Oct. 9-11. It will include a dinner dance, open house and block party.

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