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Nation’s oldest Korean summer camp helps kids explore heritage, find community


Summer camp means many things to campers, outdoor fun or just a chance to get away from parents and siblings.

For kids who come to Sae Jong Camp on Higgins Lake, it is also chance to be with others who share their heritage.

Sae Jong Camp is the nation's oldest continuously running Korean-American overnight summer camp.

It's held each year at Camp Westminster in Roscommon drawing campers from all around the country. This year marks the 44th anniversary of Sae Jong Camp.

Doug Kim is the director of Sae Jong Camp. Kyle Chang is a graduate student at University of Michigan School of Information who spent 17 years at the Sae Jong Camp, first as a camper and then as a counselor. Kim and Chang joined Stateside’s Cynthia Canty to discuss the history and importance of Sae Jong Camp. 

Kyle Chang
Credit Gabrielle Horton / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Kyle Chang

Sae Jong Camp formed as an outgrowth of the Sae Jong school, a Saturday morning Korean language and culture school. It was founded by a group of Korean mothers in 1971. The school was held in Westminster Church in Detroit, but the church also happened to have a campground on Higgins Lakes. 

In 1976, Kim’s parents were able to persuade the church to let them use their campgrounds for one week of the summer and that's how Sae Jong Camp was born. 

“My parent's generation felt that it was particularly important that their children and their progeny understand and take pride in being Korean because my parent's generation lived through the Japanese occupation which lasted from 1910 to 1945,” Kim said. “And the latter half of that occupation was largely about cultural genocide in Korea.” 

The main purpose of the camp is for children and young adults to better understand their Korean heritage and make lifelong friends. Kim breaks the mission of the camp down into three goals. 

The first is to bring together Korean-American children, whether they were adopted or raised by one or two Korean parents. The second is to provide children with role models who look like them and come from the same culture, and the third is to present children with positive and accurate information about being Korean. 

Chang said Sae Jong Camp provided all of these things for him. 

Chang was born with a congenital birth defect that was inoperable in Korea. At two months old, he was adopted by American parents of Italian and Polish descent and raised in Macomb County as Kyle DiMaggio. 

When he was growing up, Chang said he could count the number of people who looked like him in his community on a single hand. When he began kindergarten, he started to notice the difference between his peers and himself, and sometimes felt like an outsider. Then he came to the Sae Jong Camp. 

Credit Sae Jung Camp
Sae Jung Camp

“It was the first time I was in an environment where I was surrounded by people that looked like me. And that in and of itself brought down barriers to getting to know the people that were around,” Chang said. “Knowing that they looked like me, had similar experiences based on how they looked in the outside world, being able to connect with them without having to get over the hurdle of race or my appearance is what made a huge difference in my ability to create close relationships." 

Chang left camp more confident in himself and in his Korean heritage, and that's what brought him back year after year. 

“Through my camp experience, and the relationships that I formed there, it gave me a healthier sense of what it meant to be Asian-American in a general sense and Korean-American in a more specific sense,” Chang said. 

This post was written by Stateside production assistant Sophie Sherry. 

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