Reinventing Summer Camp—For Women

Tammi Leader Fuller saw a need for women to bond and play. After just 20 tries, she found the perfect formula

by Andrea Atkins
tammy leader fuller image
Leader Fuller, shown at her Malibu getaway, welcomed 350 women to her camps around the country last year.
Photograph: Catherine Ledner

It’s day three at Campowerment, a retreat for women in Malibu, California, and Tammi Leader Fuller, the founder, is coaching one of her campers on the high ropes. The course is an athletic and psychological challenge, designed to help participants overcome fear. Strapped into a safety harness, the camper climbs a series of metal pegs sticking out of a 35-foot telephone pole rigged up on a grassy knoll. She hoists herself onto the top of the pole, a flat surface about the size of a dinner plate. From here she must leap toward a trapeze dangling six feet away and grab the bar. “Take your time,” calls Leader Fuller, watching from below. “Open up and feel your emotion. You can do this.” But the camper, a 44-year-old single mom, is too scared to leave her perch. She begins to shake and then to sob.

Leader Fuller has seen people freeze on the pole before. But she’s also witnessed amazing breakthroughs: the woman who realized she needed to leave her toxic boyfriend; the woman who owned up to an eating disorder and swore she’d never weigh herself again. “Your future is in front of you, Laurie,” she continues. “You’re stepping into the new life that you want to create. Jump only when you’re ready to leave your past behind and leap into your future.” Laurie jumps, to the cheers of her fellow campers.

On the surface, Campowerment looks like a grownup version of kids’ summer camp, with fireside sing-alongs and games (some of them slightly racy) and s’mores. The women sleep in bunk beds, eight to 12 per cabin, with a shared bathroom. But the retreat, offered several times a year at locations in California, New York, Pennsylvania and Florida, is also about growing and reinventing. There are workshops with health, relationship and productivity experts, and sharing circles in which the women can unburden their souls.

Leader Fuller, a former Emmy Award–winning TV producer, had long wanted to recapture the camaraderie of her childhood summers at Camp Akiba, in Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains. But the idea of creating a similar getaway for adults didn’t gel until Leader Fuller coauthored a collection of essays titled Dish & Tell: 
Life, Love and Secrets with five friends who called themselves the Miami Bombshells (they lived in the Miami area at the time). The book, which grew out of their regular gatherings, landed the women on the Today show. After the broadcast, they received so many emails from women wanting to get together with other women that the Miami Bombshells’ website crashed. “We should take these women to camp!” said Leader Fuller. The others agreed. While still running her own TV-­production company, Leader Fuller began to make arrangements.

Camp Bombshell debuted six months later, over a weekend in September 2005. On the last night, the 45 campers performed a special ritual, tossing pieces of cardboard on which they’d written their worries into a bonfire. Before the end, several women pulled Leader Fuller aside to tell her how amazing the experience had been. But Camp Bombshell did not make a profit; it cost the women $25,000 to produce and brought in only $13,000. Still, Leader Fuller felt she had touched a nerve and wanted to organize more camps. Over the next three years, she and one of her coauthors, Patricia San Pedro, produced 17 camps around the country. Only one turned a profit.

By 2009, Leader Fuller’s television work had dried up. When she got a call offering her a senior-producer spot on a new show called Dr. Drew’s Lifechangers, she accepted. A single mom, Leader Fuller packed up her younger daughter, then a senior in high school (her older daughter was already in college), and moved to Los Angeles, where the show would be filmed.

First published in the July/August 2014 issue

Share Your Thoughts!