Back for its third year, Kindom Camp is providing a much-needed safe space for LGBTQ youth

MELISSA WHITLER | Dallas Voice Fellow

If you’re looking for an affirming summer camp for your LGBTQ child between the ages of 12 and 17, look no further than Kindom Camp, which has expanded to include four locations this summer: Texas, Illinois, Nevada and Indiana.

Kindom was founded by Pepa Paniagua as a queer-led space to cultivate belonging and celebration. It was inspired by Cuban-American theologian Ada María Isasi-Díaz, who introduced an alternative conception of kingdom.

“Kindom” is the full inclusion and relationship of all God’s people, seeking to create a new faith community defined by radical inclusion rather than dominate religious narratives. Kindom Community is a space for people of all backgrounds and is very sensitive to those who have experienced religious trauma. Adherence to any particular faith tradition is not expected or required, making Kindom a place where all can come as they are and be met with community.

The past two summer camps led by Paniagua have been incredibly transformative and impactful, according to those who have participated. They’ve had campers come in from all over, spanning the whole spectrum of sexualities and genders. Campers at Kindom are able to make friends here in this safe and sacred space, where they can show up fully, in a way they can’t in their schools and communities. One counselor described it as “a radically life-changing experience,” made more impactful because campers get to share the week with a cabin full of other kids exploring these same emotions and questions.

The second year of Kindom saw lots of returning of campers and a number of first timers. But counselors noted that returning campers did not clique up and were welcoming and inclusive to new kids. The connections made at camp are strong, as kids are often dealing with life and death issues and recognize the hurt and need in one another.

Part of the mission of Kindom is to continue the community outside of camp. One counselor has a group chat from their cabin last year that still has messages sent in it every day. These kids are still as invested and caring for the lives of one another just as they were over the summer.

Kindom also does work to support camp families in between summer sessions.

This past October, Paniagua stepped down from her position as executive director, making room for Dr. John Leedy to step into the role. Dr. Leedy first met Paniagua back in 2007, and, from his home in Austin, followed the development of Kindom online. Two years after coming out as bisexual, Dr. Leedy was invited by Paniagua to be a camp counselor.

“She told me this would be a place you would feel comfortable living your full self out loud,” Dr. Leedy said. “This was my first indication that Kindom was something different, a place where people can live fully into who they are.”

Dr. Leedy described his first Kindom Camp experience as “a week that was a miracle on earth.” He said he experienced firsthand how meaningful this camp was both for the youth and for the adult counselors. In a state that is so actively hostile to LGBTQ people — especially trans, youth — the space created at Kindom was, in many ways, lifesaving. The staff care a lot about this work, and the campers are able to experience a truly affirming space.

One of the most notable aspects of Kindom is its commitment to radical inclusion. “We want to be able to welcome and celebrate everything these young people bring with them,” explained Dr. Leedy. Their large support staff includes licensed professional counselors, as well as medical staff who are fully knowledgeable about trans adolescent health care.

For many campers, this is the first time they’ve been in a fully safe and affirming environment, and Kindom ensures everything is done safely and handled with the utmost care. Several attending campers are neurodivergent, so Kindom ensures there is a sensory room set up. Dietary needs are accommodated in every way, from sensory-aware options to any individual restrictions.

John & Pepa

Dr. Leedy recalled that, last year, one of the campers was a young Jewish girl who was celebrating a fasting holiday for the duration of camp. She informed the staff of this on the first day of camp, and they worked with their medical team to create a plan that allowed her to practice her faith fully, stay safe and still have the summer camp experience.

The goal is to craft a space that is not just tolerant but celebratory of diversity. Campers come from diverse racial and religious backgrounds, and 51 percent of campers have received scholarships to attend.

A majority of the staff identifies as part of the LGBTQ community, which allows kids to see that it is possible to survive long enough to become a queer adult.

Intersectionality is emphasized in staff training, and the camper/staff ratio is 2:1.

The second year of camp, Paniagua approached Dr. Leedy and let him know she would be stepping down at Kindom and taking a full-time position at Grace Presbytery. Dr. Leedy had since become an associate pastor at Hope Presbyterian Church in Austin, but Paniagua let him know the board of directors was considering him as her successor.

“A thousand barriers came up in my mind at that moment,” Dr. Leedy said. He was married, had two kids and was working full time. But that night when he talked with his wife, she told him not to let logistics get in the way of a good idea. It didn’t take long to realize this was Dr. Leedy’s dream job, and he decided to give it a shot.

Thus began a season of transition. With Paniagua as the original visionary, Dr. Leedy continues her legacy and is working to build a sturdy, sustainable structure that will last. “Kindom community is growing and expanding,” Dr. Leedy commented, “And my goal is to make sure the organization infrastructure is able to sustain this energy.”

This summer, Kindom has expanded to support four summer camps across different states. The organization partners with the local communities and provides programing and curriculum, as well as assistance with hiring and running the first year of camp. But the ultimate goal is self-sustaining Kindom communities that rely on local support.

“We want Kindom communities to be planted and grow up around these camp experiences,” Dr. Leedy said. “We want to help create brave spaces marked by love and diversity, spaces that can thrive without us having to be there.”

The Kindom Camp at Lake Tahoe, Nev., is an example of one of these growing communities. This will be their second year hosting camp at Zephyr Point, and local leadership is creating the community their campers desire. The fact that camp is being hosted there a second time is an indication that something has begun growing at Zephyr Point.

Of course, running such an organization requires a lot of outside support. Operating an LGBTQ camp in the state of Texas means being very strategic and intentional in advertising and spreading information. Safety of campers is always the first priority, so Kindom ensures that the location of the Texas camp is not publicized anywhere online. They rely heavily on word of mouth for information about the camp to reach those who need it.

Maintaining a sustainable organization also requires a lot of fundraising. Earlier this year Dr. Leedy published a letter honestly sharing about the financial state of Kindom. Meant to motivate action, the letter let the public know the organization was struggling with a lack of donations and was, thus, facing an uncertain future.

And the community responded. Within a month, more than $11,500 had been donated, and their number of recurring monthly donators more than doubled. The work Kindom is doing resonates outside of the organization.

There are ways that everyone can help, from financial support to volunteering to just spreading the word. For those looking to support LGBTQ youth, more information can be found on at the Kindom website. And registration for this summer’s camps have already opened, so those interested in attending need to act quickly before spots fill up.

Registration for the July 21-26 Texas Kindom Camp closes June 30. For more information visit to

This story is part of the Digital Equality Local Voices Fellowship lab. The lab initiative is made possible with support from Comcast NBC Universal.