We begin at the end: Parents and their children are headed down the long winding road that leads away from Kings Canyon National Park, a national treasure that protects some of the last groves of Giant Sequoia Trees in California’s Sierra Nevada mountain range. The mood is relaxed, enlightened, and maybe even a little sad - because it is hard to say goodbye to new friends and so much natural beauty. Each person in the car has had the opportunity to discover and develop their passions, to build community with new friends from distant lands, and to connect with nature in a way that invites inspiration and introspection. Whether they know it or not, a special seed has been planted within them--a desire to learn more about the world around them, a motivation to continue a journey of personal exploration, the confidence to develop newfound strengths, and the growing light of empowerment that comes from being newly planted in the rich soils of a nurturing community.
The Pony Barnes Foundation was born out of a profound appreciation for the impact camp experiences can have on the lives of youth and their families. Through our own experiences as former campers and counselors--and as LGBTQ+ community members and allies--we understand the power of learning and reflecting together, building community, and connecting in the outdoors. We believe that every individual is a seed that deserves to bloom into their true human potential.
Our story begins where many of our team came to understand our own potential, Montecito Sequoia camp programs, founded by Dr. Virginia “Pony” Barnes near the heart of Sequoia National Park. It is the lifework of Dr. Pony Barnes and her transformative programs at Montecito that form the bedrock of our organization. It is also what inspires our deep motivation to ensure these experiences are available to the LGBTQ+ community which too often lacks intentional and supportive spaces like these to grow and thrive.
Dr. Pony Barnes founded Montecito Sequoia in the late 1950s with her father, Dr. Homer Barnes. Across the camp’s evolution from a residential camp for boys to an empowering space for young girls, and to the highly successful family camp it is today, Dr. Pony Barnes designed and implemented programs that allowed participants to cultivate leadership skills, engage in personal growth, and build an everlasting community. She inspired in staff and guests a true love of learning and a curiosity to explore deeper, more authentic versions of themselves.
Her methods were rooted in educational theory, as well as her own key principles in delivering truly life-changing programs. Through her programs, staff and guests were immersed in transformative learning experiences, encouraged to reach new levels of human potential, foster meaningful relationships, and build confidence in their own self-expression and individual leadership style.
In 2016, as Pony approached her 93rd birthday, she wished to continue inspiring the love of learning for generations to come and ensuring these nourishing experiential learning environments were available to those who stand to benefit from them most. Working closely with her protégés and dear friends, Pony dedicated her financial and energetic resources to the formation of the Pony Barnes Foundation in 2019. After Pony’s passing in 2020, the Foundation’s Board of Directors developed a strategy to sustain and expand the impact of her life’s work.
ROOTS IN MONTECITO SEQUOIA
BUILDING LGBTQ+ INCLUSION & BELONGING
Thanks to Dr. Virginia "Pony" Barnes, our team understands the enduring influence a camp experience can have on an individual’s ability to grow, build community, and connect to greater purpose. We believe in ensuring these transformational programs are available to everyone, especially those who can benefit most from supportive environments like these.
A vast majority of LGBTQ+ individuals fight upstream throughout their lives for safety, equity, and acceptance in a world that too often sends the message: it is not okay to be who you are. This is particularly true for transgender and nonbinary people of color, who face additional experiences of discrimination due to multiple and intersecting marginalized identities. While significant progress has been made to change our prevailing norms, laws, and policies around LGBTQ+ identity, affirming spaces are too few and far between, especially those intentionally positioned to support LGBTQ+ youth and their families in connecting, learning, and growing together.
Research consistently demonstrates that supportive environments can dramatically reduce anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation in LGBTQ+ individuals. Furthermore, these spaces can foster well-being, personal growth, and the critical ability to thrive through exploring the nuances and intersections around LGBTQ+ identity, developing lasting community connections, and learning the value and strength in authenticity.
Throughout the country, there are a variety of experiential learning camps and programs intentionally designed to cultivate these outcomes for LGBTQ+ youth and their families. At The Pony Barnes Foundation, we are committed to carrying on the legacy of Dr. Virginia “Pony” Barnes by supporting these key programs, ensuring they reflect and embrace the incredible diversity of the LGBTQ+ community, and creating greater accessibility so that all LGBTQ+ youth and families are able to experience environments in which they can truly belong and thrive.