Punk icons Husker Du’s classic song “Celebrate Summer” brings back the joyful and youthful exuberance that the warmer months brought. There seemed to be no rules or boundaries to what you could do. For some young women, that includes starting their own band.
Every summer since 2008, Girls Rock! DC has provided a unique experience for a summer camp in the city. For one week, girls between the ages of eight to 18 are given instruments to learn, bond with fellow musicians and are introduced to new musical genres. The best part of all for these young women is getting the chance to bring their skills together in a big showcase that takes place at the end of their camp experience. Past showcases have been held at major music venues around the D.C. area, including the 9:30 Club. Thanks to local donors and volunteers, the camp provides these girls with guitars, drums and DJ equipment.
Campers are also given additional classes on the business side of music-from handling band merchandise and promotion to conflict resolution.
For Michelle “Shelly” Rush, one of the organization’s longest serving members, the camp is something bigger than a week of socializing for these young girls. Along with a passion for music, Rush says that the summer camp mission is to provide a space to build community and improve self-esteem.
“Just seeing the opportunity for girls to have their voice be heard and to actually have an opportunity to get instruments in [their] hands that are loud is an amazing experience,” Rush says. “[It’s also] the opportunity to create something completely their own,” she further adds.
While attending law school in Ohio, Rush came to the D.C. area in the early 2000’s for an internship. She soon got involved with the local arts scene and was inspired by its DIY ethics. After her experience at LadyFest in 2002, a week-long festival that celebrated local women artists, Rush says that a group had the idea of putting on a summer camp for girls.
It wasn’t until 2007, after Rush came back from New York’s Willie Mae Rock Camp, that she and a team of volunteers became more motivated to bring their ideas to life.
Rush has been extremely proud of the growth that she has seen over the last five years and the friendships that have fostered over time.
“The campers have definitely developed relationships that will last,” she says, along with the impact the camp has on volunteers. “Most of us said ‘Oh My God, I wish I had this when I was a kid!’”
While most of the campers don’t have a background in music, this hasn’t stifled new faces from joining, as the many of the volunteers are engaged with education or youth work. That, along with great word of mouth, has helped to build the camp’s attendance, which also includes community volunteers and parents. Classes offered at the camp have now diversified to reflect this growth, with additional workshops that provide parents the training to support their child’s music career.
The Girls Rock! Staff also has a more active role when it comes performance time, Rush says. Last year, a Go-Go band played during one lunch period, which soon lead to the workshop “Instructor A-Go-Go,” where volunteers get to perform with their bands.
“One of the reasons I love D.C. is because people care about this stuff,” Rush adds. “[And it’s like] ‘Yes, of course you can do this, and we are going to be supportive of you’” Rush also says it’s amazing to see campers grow as musicians and start their own projects.
With Girls Rock! being an all-volunteer based organization, they continue to expand their opportunities for girls to play music throughout the year, most recently opening up an instrument lending library for campers to practice at home. With plans to also have more sessions of the camp, Rush is looking forward to the camp and the community it builds and a celebrated summer every year.
Rush recalls the amazement she felt during her initial Girls Rock! showcase. “The first year, I just sat back and was watching the bands perform and it was like ‘Wow! This is happening.'”, and for Rush, the feeling has lingered every week for the last five years.