(RNS) — After nearly four decades, a summer camp for Hindu children and teens has a permanent home.
On Saturday (Nov. 18), the Hindu Heritage Youth Camp, the predominant Hindu summer program based in Houston, officially began construction of the Texas Hindu Campsite on a 52-acre plot of land.
While construction was delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the campsite is set to open for a new round of campers by the summer of 2024, just one year before the camp’s 40-year anniversary.
“This will unite the Hindu community,” said Vijay Pallod, a longtime volunteer of HHYC and founder of hindusofhouston.org. “This is where the future Hindu leaders are going to come from.”
Saturday’s Bhumi Pujan, or ground-breaking ritual to Mother Earth, was attended by members of various Hindu religious organizations, among them priests from the 45 temples in the greater Houston area who blessed the land.
This Bhumi Pujan meant even more to volunteers like Pallod, whose wife and children have been heavily involved with the camp since the ’90s. To them, the dream of having a space just for the needs of Hindu youth has finally been realized.
“Our youth are not going to the temple as my generation are,” said Pallod. “But they will go to camp.”
There’s a reason that hundreds of kids flock to the HHYC every year. Uniquely, this is a space for American Hindus by American Hindus — run entirely by the second generation, many of whom were campers themselves.
From daily yoga to mini festivals like Holi, the camp centers on approachable Hinduism: life lessons that are deeply spiritual just as much as they are fun. Philosophical discussions on Hindu values don’t come without at least one reference to pop culture, says Bharat Pallod, Vijay’s 34-year-old son.
“When you’re learning from your peers, people who have grown up with the same life experiences as you, you’re way more engaged in the whole process,” said Bharat, who started attending the camp as a second grader. “The kids understand better how we want to see Hinduism.”
When the camp started, it was difficult to get 90 campers to commit to a weeklong event. Now, HHYC no longer has to advertise or recruit children. The coveted 200 slots fill up almost immediately, leaving 400 more kids on the waitlist.
“We’ve had the demand, we just needed the supply,” said Bharat, who led the charge to find HHYC’s permanent home.
But the search did not come without its own challenges.
For more than 20 years, HHYC was held at a Houston-area Jewish summer camp. When that campground was suddenly sold a few years ago, Bharat became head of the HHYC’s steering committee, which has scrambled every year since to find a suitable temporary location.
One Christian camp accepted hosting the Hindu campers — on the condition that there would be no idol worship and no group prayer and that an allotted 15 minutes each day would be dedicated for staff to share the gospel of Jesus Christ.
“The more we grow as a population, the more people question whether or not we should be spreading our religion on their turf,” said Bharat. “That was the most important reason why we needed our own campsite.”
When Subhash and Sarojini Gupta started the camp in 1985, they could not predict the scale at which the Hindu community would grow, especially in the Houston area.
In the ’80s, Hindu immigrants to the U.S. faced difficult questions about how to retain a Hindu identity for their children, who, they felt, were quickly assimilating into the American way of life.
Holding a summer camp, they said, was the perfect way to ensure the youth would remain in the Hindu fold.
“Promoting Hindu values: That was our main motive,” said Sarojini, “not only for this generation, but for many more to come.”
Since then, the couple has been inundated with calls every year from parents and children who are upset about not making the year’s camp roster. So in 2019, the couple decided it was time to do something about it.
The Guptas donated almost 2 million dollars to the Texas Hindu Campsite project, ensuring the land would be secured for the vision they had from the beginning.
“We thought this was our duty, our dharma, to provide a better future for our young kids,” said Subhash, who has held leadership roles in prominent Hindu organizations, such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America and Ekal Vidyalaya, “which, in turn, provides a better future for us parents and grandparents.”
But while the camp has been thriving, they said, members of the Hindu community were hesitant for many years to donate money to a permanent campsite. These families, they said, were more likely to monetarily support their local temples and didn’t necessarily see the value in a short-term youth program.
Now, the couple says, Hindu parents are realizing how important it is to have a space just for young American Hindus to indulge in their unique cultural and religious heritage.
And critically, they say, these children gain a sense of independence, an attitude of service and lifelong friends from the experience.
“This is what made us give all that we are,” said Subhash, “because we are really convinced about the transformation it is making.”
The camp will now be able to host many more children and counselors on their site, which is slated to include cabins, a kitchen, a mess hall, a swimming pool, a community garden and an outdoor amphitheater.
And the Texas Hindu Campsite won’t just be used for one summer camp — those involved expect the campsite to be used by Hindu organizations nationwide, from spiritual retreats for big-name CEOs to practical academic courses from the Hindu University of America.
“I have always maintained that this is a place for every Hindu,” said Subhash. “We need to work together,” added Sarojini.
And for the thousands of former campers who have come through HHYC, many of them have gone on to become integral parts of Hindu organizations like Sewa International and the Hindu American Foundation. And some, like Bharat, have transitioned from camper to counselor to director, all in the hopes of giving back to the camp that shaped their Hindu belonging.
“For these kids, most of them grew up not having any Hindu friends,” said Bharat. “Now they’re saying, ‘look at all of these other kids that are my age, they’re American, they’re cool and they’re also proud to be Hindu.’”