Camp Indecon: An Interview with Hannelore Bugby

Camp Indecon is a week-long summer program that teaches children logical thinking, independence, and confidence. Its creator speaks to the Atlasphere.

Hannelore Bugby is a long-time Rand admirer and an accomplished businesswoman. After early stints in advertising and commercial photography, she started the nation’s largest pet hotel in the late seventies, and later helped develop the nation’s first one-stop, all-purpose pet care facility, Petropolis.

In 1998, Hannelore created Camp Indecon with the goal of teaching young children logical thinking, independence, and self-confidence.

Staffed by Montessori teachers, the one-week camp offers children ages ten through seventeen an opportunity to enjoy intense intellectual stimulation, engage in a variety of recreational activities, and make new and lasting friendships.

Andrew Schwartz of the Atlasphere had the opportunity to speak with Hannelore about Camp Indecon’s goals, the camp’s methods, and the challenges and rewards of working with children.

The Atlasphere: Why did you create Camp Indecon?

Hannelore Bugby: There were several reasons, the main one being that all independent-thinking organizations that I had been familiar with were geared to the adult. My personal opinion is that we lose too many potential independent thinkers between the time they're born and the time they start formally learning to think in high school, or more likely in college.

So I was trying to figure out a way to get children to learn a bit of logical thinking and how it pertains to their life, and also to learn some of the things they don't learn in their government or private schools, such as financial literacy. And I wanted it to be in a fun setting — something they would remember.

It was my observation that people who've been to camp seem to have such a fabulous memory of their camp experiences. So as I started thinking of how to get these concepts through to children, I thought, “Why not a summer camp?”

I was then able to attract Montessori school teachers to write curriculum. The first year we had a small camp in Minnesota with seventeen campers, and we tried out the curriculum material and found that it was very effective. So we proceeded from there.

TA: How many campers do you tend to have nowadays?

Bugby: The most we've had is forty. This year will be our sixth year and we're going to try, and I'm sure we'll succeed, in getting sixty. That may be capacity for us. We have a camper-staff ratio of ten or twelve to one, so we're really heavily staffed and we want to keep it that way.

An outdoor curriculum session
TA: You say on your web site that Camp Indecon teaches children to think for themselves. How do you teach a child that? I assume it’s not through simple incantation.

Bugby: It’s not. We use a Montessori-style method where teachers do not lecture, so the learning sessions are more like fun and games, but educational.

For instance, we play Simon Says, and with this game we can teach the children that thinking is volitional, that it's like a rheostat — they can turn it up, they can turn it down. And although children have played Simon Says all their life, they never thought of it in those terms.

Also, with Simon Says, if you want to succeed in what you're doing, you don't watch the person next to you, you don't do what someone else is doing — you start thinking for yourself.

Once they learn that they can turn their mind off and on, we play other games and we illustrate how this concept can apply to other areas of their life.

Another example would be teaching a child the value of thinking about morals. We start out with the younger children by putting signs on trees and telling them to run to the tree with the sign showing what they value most. Of course the girls all run to friends and clothes and the boys all run to sports and so on. But then we show them that they better pick life, because if life is not their highest value, none of the others are possible.

Then you can get a nine-year-old to start arguing, which is the second highest value? Some will say health; some will say education, because if you're not educated you can't be healthy. It goes on and on. Very quickly they seem to grasp the idea of what their values are.

TA: There's also a big physical component in the camp — physical challenges, rappelling, high-rope courses. What was your thinking in having these as part of the camp curriculum?

Bugby: I view the physical aspect of things as having an important role in achieving self-confidence. “Indecon” stands for independence and confidence. I believe that a child should develop both physical and mental self-confidence. He doesn't have to be a mountain climber or a race car driver, but a child benefits from believing that he's competent to handle certain physical challenges.

The high ropes course provides an opportunity for confidence-building

All of our confidence-building activities are voluntary. We don’t force any child to do anything he doesn't want to do. But kids do things at camp that they would never do at home. I dare say you could never get a thirteen-year-old boy to dance in junior high school. But at camp, we succeed. Our kids have learned ball-room dancing, Latin dancing, and last year our theme was disco dancing.

So they do things at camp that they wouldn’t normally do at home and it builds their confidence. And I think confidence is required to be an independent human being. I don't see where an unconfident person is going to feel they can rely upon their own mind. So it's all geared to make a well-rounded person.

Of course they're tremendously challenged with things like a high ropes course, and sometimes it even takes a few years before a child will get the confidence to do it. But I don't think we've ever had a child that didn't do it. They might not do it the first year or two, but they grow into it, and they're encouraged by the other campers. So it does build their confidence.

TA: What kinds of changes can parents expect to see after sending their child to Camp Indecon?

Bugby: I think you would immediately see that the child is starting to understand logical thinking, and that thinking is required to sustain their life. In every one of the age groups we teach the kids that thinking is necessary according to their nature — that thinking is not automatic but volitional, and that they are responsible for thinking independently.

We explain to the children early on that if you're watching MTV, go ahead and turn the rheostat down and just relax. But if you're crossing the street, be careful — you better turn it all the way up.

The other things that a parent would notice are some of the things that we're teaching the children that they wouldn't be learning in their regular schools. For instance, we believe in the necessity of teaching financial literacy. We teach nine-year-olds the difference between simple and compound interest, and it's fun! The kids get excited and they think it's pretty neat.

When a child goes home and tells his parents what he's learned at camp, I think the parents are pretty surprised at what you can teach a young child, and hopefully will then realize that they don't have to wait until their children are off to college or until they've overspent their charge card to start understanding this information.

TA: Where do you get your campers? Are they mostly children of Rand admirers?

Bugby: Mostly they are, and it’s probably word of mouth more than anything else — although surprisingly we do get kids through our web site, and they’re not all from Objectivist parents. Last year we had a little girl who had a Catholic upbringing. We've had Jehovah’s Witnesses. We get a real variety of children.

We're not actually affiliated with Objectivism, libertarianism, or any religious organization — we're just teaching logical thinking. And we feel that even a child that's being raised religiously will not be offended, but will start to think about all the things being taught.

TA: With religious campers mixed among atheists, do the campers end up having discussions about these things amongst themselves?

Bugby: Oh, they do. (Laughing.) They do. Last year, we had a fifteen-year-old girl with a Catholic upbringing who came to camp for the first time. Turned out one of the sixteen year-old boys was very much attracted to her, and she to him, and one evening they got into a discussion in which he explained what Objectivism was.

And I have to tell you, a day or two later we were in the lunch room, and an elderly man from a different retreat was talking at great length to my girl. I was starting to get very panicky and nervous about his intentions, so I went up to him and said, “I'm sorry, but this young lady has to be with her group.” My camper said, “Nonnie, I just want to continue our conversation because I asked him some questions he is answering.”

I come to find out this man was a Methodist minister. She had approached him because she hadn’t been able to counter the sixteen-year-old boy, who was explaining why he was not religious. She had been unable to come up with good reasons for her beliefs, so she was asking the Methodist minister for help.

And I asked her, “Well, was he able to help you?” She said, “Not really!”

So that sort of thing goes on all the time — but we're not teaching it. We do have a couple lessons that teach the history of philosophy, where we explain to them that religions are basically philosophies offering guidance about how one should lead one’s life. We include agnostics and atheists in that same discussion, so the children are now becoming aware that it's another way of thinking about morals and life.

Many children never thought of atheism as being a moral alternative in the past, so they are exposed to that at least as a possibility. And I have had no feedback so far from parents that are upset with it. I don't think they will be upset until the children are older!

Campers participate in a wide variety of recreational activities

TA: Right!

Bugby: (Laughing.) You know! Until it's too late for them to stop their child from thinking logically.

But you know, Andrew, they take their children to Sunday school starting at the age of three or four and indoctrinate them with religious beliefs, and these children never hear a rational alternative. At camp, they're at least meeting and observing great, nice kids who are figuring things out without church. I think it's fantastic.

So we don’t just preach to the choir. We love attracting and teaching the ones who are not children of Objectivists. They're the ones who are probably doing more of the questioning than the others. It challenges the others too, I might add.

TA: To shift to a different subject, is discipline ever an issue?

Bugby: Only one time. We had a discipline problem with a little nine-year-old boy who came to us from Colorado through one of these Big Brother-Big Sister organizations. I made it very clear to the Big Sister that was sending this young boy — I’ll call him Johnny — that we weren't equipped to handle problem children. She felt that he could handle it.

Well, he couldn’t. He was very disruptive. And one day, he disrupted the class to the point where I wouldn't accept it any more. So I took him aside and I said to him, “Johnny, I’m sending you home. You're not willing to follow the rules we have here.” Then he started telling me how if he went home, he'd be beaten, and that he was frequently hit with a broomstick. Of course your heart just goes out to this child.

Coincidentally, though, we had just finished a session on free will, and I said: “Johnny, you were there, you heard it. You heard that you have the freedom to make choices, and you do make your choices. Now you have the choice of staying here and really shaping up, or else going home and getting beaten. That’s up to you — you're making your own choices this week.”

So he stayed, and he had a hard time of it, but he came back last year. And I’ll tell you, this child is really becoming something special. He grasps concepts easily … he may be one of the brightest boys we have.

TA: That’s fantastic.

Bugby: Yes — he's just great! He still had a few discipline problems, but nothing like he had the year before. I caught him once — he'd had an argument with one of the other campers, and he was in his bed crying because he thought he might get sent home. I explained to him that with improvement like he’d shown, that definitely wouldn’t happen. I even offered him a job as a counselor when he became eighteen. He was pretty excited.

So we have that type of thing going on, but it's rare. We've had a few homesick problems, but we've worked them through and kept the kids with us. Our campers for some reason are very benevolent and nurturing people. Maybe that's just how children tend to be at camp. They really help each other through bad times, and that's very gratifying.

Counselors ensure an enjoyable experience for Indecon campers

TA: Tell me about the camp staff.

Bugby: At the present time almost all the instructors are Montessori school owners and Objectivists. The counselors are not necessarily so. The counselors are actually trained not to answer philosophical questions; they are caretakers and fun-makers. The instructors are the ones that have to fully understand what we’re trying to teach.

The only instructor who isn't involved in Montessori education right now is Diana Hsieh, who is teaching only the seventeen-year-olds. She teaches a curriculum which I see as a cross between an Objectivism 101 course and a college prep course. She teaches a lot of public speaking and that sort of thing, to get them ready to speak up, since they’re about to enter college.

TA: Public speaking is great.

Bugby: Yes. We have a little bit of that all the way through. Even with the younger ones, we encourage something along the lines of public speaking by asking them, for instance, What are you going to do next year? What would your dream be? Some of the kids are silly, which can be a real ice-breaker for the more shy ones, but they all speak up, they all have a turn.

We also have introductory games where they all have to do silly things or say things or reply to questions. I look at that as part of the public speaking experience, because they have to get up in front of their peers and say something.

TA: Can be a good way to overcome shyness.

Bugby: Oh, it really is. And again, I just want to say that if you could see the difference between them in their schools at home and what they do at camp, it's incredible! I mean, I have one seventeen-year-old grandson who's been somewhat shy, and yet at camp he got up and did the hula with one of our girls during talent night. That made a believer out of me! (Laughing.)

We get a lot of that kind of stuff going on. The kids do draw each other out and we encourage that.

TA: I’m curious about your own personal background. Can you say a bit about how you came to be such an entrepreneurial woman yourself?

Bugby: When I was born, my parents had just come here from Germany and we lived in a little German community in Detroit. I didn't learn to speak English until I went to school, and I developed a very high opinion of my American friends and their lifestyles at that point in time.

Because we were in Detroit, we went through some very bad times with the automobile strikes and the Depression and that sort of thing. So money became very important to me at an early age. And at some point, when I was still a child, I realized I was capable of earning money.

So I worked as a waitress or a car-hop or any other menial job a child could hold, and in our lexicon at that time I was making big money. Meanwhile, my cousins in post-war Germany were desperate for food and clothing. I mean, we were literally sending them care packages for their survival.

And at that point, as an early teenager, I became very much aware of the difference in the governments we were living under — the freedom that I had and the ability I had to progress.

So I went from that to where I am today, and I consider myself a very successful businesswoman, with the means by which to fulfill a dream I've always had: Camp Indecon. My relatives in Germany are still very unsuccessful financially. So, maybe it's the sharp contrast between the rest of my family and what we were able to do here that's so exciting to me.

I just think it's important that our kids learn to understand that. In fact, if we can add a second week of camp, capitalism and freedom will be one of our main thrusts. We haven't done too much with that so far and I do think it's very important that kids learn to appreciate the country we live in. Bad as it is, it's the best there is.

TA: Speaking of capitalism, does the camp make money?

Bugby: Last summer was our first-break even camp. Prior to that, the bulk of the funds came from me personally and from a few contributors. Camp Indecon was something I personally wanted to do and I wanted to see it succeed. It's now in the black.

We do accept contributions, and our largest actually came from Robert Kiyosaki, who wrote Rich Dad Poor Dad. We received a twenty-five thousand dollar grant from his organization.

TA: Wow — how did that come about?

Bugby: We had initially written to his organization just asking if we could get a monetary break on his game Cash Flow, which we play at camp and which is quite expensive. After they found out about what we were doing, they asked us to send them more information about Camp Indecon, and upon receipt they sent us a big check!

TA: That’s great.

Bugby: Yes. It was a sweet thing.

TA: What does the future hold for Camp Indecon?

Bugby: In 2005, we're going to try to increase it to a two-week experience for some of the age groups. We will need more money to do that, because it will mean writing more curriculum, and you need to pay someone to do that. So, that's our first thrust.

After that, we plan on having more sessions. Instead of just one week per year, we might have a week in July and a week in August, or two weeks each month. There’s so many more ideas and values we’d like to see our campers exposed to.

Summer '03 at Camp Indecon

Also, we're hoping within the next few years to build our own facility. That would require additional fundraising, but I think it is necessary for our future growth.

You see, almost all camps are religiously based, probably because of tax reasons. Therefore, we don't get the most convenient weeks for our staff and campers at these retreat centers. Naturally, their churches get the weeks that are most preferred and we get whatever is left over. They also usually charge us a penalty because we're not Methodist or Baptist or whatever their sect happens to be. We were asked not to come back to one facility a few years ago because our kids wouldn't sing and pray during lunch. So, a new facility is becoming necessary.

At some point we'd also love to lease this facility to other organizations. We are a tax-exempt entity and due to this tax savings we could offer the facility to other Objectivist, libertarian, or Montessori groups at reasonable prices.

Finally, if we could find someone to write the curriculum, we'd love to start a camp for new parents to teach them how to start raising a child with rational values, and our facility could be used for these sessions as well.

TA: What have you found the most rewarding about Camp Indecon?

Bugby: When the light goes on. You know, I'm not an educator, and I'm not a writer. This is not my background. But I'm there and I watch. And when all of a sudden you see that “ah-ha” moment, and the smile comes across the face, that's tremendously rewarding.

I also enjoy the letter I get from a parent, or the letter or phone call I get from the child. I get a great deal of interesting feedback.

I received a letter recently from a parent that said, “Okay, you taught my child the time value of money and the difference it’ll make if she starts saving two thousand dollars a year when she's twelve versus starting when she's sixteen. It got through, she understands the point. Now would you conduct a course on how this twelve-year-old can earn two thousand dollars a year?” (Laughing.) And we did. The next year we created a course on how our young campers can earn money.

So that kind of thing is fun. I mean, the whole thing is fun and rewarding, and I think you'll hear that from everyone on the staff.

TA: Well, I'm sold. It sounds fascinating to me.

Bugby: Good! I'm glad. I hope it sounds exciting, because it really is exciting. I look forward to keeping it going and keeping it growing. I already see that it's making a difference, certainly within my area of contacts. We've gotten so much positive feedback from both the parents and their kids. So we'll keep doing our best.

For more information about Camp Indecon, visit the Camp’s web site. If you are interested in helping Camp Indecon in any area (computers, accounting, web design, printing, curriculum development, fundraising, staffing, etc.) or if you would like to make a financial contribution to the camp (including donations to its scholarship fund), e-mail Hannelore Bugby at

1 comment from readers  

To post comments, please log in first. The Atlasphere is a social networking site for admirers of Ayn Rand's novels, most notably The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. In addition to our online magazine, we offer a member directory and a dating service. If you share our enjoyment of Ayn Rand's novels, please sign up or log in to post comments.
I wish I had known about this while it was still happening. It sounds GREAT!!!
To post comments, please log in first. The Atlasphere is a social networking site for admirers of Ayn Rand's novels, most notably The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. In addition to our online magazine, we offer a member directory and a dating service. If you share our enjoyment of Ayn Rand's novels, please sign up or log in to post comments.