As director of New Hampshire’s Camp Belknap, Seth Kassels ’97 offers an old-fashioned summer experience to help boys navigate our modern age
What would boyhood be like without the distraction of screens, if summer days were instead spent in nature, among friends and positive male role models, sharing meals and working together, with time to play, explore, create—or to do nothing at all? For Seth Kassels ’97, the question isn’t hypothetical. As director of Camp Belknap, an overnight YMCA camp that has served as a tech-free oasis for boys on the shores of New Hampshire’s Lake Winnipesaukee for more than a century, that’s precisely the experience he and his staff provide. And what he sees are transformations that have deep implications for today’s society.
“It’s so sad what’s happening with boys in America right now,” observes Kassels, who with his wife, Stephanie, was hired to lead Belknap 10 years ago, just the sixth directors in the camp’s long history. “All these social challenges—the ability to launch and get jobs. There is a continued decrease in boys’ engagement. They are now the minority gender attending college, with campuses averaging 40 percent male. Too many boys are stuck in parents’ basements playing video games.”
Though it was founded in 1903, well before terms such as toxic masculinity and failure to launch syndrome entered our vocabulary, Belknap—where campers acquire what Kassels calls “the skill of leadership and the value of stewardship”—remains a model for how to develop the character of today’s young men. Set on a half-mile of pristine lakefront, surrounded by 300 acres of fields and pine groves, the nondenominational camp offers swimming and boating, islands to explore, athletic fields and facilities, and a structured program of shared responsibilities, supportive mentorship, and group activities. With no formal advertising, Belknap has a multiyear waiting list: Once in, campers tend to return year after year (for one, two, or four weeks), then later send their own sons.
“We talk a lot about grounding the boys in the present to prepare them for the future,” explains Kassels, who grew up in Amherst, Massachusetts, with three siblings, all of whom attended Williston. “When you are present without distraction, face to face with somebody, and you’re 8 to 16, you will have growth, because that doesn’t happen that much anymore. No phone, no TV, no computer screen—it’s you and a couple of guys playing cards or sitting on a bench talking. It’s almost impossible not to have some personal growth through that moment.”
Kassels is himself an example of just how impactful the Belknap experience can be, having attended the camp during his years at Williston and served on the staff as a college student. “I had a lot of leadership success at Williston—president of my class and captain of three sports,” he says. “But I owe most of my leadership growth to Belknap. It taught me a lot at a very young age.”
A physics major at Colorado College, Kassels spent a summer teaching in Ecuador, where he also volunteered with a nonprofit building a solar power system in the Galapagos Islands. He then worked with other nonprofits bringing solar, hydro, and wind power to Latin America and around the world. After earning his master’s in engineering, with a focus on sustainable building design and renewable energy, he founded his own successful solar company, based in Boulder, Colorado, in 2009.
By then, he and Stephanie, a nurse practitioner, were married with two young boys, and Kassels was soon traveling some 100,000 miles a year for work. He was in the airport, in fact, when he received a call from a Belknap recruiter asking if he was interested in the director’s position. “I remember Steph saying, ‘After family, what’s been most important to you?’” he recalls. “That draw, of being able to give back for the experience I had, is what brought me here. I love the mission of this institution. I love what it did to me, the impact it had on me. And I love what it provides for the 1,200 boys we see every summer.”
Those who have experienced Belknap say the camp’s character-building impact has only increased under Kassels’ leadership. “All of the guys would say it was the most formative part of their lives,” maintains former camper, staff member, and now Yale junior Robby Hill ’19. “I felt like I was constantly surrounded by older guys who cared about mentoring me, cared about my going through my teenage years right. It’s just a really immersive environment that is trying to shape you into a different and better version of yourself. And that’s been a pillar of Seth’s tenure there, too.”
Like Kassels and all the young men who are selected to work at the camp, Hill came up through the ranks of campers, a process that helps preserve the camp’s distinctive culture. One tradition that made a particular impression on him: the evening gatherings in the pine grove, where the college-age staff members give short talks about what they find meaningful in life. “Belknap was the first place where I’d seen older men be vulnerable with one another,” Hill recalls. “There was a sense that young men should embrace those feelings and emotions, and that you should do so in communion with one another.”
Hill sees a strong connection between Williston and Belknap in that both strive for a culture of kindness and mutual respect. Kassels also sees similarities in the administration of the two institutions—both require alumni fundraising and networking, navigating through challenges such as COVID (which closed the camp in 2020), and working to create socio-economic diversity (the camp awards both scholarships and subsidized tuition). But perhaps the strongest connection between camp and school is the shared emphasis on community, a value that Kassels recognized as a Williston student and works to encourage among the boys of Belknap today.
“At the end of the day, we’re all in a larger boat we row together,” he says. “Williston taught me there’s value in engaging, in taking those healthy risks. There is value in putting in the extra effort, in engaging in your community. It has compounding positive effects.”