Cielo Sandoval attended the first Gainesville Girls Rock Camp in 2013.
“I knew stuff, but I learned some more stuff about students and how to communicate with them,” Sandoval, who was 13 during her enrollment. “How to communicate with all these people at the same time. How to run the band.”
After camp, Sandoval, 15, formed the Red Fire Breathing Dragons with her bandmates from camp. The group has since disbanded, but the memories remain.
The Gainesville Girls Rock Camp encourages female empowerment through musical expression. Girls between the ages of 8 and 17 spend the week with strong female figures who encourage them to shine.
“This camp is about music,” said Chelsea Carnes, co-director of the Gainesville Girls Rock Camp. “But it’s also kind of a music as a smokescreen for the larger idea of empowerment and self-esteem.”
Carnes and Jennifer Vito started the camp in Gainesville in 2013 after Carnes was inspired by volunteering at the Jacksonville Girls Rock Camp.
This year the camp was split into two separate weeks for the first time. The first week, July 6 through July 10, was for ages 8 to 12; the second, Aug. 3 through Aug. 7, will be for ages 12 to 17. The campers will perform in shows at High Dive on July 11 and Aug. 8, respectively.
Participants are grouped into bands based on the instrument each girl chooses. Each group writes a song together to perform publicly at the end of the week.
Even those with prior experience, like Sandoval, benefit from the camp.
“I had already been playing guitar for quite a while, and so had another girl in the band, so we were both pretty far ahead of the game,” she said. “We taught the other members some stuff, and they were like, ‘That’s so cool.’”
The girls wrote their song in two days instead of the allotted five, she said.
Sandoval said although she was already outgoing when she started camp, she became more passionate about playing guitar and better at communicating.
She grew up in a home where people listened to her, so she was familiar with the strong feminist ideas the camp emphasized.
But she could see how much it helped the other girls.
“If someone said, ‘Oh, sorry!’ for, like, messing up the wrong chord or something, we would say, ‘No, you rock!’ And they would smile, and they’re like, ‘Yeah, I actually do rock. I don’t know why I’m saying sorry for something that I’m not sorry about,’” Sandoval said.
“You shouldn’t be sorry. It was just a mistake, and mistakes happen, but you can brush ‘em off and become your real, true, potential self, which is a rock star.”
Sandoval volunteered during the first session of camp this year, for younger girls, and will be participating in the second week, for the older girls.
Kentucky Costellow, treasurer of the camp and a volunteer since 2013, is glad the camp will be separated because volunteers will be able to better focus on each age group, particularly the older girls.
“As a girl, as you kind of hit puberty, your self-confidence levels really drop because of social pressures,” Costellow said. “It’s really the older girls that really need that one-on-one time and the mentorship of it.”
Costellow said campers are not the only ones who benefit from the camp, admitting it made her feel more empowered than she anticipated.
“I’m kind of a self-taught musician. I haven’t really had music lessons over the course of my life or anything, so I didn’t have a lot of confidence playing music,” Costellow said. “Teaching the girls how to play guitar chords, for instance, made me realize how much I actually knew about music and how much I knew about teaching, which felt very empowering to me.”
Costellow played guitar when she started as a volunteer, but she also learned to play drums during the camp. This helped her realize how much of an impact music and teaching can have.
One of Costellow’s favorite moments was when she helped an 8-year-old camper learn to play the drums and build self-confidence.
“By the end of camp she was one of the best drummers, and she just – she really blossomed,” Costellow said. “She saw someone who was saying ‘You are strong, and you are powerful. You can do this,’ that she finally, you know, kind of let go of this having to be meek and timid.”
With the first week of camp over, Carnes said she’s proud of the girls and of all the community support they received. She’s looking forward to the second session and seeing how the older girls – some of whom have been in the camp since it started – have progressed with their instruments.
Costellow said the camp’s first show at the 1982 Bar was so full that some parents had to watch from outside.
“There’s something really special about having role models that rock, and having strong, powerful women believe in you and tell you that you can do it,” she said. “It’s like we empower them, but their enthusiasm also empowers us.”