When out entrepreneur Puck Markham was a teenager growing up in Holland, he loved going to sailing camp. But not knowing any other campers who were gay made him feel like an oddball.
“I remember going to sailing camp and being on the outside a pretty independent and pretty self-confident kind of kid,” Markham told NBC Out. “You would have crushes on sailing instructors that you would not share, because that was very much part of your private identity and the whole idea of being able to not have to hide, I think I would have benefited from enormously.”
Markham found the courage to come out to his family when he was in college. After he graduated, he moved to London and got a job as a broker.
“[I] made a good amount of money and always felt very much out of place because I always … very much wanted to have work that aligned with my values and have a value-driven life,” he said.
Markham started his own financial education business in England where he used his financial know-how to teach low-income families how to manage and save money. He enjoyed helping others, but something felt amiss.
“I traveled a lot for a number of reasons and wherever [I was], I kept reading about higher rates of suicide and bullying and oppression among LGBT youth,” he said. The rate of suicide attempts is four times greater for lesbian, gay and bisexual youth, and one quarter of young transgender people report having made a suicide attempt, according to The Trevor Project.
“That kind of stuck with me,” Markham said.
In 2010, he went on vacation with his then-boyfriend to Provincetown, Massachusetts. The small town surrounded by water at the end of Cape Cod reminded him of sailing camp and how lonely he felt as a teenager who longed to know someone else who was gay. That memory and the town’s gay-friendly atmosphere inspired an idea.
“I was like, ‘Well this would be a perfect place for a camp for kids,’” he said.
In 2011, Markham took a bold risk. He closed his business in London and moved to Provincetown, where he poured his personal savings into creating a nonprofit camp for LGBTQ youth he called Camp Lightbulb. But no one was signing up.
“Then a lot of people started making calls on my behalf, and we had nine kids show up,” he said. “[We] had a fantastic week, and it has grown gradually since.”
Now in its sixth year, Markham’s flagship camp has 35 regular campers, ages 14 to 18. And in 2015, he started a winter camp in Los Angeles, where he recently moved. He said the experience has been amazing.
“I’m a gay man. I know how fraught and difficult it was sometimes to grow up gay, and now I get to make my small mark for the next generation and put together an amazing week with a great team of counselors that are delivering it all,” he said.
Markham said about 30 percent of his campers come from communities of color. He spends much of his time raising money to provide camp scholarships for low-income kids.
“There was this picture this counselor took of these two kids running through the dunes, just the two of them,” he said. “One of them came from a very, very privileged background, and the other kid came from the Ali Forney Center in New York, which is this large LGBTQ homeless organization. But for that moment, they were having the same experience — running through the dunes in complete abandonment, safe, happy and excited.”
The 46-year-old just finished organizing Camp Lightbulb’s second winter camp in Los Angeles, and he is now busy planning its next summer camp in Provincetown in June. He said parents often tell him the experience is life changing for their children, who for an entire week get to feel like they belong to a welcoming community for the first time.
“For that one week they’re surrounded by peers, by role models, by a community that is embracing them and celebrating them,” Markham said. “By the end of the week they’re so filled with joy and pride and newfound friendships and relationships. That’s immeasurable.”
OutFront is a weekly NBC Out series profiling LGBTQ people who are making a positive difference in the community