NEW YORK — At 14, Tyler Cohen had never been out of the country or traveled without his Long Island family when he found himself in Costa Rica on a monthlong service trip for teens.
There, he worked on a coffee plantation, made signs for a rainforest restoration project, built bunk beds for shantytown kids and helped fix up an orphanage, where a wily 5-year-old named Fernando snatched the white baseball cap off his head and ran away one afternoon.
"He thought he was so cool when he put it on. I told him he could keep it and his jaw literally hit the floor," Tyler recalled. "He was so surprised that somebody would do that for him. That really stuck with me, that something as simple as a hat could mean so much."
Tyler, now 17, turned the encounter into a homegrown charity, Caps Count, which has distributed about 7,000 donated caps to poor kids in the U.S. and orphanages around the world.
Count him among thousands of teens and younger kids who do more than the usual crafts, sports and swimming at day and overnight camps, and through special summer programs every year. More camps have built in community service over the last decade or so, from nursing home visits to raising money for cancer research, and dozens of programs like the one Tyler did through Westcoast Connection offer give-back travel for teens.
A survey done by the American Camp Association found that 48 percent of responding resident camps include some type of community service. An ACA survey this year found 16 percent added new options in the past two years.
Peg Smith, the association's chief executive officer, said the value of such experiences to kids between the ages of 12 and 17 is great as they sharpen leadership and problem-solving skills while "creativity is at an all-time high."
But not all service opportunities are created equal. With a few key questions, she said, parents can help ensure a quality experience for their kids:
— Is it really teaching volunteerism, responsibility and community? "It really should be a social enterprise, when they're out there doing something with others."
— Does it allow them to work in a new and diverse environment? "Will they get to engage with people that they might not normally have had an opportunity to engage with?"
— Does it have a significant impact? Will they be volunteering at local soup kitchens, painting public or park buildings, visiting nursing homes, doing special events to raise money for good causes?
Perhaps most important, Smith said: "What does the camp think is being taught? The camp should be able to articulate the value of the experience."
"Sometimes parents say, 'Oh, the camp does community service, but they don't ask what the projects are," she said. "Parents may want to look for something their kids can take into the school year, not just add to that resume."
When her son was 12, for example, his camp raised money for poor kids in Africa. Counselors from Africa spoke to campers about their own experiences, video and photos were circulated and letters were exchanged.
"When he came home he could articulate why it was important," Smith said.
Some camps offer full-focus community service programs for teens along with activities that take a day or a week for other campers. Many camps incorporate service into training programs for older teens as a run-up to becoming counselors.
But there's plenty younger kids can do, too, said Smith and several camp directors, even if it's just collecting pennies for a cause.
"What's most important to us is that this become not just an adult-driven enterprise that is a requirement but rather that it's something that is internalized by our young people, who then want to do something more," said Stephen Wallace, a director at Cape Cod Sea Camps in Brewster, Mass.
Every summer the camp fields a team of staff and older teens who ride in the Pan-Massachusetts Challenge, a three-day bike-a-thon that crosses the commonwealth to raise money for cancer research and treatment at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. The camp raised $130,000 for the cause last summer, he said.
"Despite what you hear about adolescence being this time of dysfunction, when you really look at it many young people are immersed in paying something forward. That's how we talk about it," said Wallace.
Junior counselors can also complete camp requirements through service the rest of the year via peer counseling, coaching youth sports, tutoring younger kids or assisting the elderly, the homeless or others in need.
At Camp Towanda in Honesdale, Pa., director Mitch Reiter also extends summer service through the year.
During the seven-week summer session for 400 girls and boys, campers find sponsors for a swim-a-thon that benefits Project Morry, which hosts a camp for poor kids who would not otherwise be able to afford camp.
Towanda campers find sponsors and swim laps for money, which is matched dollar-for-dollar by Reiter and his wife. They have raised between $7,000 and $14,000 a year for Project Morry for the last 10 years or so, Reiter said.
"What I tell the kids is that every dollar makes a difference," he said.
Not all camps talk up service, but provide opportunities nevertheless.
Cheley Colorado Camps in Estes Park doesn't actively market itself as service-focused, said Jeff Cheley, the fourth generation in his family to run the camp.
"It's not an overriding theme, but we use community service as a vehicle. Our mission talks about building character and resiliency and it helps foster those skills," he said.
Cheley partners with the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics, which teaches people of all ages how to enjoy the outdoors responsibly, to provide service days for campers to help maintain trail heads, do landscape work or participate in cleanup projects in the national park, he said.
"Are all our campers lining up to do it? Probably not," Cheley acknowledged. Still, he said, today's kids are more focused on service, "especially because a lot of high schools are making them do it."Comment on this story
Tyler, the Caps Count founder, was nervous about leaving home on his 2010 trip to Costa Rica, but he actively went in search of a service opportunity when he found Westcoast Connection and it's 360 Student Travel Program.
He plans to turn over his charity to his younger brother, soon to be 14, when he heads to college in the fall. He hopes to study business and continue as an entrepreneur.
"I really wanted to do community service," Tyler said. "It felt like a more productive way to spend a summer. A lot of times when you travel you really only get to see the touristy towns. I wanted to see how people really live."