It’s advertised as a “special place” where children and adults of all ages can “experience a different kind of vacation.”
Perched in the mountains of Southwestern Virginia, A.R.E. Camp is where campers have been flocking to for decades to hike, swim, meditate, eat meals made from the organic vegetable garden, and sing around a campfire.
It’s also where at least eight women say they were sexually assaulted and harassed when they were teenager campers, according to two lawsuits filed Wednesday in Virginia Beach Circuit Court.
The men who abused them were adult counselors and other staff members who ranged in age from their late teens to 40s, said Ed Vasquez, a spokesman for the law firm representing the women.
Eight women are currently listed as victims in the lawsuits and another plans to file soon, Vasquez said. To date, more than 20 women have been identified as victims, he said. Some of their cases date back to the 1970s. One is as recent as a few years ago.
The camp is located in Rural Retreat, a tiny town in Wythe County, and is part of the Edgar Cayce’s A.R.E. organization — or Association for Research and Enlightenment. The lawsuit was filed in Virginia Beach because that’s where the camp’s main office is located, Vasquez said.
According to its website, the nonprofit organization is dedicated to providing tools for wellness, personal empowerment and spiritual growth based on the work of Edgar Cayce, a self-proclaimed faith healer and psychic who settled in Virginia Beach in 1925 and started his organization there.
A.R.E. Executive Director Kevin Todeschi said in a statement Wednesday the board first became aware of allegations of inappropriate behavior and sexual assault last summer, when some past campers posted about their experiences on the camp’s Facebook page.
“We continue to be extraordinarily distressed by these allegations,” Todeschi wrote. “The camp has been in operation for decades. Sexual assault or assault of any kind has never been even remotely acceptable. Such conduct is contrary to everything we believe in.”
A.R.E. offers a children’s camp for youths 10 to 16, as well as a retreat for young adults, a family camp and activities for people of all ages throughout the year, according to the lawsuit.
From a young age, campers are taught the camp is a safe and special place of love and acceptance, the lawsuit says. They’re also led to believe that anyone at the camp is a good person — and that it’s their responsibility to love and forgive everyone without question.
The lawsuit alleges, however, that a lack of boundaries and failure to hold anyone accountable for their actions led to a dangerous cycle of continued sexual abuse and cover-ups that has lasted generations.
Those who have been abused are told they would be going against everything they’ve been taught if they spoke up, the lawsuit claims. Whenever allegations of sexual abuse and harassment were reported to management, the victim was silenced and told not to make any report to law enforcement, according to the lawsuit.
Four of the women named in the complaints participated in a Zoom press conference Wednesday to talk about their experiences and how they’ve been impacted. Only one offered her full name. Two provided their first names and the other was listed as Jane Doe 1.
All four said their reports about the abuse were ignored by camp leaders. And all continued to go back each summer, despite what happened to them.
One of the women, Linsey, now 23, began attending at the age of 9. When she was 13, she says she was raped by an adult staff member. She told the camp manager, she said, but nothing happened.
When she was 15, she hesitantly began a relationship with a 22-year-old counselor that lasted years. Staff members saw the two as equals and encouraged the relationship even though the counselor was seven years older and in a position of power over her, she said.
Hugs and other type of physical contact was encouraged among the campers, even if they weren’t comfortable with it, the women said.
One video from the camp shows what campers call the “massage train” during which a sort of conga line is formed and participants massage the person in front of them. At least one man is seen massaging a young girl in front of him.
Hannah Furbush, now 27, was a third-generation camper who began going there with her family as an infant. Both of her parents worked there.
Furbush said the abuse and harassment started when she was a teen and continued when she was an adult working as a counselor. When she lodged complaints, she was made to feel like an outcast, and was told to meditate and write about it in her journal.
“They did nothing other than to say this is the way things are,” she said.
One woman who identified herself only as Cheyenne, 27, said she was assaulted by a counselor she had a crush on. Afterward, she said she felt like a “throwaway” and blamed herself. She later became addicted to drugs and alcohol.
“He took advantage of me and others when he should have been taking care of us,” she said.
Todeschi said the organization’s board of directors has hired an outside investigation agency to look into the allegations, and encourages anyone who experienced harm to come forward. Two board committees have also been established, with one addressing any policy changes that need to be made, and the other reviewing camp personnel.
The camp was closed last year due to the coronavirus pandemic and will remain closed this summer while the investigation continues, Todeschi said.
Jane Harper, 757-222-5097, email@example.com