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Summer camp lifted the odds stacked against girl

  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/05/04/19/47/jGvqd.Em.138.jpeg|316
    Robert Lahser - rlahser@charlotteobserver.com
    Tonya Marble, center, helps Nyser Nixon, 7, right, with a math problem. In the foreground, Gordan Sellers 5, and Junior Ashford, 8, work on their math homework. Marble, 19, attended Camp Walter Johnson for five summers and says the experience made a tough childhood easier.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/05/04/19/47/w9InW.Em.138.jpeg|244
    Robert Lahser - rlahser@charlotteobserver.com
    Tonya Marble, right, helps Dariah Smith, 7, left, with a math problem. Marble, a 19-year-old staffer at the Belmont Boys & Girls Club, credits her summer scholarships to Camp Walter Johnson with inspiring her to create poetry. She’s now working at the Boys & Girls Club she attended as a child and is starting college at Central Piedmont Community College in the fall.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/05/04/19/47/1bg9VS.Em.138.jpeg|206
    Robert Lahser - rlahser@charlotteobserver.com
    Tonya Marble, left, helps Wil’Tyana Baskins, right, 11, with reading a ruler, as Dayona Smith, 8, listens. Marble, a 19-year-old staffer at the Belmont Boys & Girls Club, credits her summer scholarships to Camp Walter Johnson with putting her on the right path.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/05/04/19/47/12rsYz.Em.138.jpeg|500
    Robert Lahser - rlahser@charlotteobserver.com
    Tonya Marble, left, helps Zavion Sturdivant, 9, with math homework. Marble, a 19-year-old staffer at the Belmont Boys & Girls Club, set out on the journey to Camp Walter Johnson at age 8. There, she learned to swim and fish and knit. But most importantly, she learned to find joy in poetry.

More Information

  • More on the Summer Camp Fund
  • What camps participate?

    2014 sites are:

    A Child’s Place/My Place Summer Day Camp, a day camp for homeless children in Charlotte.

    American Diabetes Association/Camp Carolina Trails, a weeklong residential camp for children with diabetes in the Sauratown Mountains of North Carolina.

    Camp Grier, a residential outdoor experience camp in Old Fort.

    Clemson University W.W. Long 4-H Leadership Center, a residential camp focusing on leadership and adventure in Aiken, S.C.

    Camp Royall /Autism Society of North Carolina Inc., a residential camp for people with autism near Pittsboro.

    Superhero Training Camp/Boys & Girls Clubs of York County, a day camp in Rock Hill.

    Camp Grimes/Boy Scouts of America-Mecklenburg, a residential camp near Marion.

    Camp Celo, a residential farm camp in Burnsville, about 120 miles northwest of Charlotte.

    Carolina Raptor Center/Kids for Conservation in Huntersville, which hosts day camps focusing on the raptors on-site, as well as canoeing, hiking and geocaching.

    Lincoln County Family YMCA Camp Creekside, a day camp with a heavy emphasis on outdoor activities.

    Lutheridge Camp, a residential camp in Arden, about 20 minutes south of Asheville and owned by Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

    Camp Walter Johnson/Salvation Army Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Charlotte, a residential camp in Denton, about 60 miles northeast of Charlotte.

    Camp Thunderbird/YMCA of Greater Charlotte, a day and residential camp on Lake Wylie.

    Stanly County Family YMCA Summer Camp, a day camp in Stanly County.


  • Help the Summer Camp Fund

    Donate online at www.charlotteobserver.com/summercampfund. Or send donations to The Summer Camp Fund, P.O. Box 37269, Charlotte, NC 28237-7269. Each Sunday during the drive, the Observer will list contributors in the Local & State section. If you wish to make an anonymous donation, indicate it on the “for” line of your check. If you donate via PayPal and wish to be anonymous, note your preference in the special instructions field. To donate in honor or in memory of someone, please also use the “for“ line or special instructions field. Donations are tax deductible and are processed through Observer Charities, a 501(c)(3).


  • More information

    An excerpt of Tonya Marble’s poetry, from a piece she wrote at camp:

    Church

    Church. Creating humble unity returning change here. The time is now to speak up and make a move. You are fearfully and wonderfully made. The greatest story ever told that’s hardly ever told.



The odds were stacked against Tonya Marble, but at a summer camp, words lifted her.

Raised in poverty by her grandparents in the historically high-crime Belmont neighborhood, she was a hyperactive youngster who hated reading. But leaders at her neighborhood Salvation Army Boys & Girls Club treated her like family.

“Give summer camp a try,” they coaxed for more than a year. Finally, at age 8, Tonya set out on the journey to Camp Walter Johnson, a Boys & Girls Club camp in Davidson County. She learned to swim and fish and knit. But perhaps most importantly, she learned to find joy in poetry.

This summer, The Charlotte Observer’s Summer Camp Fund will send 75 campers like Tonya to Camp Walter Johnson in Denton for a week of outdoor adventures, swimming, group games and prayer. Thanks to reader donations, 266 children from low-income families across the Charlotte region will attend day and overnight summer camps.

Looking up the words

Each day at the weeklong camp, Tonya and the other campers would gather for devotions and prayer.

She puzzled at some of the words she had never heard before, “words like ‘condescending,’ ‘inspiration’ and ‘ambiguity,’ ” she says. She’d scribble them phonetically into a notebook, then type them into an iPod Touch she smuggled into camp, eager to learn their definitions.

Then, after encouragement from camp counselors, she would craft a poem around one of the words, often using it to express a feeling deep inside her. She kept it up when she got home, “sometimes writing myself to sleep,” she says. She returned to Camp Walter Johnson for about five summers, honing her poetry and making friendships that have lasted.

Tonya, now 19 and a high-school graduate, returned to the Belmont Avenue Boys & Girls Club this year as a paid staff member in its after-school program. She’ll start classes at Central Piedmont Community College in the fall, with hopes of becoming a district attorney and author. She loves performing in poetry slams and being paid to recite poems at parties and other events.

“Camp Walter Johnson inspired me to write,” she says. “They showed me how fun it could be. Even though my handwriting was bad, I still wanted to write. It kept me out of trouble.”

Roaming the woods

Since its creation in 2009, more than 800 children have benefited from the fund. Last year alone, the fund raised $160,000.

The Summer Camp Fund requires camps to provide children a nature-based outdoor experience and to support reading skills. Some serve kids with special challenges, such as autism or diabetes. Some are in faraway North Carolina mountain towns, while others are day camps in Mecklenburg and neighboring counties.

About 80 percent are sleep-away camps, often affording children their first overnight experience away from home.

“Outdoor exposure is so important to learning and gaining confidence, and to help all children to expand their horizons,” said Ann Caulkins, publisher of The Charlotte Observer.

“All children cannot roam their neighborhoods and go in creeks and woods,” Caulkins says. “Kids from middle and upper incomes go to summer camps to get their fill. The fact that we can provide that for kids who can’t afford it is wonderful.”

Debbie Abels, a member of the camp fund’s governing board, says that fund administrators ensure that all camps give kids the right mix of activities and skills to nurture their bodies and their brains.

“For some, this camp experience will not only be an experience with nature, but it will be an exposure to diverse groups of kids they might not have known before, and an exposure to different types of learning and skills they haven’t seen,” Abels said.

‘They’re not alone’

Ian Binns, assistant professor of elementary science education at UNC Charlotte, says going to summer camp can be “life altering” for children in poverty, many of whom don’t have opportunities to travel outside their neighborhoods in the summer, learn new skills or engage with positive role models. Camp helps them gain confidence they can bring home.

For kids with challenges such as autism or diabetes, attending a specialty camp with others “shows kids that they’re not alone,” Binns said.

Idle time at home alone during the summer can be not only brain-draining, but risky for some. Camp “gets them away from potentially getting in trouble and getting involved in the wrong things,” Binns said.

Binns directs the UNCC Summer Ventures program, an N.C. General Assembly-funded, merit-based science and math camp at UNCC for high school students. So he sees firsthand the benefits of keeping kids engaged when they’re not in school.

‘Take it back home’

As spring turns to summer, Tonya Marble’s thoughts are turning to memories of camp.

She says she’s grateful for the gift of words she received at Camp Walter Johnson, and the leaders of the Belmont Avenue Boys & Girls Club who encouraged her to make that first trip.

And as she thinks back on her first summer at camp, she has some advice for little ones in her care at the Boys & Girls Club who are about to make their first trip, too.

“Be outgoing and do something you’ve never done before. Because you can always take it back home with you, and you can share that gift with someone else.”

Bolling: 704-358-5697
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