I was interviewing a mom for a newspaper story about summer camp when some guys drinking on a nearby street corner wandered over and planted themselves on her front porch.
She told me to hang on while she stormed outside and angrily shooed them away. She walked back inside, locked the door and told me how thankful she was that her children had gotten scholarships to attend a sleep-away camp in the North Carolina mountains.
Her kids loved the time they spent there. They hiked and swam, sang campfire songs and made new friends from other places. At camp they breathed fresh summer air, read books and didn’t have to walk past the guys numbing their days away on a tough west Charlotte street corner.
“I want them to see something different,” she said.
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Her young daughter came home from camp with dreams of a medical career. Her teenage son plans to spend this summer as a camp counselor and hopes to be the first in the family to go to college. He said camp showed him a world he didn’t know existed.
I’ve talked to lots of moms and kids over the past two years as I wrote about The Charlotte Observer’s Summer Camp Fund. Each had a story about how camp changed them, from overcoming fears to becoming a leader.
Today kicks off this year’s annual fundraising drive. Since starting in 2009, The Summer Camp Fund has raised about $1.3 million and sent more than 2,500 children to a wide variety of day and sleep-away camps. This summer, more than 500 kids will attend 33 camps thanks to donations from Observer readers and the community. This year’s goal is to raise $215,000 to send hundreds more to camp next summer.
We talk a lot in Charlotte about inequity. A 2014 Harvard University study concluded a child growing up in Charlotte has a slimmer chance of climbing out of poverty than in any other major American city. A task force of business, civic and non-profit leaders has wrestled with how to fix disparities in schools, housing and families.
People I’ve talked to believe summer camp helps equalize the odds.
I’ve interviewed camp directors who see this as their central mission. As one said: “It’s not a place where we take care of kids, it’s a place where we open their minds to possibilities…that where they are is not where they have to end up.”
Many kids receiving scholarships live in our region’s poorest neighborhoods and go to schools where too many fail. Some come from troubled families with little adult guidance. Others have hard-working parents juggling low-wage jobs in an expensive city. These parents – often single moms – hold jobs such as driving school buses, changing hospital beds and stocking shelves at Wal-Mart. They struggle to stay afloat.
These moms told me about kids coming home from camp with more self-confidence, healthier eating habits and a new appreciation for nature and the outdoors. (And with eyes unglued from electronic devices!)
Kids talked about challenging themselves to swim, hike a mountain and get along with people from very different backgrounds. And stay sharp: The fund requires camps to have a literacy component, which had them reading, writing, story-telling and trail-navigating — all designed to keep them learning during the summer break.
Some kids I talked to came from middle class families, but health conditions ranging from juvenile diabetes to autism to cancer have taken a physical, emotional and financial toll. Specialized camps funded by donations gave them – and their parents – a break from their daily burdens.
I talked to kids who said camp helped them through the grief of a parent’s death. I met the sweetest teenagers whose intellectual disabilities will keep them childlike forever. Then there was the incredibly generous, loving little brother who doesn’t have disabilities, but looks out for his big brother who does.
And I talked to young adults who told me about growing up in poor, stress-filled homes, and how summer camp changed their lives. They grew to love the outdoors, made lifetime friends and looked up to leaders who encouraged them to work hard in school and believe in themselves.
And they did.
What struck me most about those former scholarship kids was their gratitude, and how each felt an obligation to help the next generation. Gratitude is a common theme among the campers, counselors and parents I talked to.
One special girl comes to mind. She’s the youngest in a big family, and has Down syndrome. She entertains her family and friends with her off-key singing and quirky humor. Thanks to a Summer Camp Fund scholarship, she’s spent her summers crafting art projects, taking nature walks, swimming and socializing at a day camp for children with disabilities. During my visits, it was clear she loved it.
Her mom, a high school janitor, talked as if they’d won the lottery.
She wrote a beautiful thank you note to the Summer Camp Fund and her voice broke as she told me how grateful her family was to experience such kindness from complete strangers:
“I didn’t think people cared like that.”
To give to the Summer Camp Fund
Donate at 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 to the fund. If you wish to make an anonymous donation, indicate it on the “for” line of your check or on PayPal, note your preference in the special instructions field. To donate in honor or in memory of someone, use the “for” line or special instructions field. Donations are tax-deductible and are processed through Observer Charities, a 501(c)(3).
If you have questions about your donation: 704-358-5520.
Summer Camp Fund Donations
Donations from 2017
Year-to-date campaign total: $1,625.00
In memory of Leslie Mason $25.00
Pete Johnson Charitable Fund $250.00
Wells Fargo Community Support $250.00
Russell & Britta Crandall $1,000.00
Ed Spears $100.00
Donations from end of 2016 campaign
Dr. Marvin & Anita Shapiro $100.00
Carol Edwards $100.00
Cindy Fox $200.00
Sidney Lockaby $150.00
In honor of Rolfe Neill, by David Cable $200.00
In memory of Ernest, Mary, Alice, Stubby and Patsy $5,000.00
Jacqueline Stegner $30.00
Margaret Platt $50.00
Kathryn V. Clancy $500.00
Sapphire Foundation, Inc. $5,000.00
George W. & Ruth R. Baxter Foundation $10,000.00
Senior Scholars $25.00
Edward Chaconas $50.00
Amy & Alfred Dawson $2,500.00
In honor of Ann Clark and her tireless effors on behalf of our community’s children, by Claire & John Tate $250.00
Phillip Malone $100.00
In memory of John Miller, by Gene & Marie Anne Daniels $25.00
The Gen Group $114.00