If all goes according to Jason McDougald’s plan, the boys and girls who attend Camp Grier will want to protect the great outdoors as they grow up.
He hopes they’ll value teamwork too.
Each year this summer camp in Old Fort, N.C. has a theme. This year, with all the antipathy prevalent in public discourse, the theme is: “common ground.”
“Loving your neighbor and loving all creation are always part of what we do,” said McDougald, director of the Asheville-area camp. “Given everything that’s going on in our country there’s a lot we can learn right now, including lessons from the Bible. We want to bring people together and reach across boundaries.”
What parent wouldn’t love to send their children to an overnight adventure camp that focuses on everyone getting along?
Thanks to the Observer’s Summer Camp Fund, Latoya Williams of Charlotte sent daughter AaNiyiah Bethea, 12, and son Chanon Bethea Jr., 11, last summer and will again this summer.
This year the Observer grant is sending 44 children to Camp Grier, where 25 percent of kids attend on scholarship. The Bethea siblings are among more than 500 children heading to 33 camps because readers donated to the Summer Camp Fund. The goal this year is to raise $215,000 to send hundreds more to camp next summer.
Until Camp Grier, the Bethea kids had never camped or slept in a cabin.
“They really enjoyed it and likened it to being in a college dorm,” said their mom. “They both expressed how important it was to keep their areas clean while sharing space with others.”
Camp Grier also imbues kids in second through 12th grade with a love for community service. Younger campers have chores – picking vegetables, gathering eggs, feeding pigs – at the on-site farm. Older campers might work at an Asheville food bank or help with a river cleanup.
But it’s not all about service. “We’re a mountain camp, and we do mountain things,” McDougald said. There’s mountain biking, white-water paddling, hiking, swimming and more.
A Presbyterian-affiliated camp that welcomes children of all faiths and backgrounds, Camp Grier strives for a diverse racial and socioeconomic makeup among campers.
No matter where a child is from or their race, they will find others like them – and unlike them – at Camp Grier. The Bethea children, who live in a Habitat for Humanity home, were excited to meet “children from Charlotte that went to other schools and live in homes built by Habitat for Humanity,” their mom said.
Separation anxiety is common for first-time campers, and Chanon was reluctant for his mom to leave.
“Chanon is a homebody who never spends more than a night away from his mother,” Williams said. “Yet, when he returned (last year) he told me ‘real men can make it outdoors and away from home.’ This camp trip was a way to open him up to becoming more independent. He was placed in a different group than his sister and had to depend on his own decision making and people skills.”
When Williams picked up her kids, Chanon told her other campers had noticed he was upset when she left. “He said they all assured him,” Williams said. “One of the returning campers even showed him around and told him about the activities he should look forward to. He called him his BCFF (best camping friend forever).”
Camp benefited Williams’ daughter, too. Williams used to have to coerce AaNiyiah, a self-proclaimed “girly girl,” to get outside.
“She hated the outdoors,” Williams said. “Now she can walk in the grass with no shoes and has been spending more time with the children in the neighborhood – playing outside!”
McDougald’s plan is working. “It’s part of our mission to expose kids to the natural world,” he said. “Our hope is that they’ll carry it forward and want to protect the places they’ve visited.”
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.