Tyewhan Luke spent his first night at summer camp in a tent that didn’t zip, with food he wasn’t supposed to have. A pair of hungry-looking raccoons pranced outside.
Life in a west Charlotte housing project hadn’t prepared the scared 10-year-old for that first night of little animals scurrying close by, cicadas buzzing above, and big things lurking in the distance.
He didn’t sleep.
But he grew to love the wilderness that week and has been back to Camp Grimes many times since, first as a Boy Scout and now as the troop leader for kids who come from some of Charlotte’s toughest neighborhoods.
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“It literally molded me into the man I am,” Luke, 26, says of scouting and camp. “It changed me, it taught me to set goals and prioritize.”
This summer, The Charlotte Observer’s Summer Camp Fund will send 70 Boy Scouts to Camp Grimes. They’re among 550 kids heading to 19 camps thanks to donations from readers and the community.
NASCAR team owner Rick Hendrick, honorary fundraising chairman, has issued a challenge to raise $200,000 during the current campaign. The fund’s intent is to connect low-income children to nature. They swim in lakes, hike in the mountains and make new friends from different backgrounds. Reading – books, maps and directions – is encouraged to keep children from losing academic ground.
A different kind of joy
Going to camp helps the boys learn new skills and build confidence, says Justin Lewter, director of exploring and special initiatives for the Mecklenburg County Council of Boy Scouts, which owns Camp Grimes.
It’s fun, but it’s also work. Kids walk long distances, cook, perform first aid and learn wilderness survival skills. Repeat campers become mentors for newcomers. For many kids from poor, urban neighborhoods, “It’s total culture shock,” Lewter said.
Boy Scout Joel Odom, who’s 16 and has been to Camp Grimes many times, remembers being hot and tired on his first day, and afraid of the spiders that moved into his tent that night. He also learned how to fish, cook, tie knots, and swim better. It was uncharted territory for Joel, a Northwest School of the Arts sophomore.
“It helps take less fortunate kids out of their comfort zones and experience a different kind of joy,” Joel said. “If you live in a rough neighborhood, it teaches you motivation – it makes you want to get out – then it’s up to you to achieve that goal.”
Joel, whose mother died when he was 8, lived with his grandmother when he attended his first Boy Scout meeting. As others turned to the street life, he channeled his energy toward achieving bigger things.
“I didn’t want to be like one of those people,” he said. “I didn’t want to be a statistic.”
Assistant scoutmaster Rafael Lopez says he’s grateful for the opportunities that Boy Scouts offered him. Now 20, he remembers being at a scout meeting when friends from his neighborhood got arrested for a property crime.
“Boy Scouts helped keep me away from all that stuff,” he said.
Like his troop members, Luke, the scoutmaster, grew up in a neighborhood with high unemployment, crime and unlimited potential for kids to get into trouble.
The adopted son of a single mother with health problems, Luke was sleeping in a Boulevard Homes apartment one night in 1993 when a man shot and killed two police officers, John Burnette and Andy Nobles, outside the complex.
Boulevard Homes has since been demolished, but its violent legacy remains embedded in the city’s history – and Luke’s. “I think that’s why my mom pushed me into Scouts,” he said.
He became a Cub Scout at 7, when leaders hosted a festival in his neighborhood, gave out hot dogs and recruited kids to join. He says his scoutmaster became a father figure. After graduating from Olympic High School, Luke attended UNC Charlotte, then served in the N.C. National Guard. He recently opened a martial arts studio in west Charlotte.
He remembers childhood friends who got involved with gangs and ended up dead. Many dropped out of high school and are repeating their parents’ poverty cycle. Some are in prison, leaving another generation of children vulnerable.
‘You can change a life’
Once a week Luke drives a Boy Scout van to north Charlotte where he picks up Troop 394 members from their homes in the Hidden Valley area and brings them to their meeting at the Johnston YMCA.
The boys range in age from 11 to 18. A few live in a homeless shelter. When they put on their uniforms, they are Boy Scouts. In July, they will head to Camp Grimes, which is about 80 miles northwest of Charlotte. They will swim, kayak and go tubing on the lake. They will use bows to shoot arrows, craft woodwork, solder metal and scale the climbing wall.
They will prep, cook and clean up after meals. They’ll make a classic favorite, the hobo dinner (meat, vegetables and potatoes cooked in a foil pack over hot coals.)
Luke’s first hobo dinner that first summer stuck with him. “After camp, we got home and we all kept making that dinner … a guy in the neighborhood had a grill that he let us use.”
As a leader, he tries to emulate the men who stepped in when he was a boy: “You know you can’t change the world, but you can change the life of one person.”
To give to 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 in the Local section. 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.