Jason Baker knows the labels people put on kids like him.
Low-income. Absentee father. At risk.
No one seemed to care about such things at Camp Harrison. Or that a scholarship brought him there that summer after fourth grade. He just remembers being awed by the beautiful woods, the sparkling lake and a dining hall that seemed like a mansion.
Lying in bed that first night he thought about the kind counselors, singing camp songs around the campfire, and the new kids he’d met and how quickly they accepted him. He thought to himself: “Wow, this is only Sunday, and we have a full week of this.” He was distraught when the week ended: “I remember receiving so much love – I had found a community.”
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He’s gone back every summer since, first as a camper and now as a counselor. At 19, he’s just finished his freshman year in college and hopes to be the kind of mentor he had as a kid.
“It makes me thankful for the people who donate and think positively about camp,” Baker said. “I think about the kids who come here now on scholarships – and how they can give back to their community some day.”
This year, The Charlotte Observer Summer Camp Fund will send six kids to Camp Harrison in Boomer, located in the North Carolina mountains about 100 miles northwest of Charlotte. They’re among more than 1,000 mostly low-income children headed to 37 camps thanks to donations from readers and the community.
Like all YMCAs, Camp Harrison strives to find scholarship money to help children whose families don’t have it. Executive Director Dave Purcell says one of the great joys he finds at camp is watching the interaction among children from vastly different backgrounds.
There are kids from affluent families, kids from Charlotte’s toughest inner-city neighborhoods and kids growing up poor in the rural Appalachian Mountains. And somehow they click, he says.
“It’s fun to see all those worlds collide – to watch them break their stereotypes,” Purcell said. “Learning to appreciate others and learning how others live can be a real eye-opener. Camp is a great equalizer.”
Purcell remembers Jason Baker’s early years at camp: “Jason always had a passion for camp. You could tell he couldn’t wait to get here, and there wasn’t a day that he wasn’t excited to be here.”
He’s one of four brothers raised by his grandmother in Jefferson, a small town in mountainous Ashe County, near the Tennessee border. He says his mother, who had him at an early age, couldn’t take care of him and his brothers, and his father wasn’t around. They lived on the disability checks his grandmother got when shoulder surgery didn’t heal properly and the local Burger King where she worked closed.
“She’s the strongest, most incredible woman in my life,” Baker says of his grandmother, Cheryl Baker, who he says made church and education family priorities. “My grandmother kept food on the table, and most of the time the lights were on.”
Some kids made cracks about his being poor and that he got a free school lunch, “K through 12,” he says.
He knew some in his town whose families had enough money to send them to summer camp but figured he’d never get that experience. Then his grandmother applied for a scholarship, and Camp Harrison gave him one. There he met kids who talked about futures that included college and careers. Counselors talked about setting goals. It stuck.
At Ashe County High School, Baker was an honor roll student, a varsity wrestler and a defensive tackle and captain of the football team. At graduation, he received five local merit scholarships, which, combined with financial aid and a job as an intramural referee, cover his tuition at East Tennessee State University. He majors in sports management.
Baker realizes that many people made an investment in him. It’s one he intends to repay.
As a counselor, he feels a special connection with the kids who wouldn’t be there without a scholarship. He hopes that his understanding and guidance will help them overcome some of their obstacles and see a better future for themselves.
Some day he hopes to run a school athletic department or become a camp director.
“It’s been really exciting to be on the other side as a camp counselor and see how I can affect kids’ lives,” he said. He hopes they will learn what he knows about growing up with so little: “It doesn’t identify the person I am. Nobody has to be a statistic.”
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 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.