Summer camp lifted the odds stacked against girl

05/04/2014 7:45 PM

03/03/2015 12:27 PM

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.”

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