Kids learn resilience, outdoor skills at adventure camp

06/07/2014 1:45 PM

03/03/2015 12:26 PM

Ailazia Fisher has always been a kid with a get-up-and-go attitude, but there are a few things that scare her. Racing down a river in a canoe gets her heart pumping. And heights make her panic.

But each summer, 14-year-old Ailazia (say ah-LAY-zha) sets off to scale mountain rock faces, canoe down rivers and hone her swimming and camping skills at Camp Grier, 100 miles northwest of Charlotte.

A rising ninth-grader from Charlotte’s westside, Ailazia has headed off to Camp Grier every summer for the past four years.

It’s there, she says, that she learned outdoor survival skills like turning river water into drinkable water and how to safely navigate a canoe through a fork in a waterway.

But she says she also has camp to thank for getting over the fear of being away from her family and learning how to socialize with all types of people.

“I wanted to stay home with my parents and friends,” she recalls from her first summer at camp, “but my mom was like, ‘You need to experience different things. You need to know different people and see everything that’s out there for you.’ ”

This summer, the Charlotte Observer’s Summer Camp Fund will send 32 children from low-income families in the Charlotte area to Camp Grier.

Thanks to the generosity of readers, as well as matching grants and corporate donations, more than 260 kids will attend 14 camps this summer through the Summer Camp Fund. This is the fund’s sixth year.

“Outdoor adventure for us is a vehicle for a larger goal,” says camp director Jason McDougald.

“It brings kids and people together. If you really want kids to learn how to work with other people, put them in a canoe and push them down a river. By the end of the day, they’ll be working together,” he said with a laugh.

This summer, about 500 kids ages 7 to 18 will cycle through Camp Grier during its six weeks of operation. Campers come for one- or two-week sessions, and about one quarter of the campers are there on scholarships such as the Observer Summer Camp Fund’s.

Younger kids sleep in lodge-like bunkhouses, while older kids stay just outside the main camp in rustic cabins, a short walk away from any bathrooms.

Older kids venture far away from the campgrounds to do hikes, campouts, river cleanups, work in an area food bank, rock climbing, canoe trips and other high-adventure activities.

“We use (outdoor adventure) as a metaphor,” McDougald said. “We tell kids, ‘When you go home, you’re going to have friends that you might not get along with all the time, but you have to work with. You’re going to face challenges like trigonometry or playing the flute.’ ”

A common refrain McDougald says he hears during camp is, “If I can do that, I can do anything.”

“We want them to have fun and we want them to enjoy camp, but we also want to push kids a little bit,” he says. “We want them to be stressed, and we want them to grow.”

McDougald says hosting scholarship kids is an important part of the camp’s purpose.

“Part of our mission has been to make outdoor adventure accessible. We don’t feel like it should be the domain of people who can pay $2,000 a week.”

(Tuition at Camp Grier ranges from $435, for children 7-12 to attend for one week, to $1,144, for an older child to attend for two weeks.)

Caryn Overbey, who first met Ailazia when volunteering at Westerly Hills Elementary, helped sign Ailazia up for a scholarship spot through Overbey’s church, First Presbyterian Church in uptown.

Each year, Overbey, who Ailazia calls her “camp mom,” helps Ailazia get ready for camp by making sure she has the supplies she needs and treating her to a shopping trip to gather what she’s missing. The two keep in contact during the school year as well.

“I think it’s definitely made her a little more outgoing, and given her excitement for doing things she hadn’t done,” Overbey said. “She just comes home every year from camp excited about some new experience she’s had.

“I think anything like that makes you a little less afraid of new situations and challenges,” she said. “If you face those challenges in a situation like camp, it can’t help but spill over and help you face challenges in life.”

Ailazia’s mom, Tamika Walker, says she sees an excitement in her daughter when she returns home from Camp Grier each summer.

“She talks to us about all the things that she’s done,” says Walker, a bus driver. “I can see her growth.”

When asked about some of her favorite memories from camp, Ailazia’s thoughts turn to some of the toughest moments she’s faced.

Like the day last summer when she was challenged to put on climbing shoes and tackle a steep rock face.

“I’m scared of heights, so I didn’t want to go all the way to the top,” she said.

“But everyone kept cheering me on with ‘You can do this!” and “You’ve got this!’ ” she recalls. “It really felt good.”

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