Drew Perrin sees it every summer.
Kids who don’t get outdoors much for 11 months of the year arrive at Camp Celo, the summer camp his family runs, and something magical happens.
“When they get here, they feel right at home. Their shoes come off first thing, and they’re running through the grass,” Perrin says.
Camp Celo (pronounced SEE-low) is a working family farm in Burnsville, about 120 miles northwest of Charlotte. The camp has welcomed children 7-12 every summer for more than 60 years.
Kids learn to connect with the environment and each other in unique ways at Camp Celo, from learning to cultivate, harvest and prepare food to caring for animals and milking cows. Camp leaders take great care to ensure that the campers come from diverse backgrounds, and they make time for stories and guided discussion about values, virtues and morals.
“It’s such a vital time for them to have an experience outdoors,” Perrin says, “because that will keep them concerned about the environment and the natural places left in the world.”
Camp Celo participates in The Charlotte Observer’s Summer Camp Fund, which gives camp scholarships to children from low-income families. In its sixth year, the fund will send more than 260 children to 14 day and overnight camps this summer.
Four children will attend Camp Celo this summer thanks to Summer Camp Fund scholarships. Tuition at the camp ranges from $1,000 to $2,150 for one-, two- or three-week sessions.
The spirit and most of the activities at Camp Celo are just as they were 60 years ago.
Each morning, campers are awakened by the sound of counselors singing as they walk between the tents, often accompanied by guitar.
They do farm chores such as feeding baby calves and plucking eggs from beneath chickens. They swim in the river every day and write letters home, tucking the letters in envelopes they make themselves. Every night, they drift off to sleep to the sounds of their counselors serenading them with 30 minutes of song.
No personal electronic devices are allowed at camp – not even for counselors.
60 years of campers
Doug and Ruby Moody founded Camp Celo in 1948 with a handful of kids and a few tents.
Drew Perrin’s grandparents, Bob and Dot Barrus, took over the camp a few years later, and they and their children, Gib and Barbara, expanded the camp into what it is today. This summer, 256 kids will filter through the camp. Many are children of campers from a generation ago.
Gathering kids from a range of backgrounds and socioeconomic levels has always been a driving force behind Camp Celo – even in the years of segregation, when integrated camps were rare.
The camp promotes Quaker values of nonviolence, simplicity and environmental awareness. Directors say the spiritual element to life at camp is an essential part of the Camp Celo experience.
One of the very first thing campers do after unpacking their bags on the first day is hear the list of chores and sign up for their first one.
Kids are typically excited to get right to work, Perrin says, whether their first job is spreading wood chips on the camp trails or harvesting and cleaning fruits and vegetables from the garden for mealtime.
A surprisingly popular chore is serving as “king or queen of sanitation” – cleaning the bathrooms. Campers get to wear a crown while scrubbing bathrooms, then get first pick at their next chore.
“If they really want to milk the cow, it’s a really popular thing to do,” Perrin laughs.
Camp leaders say allowing kids to get to know other kids from a wide range of economic, racial and cultural backgrounds is an essential part of the Camp Celo experience. Some come from wealthy families who fly them in from other states, while some are children of migrant workers or kids from the inner city.
“It’s a way of broadening their life experience and helping them to really realize that some of these images in the media might be a little distorted,” says Gib Barrus, one of the camp’s directors. “It helps them understand that there’s more than one perspective.”
Jaron Whack, a 13-year-old rising eighth-grader who lives in the Druid Hills area north of uptown, was picked by his school guidance counselor to attend Camp Celo on a scholarship for three years as a fifth-, sixth- and seventh-grader.
The oldest of three boys, he was ready to try sleepaway camp and quickly got used to sleeping in tents and coexisting with bugs.
Caring for animals were his favorite chores, he says. And camp opened his eyes to the deliciousness of vegetables he’d never eaten before, “like fresh peas in a pod. You can take them out, wash them, and eat them.”
Being serenaded by counselors was a new experience, too. “It’s like a lullaby when you’re going to sleep. And in the morning, it’s like a wake-up song.”