Every Sunday during June, Josh Hobbs watches kids roll into the camp he leads near Aiken, S.C., and sees the transformations begin.
Anxious kids shed their nerves as they form new friendships. Children not apt to take on new challenges learn to be brave on the diving board or scale rocks for the first time.
“It’s where kids get to find themselves. They get to be who they want to be,” said Hobbs, director of W.W. Long Leadership Center – commonly known as “Camp Long” – a 4-H camp offered through the Youth Learning Institute of Clemson University that serves kids ages 8-14 from across South Carolina. “Camp is where kids learn to be comfortable with themselves.”
Camp Long is one of 14 camps that receive money from the Observer’s Summer Camp Fund. Thanks to the generosity of readers, as well as matching grants and corporate donations, more than 260 kids from low-income families will attend camps this summer.
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The fund is paying for nine children from Chester County, S.C., to attend Camp Long.
Hobbs, 27, who hails from Kentucky, attended 4-H camp on scholarship every summer, starting in fifth grade. When he grew too old to be a camper, he returned as a counselor in training.
He so loved the mission and the experience of camp that he became the first person in his family to graduate from college, earning a parks and recreation degree from Eastern Kentucky University that allowed him to lead 4-H programs and camps. He’s been at Camp Long since 2012.
“The experiences I had at camp and the things I learned to do made me the leader that I am today,” Hobbs said.
At Camp Long, Hobbs and his staff of 11 strive to give kids a traditional outdoor-adventure summer camp experience. The five-day sessions are packed with activities such as riflery, rock climbing, canoeing and campfires.
Hobbs said he gets “cold chills” when he thinks about the donors who gave money so he could go to summer camp as a kid, as well as the donors who still give today so others can enjoy a week away and maybe find their passions, too.
“When a kid comes to camp for the first time ever, I want them to have the most brilliant experience they’ve ever had,” Hobbs said. “We want them to say, ‘My favorite moment of summer was when I got to go to summer camp.’ ”
Matthew Stradford, 12, attended Camp Long last month on an Observer scholarship. It was his first time away from home, and he said his favorite moments were spent ziplining and breaking out his moves at an all-camp dance. “Everybody participated,” he said.
Matthew collected the phone numbers of three new friends and came home so exhausted from all the activities that his mom, Shondray, didn’t hear the details of how the week went until the next day.
“There really isn’t much in Chester for kids to do (during the summer), so this was a chance to get out, meet new people and do something positive,” Shondray Stradford said.
A’zia Gallman, 11, also experienced the joys of Camp Long last month through an Observer scholarship.
She said she perfected her swimming skills in the lake, shot a rifle for the first time and cherished her favorite time of the day, “when the activities were over, and we went to the campfire and everybody was excited.”
A’zia said the air-conditioned cabins complete with bathrooms were “a nice surprise.”
Her single mom, Gloria “Dreeka” Gallman, is a Head Start teacher with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools; she said she’s grateful to donors who gave A’zia a chance to go to camp.
Besides hearing lots of colorful camp stories, Gloria Gallman said she has noticed that A’zia has a more cooperative and collaborative spirit when playing with her younger sister, 8-year-old Camiya, since returning from camp.
“I can tell she really worked with diverse groups of people and benefited from being around different personalities. She brought that home,” Gloria Gallman said. “It was just a wonderful experience she had.”