For kids from middle- and upper-income families, summer camp is a great place to make new friends and enjoy the great outdoors. But for children growing up in poverty, summer camp may be the one spot where they can simply be a kid.
Poverty has a way of forcing kids to grow up fast, child advocates say, whether it’s taking care of younger siblings because there’s no money for a babysitter, listening to mom or dad worry about finances, or staying inside because the neighborhood isn’t safe.
Every summer Lutheridge Camp, nestled in the mountains of Arden, near Asheville, hosts children from McClintock Middle School in east Charlotte for a week of hiking, whitewater rafting, swimming and fellowship. More than 80 percent of students at McClintock qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.
“When everyday life is the same, those mountaintop experiences that they literally have at Lutheridge become special experiences that a kid can really use,” Amy Daniels said. She’s the outreach coordinator at Christ Lutheran Church in Charlotte, which has an outreach program at McClintock Middle School.
“They learn about themselves, and they have fun. But it’s more than that,” she said. “It starts laying groundwork for the future. It might give them ideas for places they want to go, the people they want to be, or the careers that they want to have.”
This summer, 20 children from local low-income families will attend Lutheridge Camp on a scholarship from The Charlotte Observer’s Summer Camp Fund.
Lutheridge Camp, run by the Lutheran Church, is one of 14 camps that receive money from the Observer’s Summer Camp Fund. Thanks to the generosity of readers, as well as corporate donations, more than 260 kids from low-income families will attend camps this summer.
The McClintock children are chosen through a partnership with Christ Lutheran Church and middle school staff, who identify children with good behavior and high motivation to attend the weeklong camp.
“It helps mark life,” said Daniels, who works closely with the children and staff at McClintock.
Daniels says she knows the very private worries of some children, who go off to camp thinking of struggles going on at home.
She recalls a morning not many years ago when a boy and his mom showed up distraught to Christ Lutheran as the camp bus was preparing to leave for camp. The mother had lost her rent payment and was panicked, sure that her son needed to stay home to help her through the crisis.
“We convinced her that we would wrap our arms around her and get her through this, but that he needs to go” to camp, Daniels said.
“He wanted to go so badly. He felt bad, and he felt guilty. But he needed that experience,” she said. “This offers them that chance to be a kid.”
Chris “Junior” Soto, a rising eighth-grader at McClintock, said attending Lutheridge last month was one of the highlights of his summer.
Money has been tight at the Soto house lately, with his dad unable to work after back surgery. So sleep-away camp wasn’t even a possibility for Junior, the youngest of four children. His mom, Jessica, works at a local rent-to-own store.
When he made the A-B honor roll, Junior was invited to attend Lutheridge Camp for a week on a scholarship in June.
His experience at sleep-away camp was full of other firsts – his first whitewater rafting trip, his first time in a canoe and his first time making “hobo dinner,” which entails piling hamburger meat and tater tots into a foil pouch and cooking it over a fire.
“I want to try making that at home,” he said, laughing.
Junior rode up the serpentine mountain roads on a bus with several friends from McClintock, but found himself separated from all of them when cabin assignments were announced.
But he says he became fast friends with his three cabinmates and his counselor, Jacob, a Duke University student, who tossed out trivia questions at snack time, rewarding the campers with goodies when they got the answers right.
Jessica Soto said she was thrilled that her son had the experience.
“I think he’s a little more independent now, because this was his first time away,” she said. “He came back with story after story.”
Mar’iesha Harris, a 13-year-old rising eighth-grader at McClintock, said she was nervous as her ears popped on the ride up to Lutheridge last month.
But when she arrived, her nerves quickly calmed. She made friends from as far away as Texas and reveled in the hikes, worship services and river tubing.
“I want to go back,” she said.
Her mom, Angela Boyd, said camp was a great reward for Mar’iesha, who consistently makes the honor roll and has earned “a million awards and certificates.”
“When she came back she was so enthused about the trip,” Boyd said. “It was a true blessing to us.”