April 18, 2010

Your gift can send kid to camp

This summer will bring new outdoor adventures for children used to the city - walks in the forest, feeding animals at a farm, canoeing in lakes teeming with fish.

This summer will bring new outdoor adventures for children used to the city - walks in the forest, feeding animals at a farm, canoeing in lakes teeming with fish.

Those moments can be life changing. And thanks to readers' donations, children from families that can't afford summer camp will have those experiences.

The Charlotte Observer and nonprofit Partners in Out-of-School Time are sponsoring The Summer Camp Fund again this year. The regionwide fundraiser helps send children from low-income families to day and overnight camps.

The concept is similar to The Fresh Air Fund, a decades-old program in other cities where newspapers and nonprofits team up to allow youngsters to spend summers outdoors.

Readers donated $50,000 to The Summer Camp Fund in 2009, the first year of the program.

"All children deserve a chance to have a wonderful outdoor experience," said Ann Caulkins, publisher of The Charlotte Observer.

"Last year was just such a great affirmation that this was the right thing. ...Our readers were really generous last year during a tough economic time."

That generosity is allowing a more diverse lineup of camps to be part of this year's program, according to Claire Tate, president of POST.

The 10 camps include places like the Schiele Museum in Gastonia, where campers will explore a creek and farm right on the grounds.

Campers also will go to Discovery Place, which pairs with Reedy Creek Nature Preserve in north Charlotte for outdoor hikes, boating and environmental classes. Also involved is Camp Royall outside Pittsboro, a camp for children with autism, about 21/2 hours east of Charlotte.

Summer camp advocates agree the camp experience can enrich children's lives, but many never have a chance to go because of the expense.

"More people are aware of the importance of outdoor programs, especially over the summer," said Tate of POST.

"When young people don't have continued stimulation of new ideas and things to observe and problems to solve, they really lose some of the learning they've gained during the year."

Reaching more kids

Directors at the camps in The Summer Camp Fund say they're glad the scholarships will allow more children to attend.

Sitting at the border of the Pisgah National Forest, about two hours west of Charlotte, Camp Grier can feel very far away from home for children trying summer camp for the first time, executive director Dave Cohn said.

"A lot of children that come to Camp Grier...are used to the city life. They're not used to being out in the woods."

But Cohn said being pushed outside their comfort level makes many children want to explore even more. Older campers can even stay in cabins with no electricity, where they're dependent on campfires for their cooking.

"(It's) everything from as small as picking up a rock and seeing a crawdad underneath it, to staking a net and scooping up tadpoles," Cohn said.

"I see the value of taking a child out of their normal environment and putting them in another environment that might stretch them a bit."

Taking it outside

Some of the camps work with children year-round, emphasizing the outdoors and experiential learning.

The recent spring break brought classes to the Wildlife Room at Camp Thunderbird on Lake Wylie. The instructor prompted "oohs" and "aahs" when she reached for Leroy, a spotted leopard gecko typically found in the desert, and Yonder, a crested gecko with deceptively soft skin that she encouraged the children to touch. "You guys have seen the Geico commercial?" she asked, referring to the trademark gecko in the insurance commercials. "He's a different type of the same species."

At Discovery Place, schoolchildren lined up to meet a boa constrictor and a tarantula. They took turns at a hair-raising exhibit - literally - that made strands stand on end due to static electricity.

Leaders at these sites want that learning to extend throughout the summer for as many children as possible.

Traci Goff, at Discovery Place, said it's fun to watch children who are squeamish at first at the prospect of dissecting a frog come around to trying it themselves.

She said their surveys show that after a week of science programming over the summer, children's attitudes become much more positive about science. The key is catching them early.

The public can help with that.

"Since it's hands on and you get to do things...you're getting into the muck and stuff," Goff said. "They start to realize anybody can do this."

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