Perched high in treetop cabins, three sisters laugh with new friends during "turtle time" at Camp Golden Valley.
While "turtle time" is supposed to be downtime for campers and a chance to write letters home, Alyssa Stokes, 13, smiled and whispered: "It's more like a party."
She and her sisters Victoria Stokes, 15, and Samantha Stokes, 11, from Gastonia, are all smiles when they think about the fun they have had on their first full day at the Girl Scout camp, about 60 miles west of Charlotte in Rutherford County.
The girls have attended the camp in the past and said they continue to come back because they love it. This year, the sisters are participating in "Rope Swingin', a weeklong session that teaches team-building through high and low ropes courses.
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Activities include swimming in the lake, cooking over an open fire and riding a zip line. Campers also learn about nature and animals sharing the grounds with them. The group already witnessed a buck and doe with their fawn, learned about creatures dwelling under rocks during creek stomping, and woke to the sound of whippoorwills.
"It lets (campers) experience something they otherwise wouldn't get to do," said Amy "Noodles" Butler, assistant camp director. "Camp makes a big difference in their lives and it's something that just sticks with them forever."
Tucked in the mountains of Western North Carolina, Camp Golden Valley offers panoramic views of pastures, lakes, hiking trails and creeks. The camp serves about 65 campers each week and has weekly overnight and day camp sessions, said Katie "Rodeo" Forrest, camp director.
This year, the Stokes sisters received scholarships from The Summer Camp Fund to attend Camp Golden Valley.
With the help of The Summer Camp Fund, an initiative created by The Charlotte Observer and the nonprofit Partners in Out-of-School Time, children from low-income families throughout the Charlotte region will be able to participate in outdoor camps.
Along with friendships and new activities, camp allows the girls to gain self-confidence and establish a sense of independence, Butler said.
The hardest part about coming to camp is missing your family, Victoria said, but "you learn a lot that you'll keep with you forever."
Alyssa agreed: "You cry the first day (of camp), but then the last day you don't want to leave."