On the way to the mountains, they didn’t eat.
While the other children chomped on cookies and potato chips, swapping camp stories from the year before, the two brothers from McClintock Middle School sat quietly.
They declined lunch when Kathy Cullum, 61, steered the passenger van into McDonald’s.
Like many children she drives to camp, the brothers had never left Charlotte before.
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“They don’t have a clue (about) what to expect,” said Cullum, who has volunteered with Christ Lutheran Church to drive children to Lutheridge Camp near Asheville for three years. “I drive children who’ve never been anywhere except for riding the bus to school.”
But Cullum has witnessed many changes in the children she drives to summer camp.
The Charlotte Observer’s Summer Camp Fund is working with nonprofit POST (Partners in Out-of-School Time) to send children from low-income families to day and overnight camps.
Without assistance from the Observer’s Summer Camp Fund, hundreds of children wouldn’t know the thrill of a mountaintop view after a long hike, the refreshment from a dip in a lake on a blistering day or the smoky-sweet taste of s’mores around a campfire.
“We believe the impact of even a week of quality camp experience can be life-changing for a child,” said Ann Caulkins, publisher of The Charlotte Observer and a former summer camper.
Reader contributions as well as grants and matching funds have sent nearly 450 area children to camp since the program started in 2009.
This year, the fund will provide 150 scholarships at 14 camps.
Some specifically serve children with disabilities or medical conditions, such as autism and diabetes. The camps aim to keep students of all ages physically and mentally engaged.
“Children in an urban environment don’t often have the opportunity to listen to frogs, catch a fish, climb a tree, look at clouds in different formations,” said Claire Tate, founder and director of POST, which was created to help K-12 students in Mecklenburg County have learning opportunities after school and in the summer.
The Summer Camp Fund is trying to tackle what author Richard Louv (“Last Child in the Woods”) calls “nature deficit.”
Louv’s book outlines research that shows direct exposure to nature is essential for healthy childhood development and for the physical and emotional needs of children – and adults.
At camp, there are no cell phones, video games or televisions. The children gain a better appreciation of natural surroundings, which, in turn, makes them better stewards of the environment.
The camps also teach life skills. For example, many campers have never had a swimming lesson. Others have never known true quiet.
“The noise of crickets and tree frogs is different from the sound of cars,” Tate said.
The children who receive scholarships attend camp with other children who are paying to attend.
Once, Tate drove a 13-year-old girl and Summer Camp Fund recipient to the YMCA’s Camp Thunderbird on Lake Wylie.
The teen – who had never spent the night away from home – was unsure of herself, as she knew she’d be spending several weeks with teens who came from more comfortable homes.
When she came to pick her up a few weeks later: “She could have been the queen of England,” Tate said. “People were lined up to hug her goodbye. She went three summers, and they begged her to keep coming back.”
The teen eventually became a counselor in training.
Amy Daniels, director of outreach at Christ Lutheran (a member of POST) helps coordinate transportation and supplies for Summer Camp Fund children, so the cash-strapped families are not burdened with purchasing camp gear.
Daniels said these camp experiences often help create a road out of poverty.
One child with a scholarship came back from his week away, bursting with stories and future plans. “His comment was, ‘I can’t wait until after my freshman year of college because I can become a counselor,’ ” Daniels said. “It was monumental.”
And those feelings don’t dissipate.
Daniels said teachers have told her students write stories about their experiences nearly a year later.
“People in poverty feel like they have no choice, no power and no future story,” Daniels said. “We have to reinforce that future story. We can’t let it die.”
Cullum said the reluctant brothers she dropped off at Lutheridge Camp were barely recognizable when she picked them up.
After a week of making friends, rafting, and rock climbing, the children who timidly ventured out of Charlotte for the first time, dashed toward her, their faces bright with smiles.
They draped earnest hugs around her waist and neck.
“In their mind, it’s like I took them to the moon,” Cullum said.