Salvation Army’s Camp Walter Johnson: Having fun amid hardship

Summer Camp Fund gives kids chance to try new things

06/02/2012 12:00 AM

06/02/2012 11:18 PM

The Salvation Army’s Camp Walter Johnson near Davidson has touched more than 55,000 needy children. And it all started with one conversation.

Nearly three decades ago, Denton resident Walter Johnson was talking with his tractor mechanic while he was doing some repairs.

Kids are wild these days, Johnson said, and they’re headed in the wrong direction.

The mechanic said he used to be one of those kids. He left home when he was young and headed to the Midwest with almost no money, sleeping wherever he could.

One day he came upon a toll bridge and didn’t have the money. The toll operator directed him to the Salvation Army.

The Salvation Army officers offered him a meal and put him in a clean bed. After paying for the toll the next day, one officer gave him a good talking to and helped him on his way.

The story piqued Johnson’s interest.

“The more I thought on that, well, the better satisfied I was that this was the route for me to take,” Johnson said in a 1975 interview. “I think the best thing I can do is just give what I have to the Salvation Army.”

Johnson gave the nonprofit 143 acres in Denton, outside Davidson, as well an additional piece of real estate that sold for $650,000. That money helped build the camp.

The overnight camp for children in need opened in 1974. The camp, which serves youths from all over the Carolinas, applied to the Charlotte Observer’s Summer Camp Fund this year. Thanks to reader donations, 52 kids from the Salvation Army’s Boys and Girls Clubs of Charlotte will attend camp July 16-21 at no cost to their families.

Many of the boys and girls, most of whom are 6 to 12, come from low-income and at-risk families.

“A lot of times, the kids do come from rough, rough situations,” said Burl LaBatte, who co-directs the camp with his wife, Carrie. At camp, “the kids get to challenge themselves, believe in themselves. By the time they leave, they have more confidence in who they are.”

The campers sleep in wood cabins and fill their days with swimming, archery and canoe races on a lake. There’s even a miniature golf course and a bike track.

Bible studies and devotion times teach the campers about Jesus, the backbone of the Salvation Army’s mission, said LaBatte, 34.

Head counselor Marc Gmuca, 23, who just graduated from Appalachian State University, is looking forward to his fifth summer at Camp Walter Johnson.

He said sometimes all the kids want is someone who will listen.

“You hear some of the conversations and it breaks your heart,” Gmuca said. “(Like) the first few times when they talk about, ‘My dad’s in jail. My brother’s in jail.’ ”

One time a camper got homesick, Gmuca said. By day two and three of the week, he was threatening to run away.

Gmuca got a call during dinner that the boy had tried to walk home.

“We worked with him, pushed him to try new things, to have a good time,” Gmuca said. “By the time he left, the conversation was more, ‘Do I have to go home? I want to stay.’ ”

Another girl had a disability and needed a walker. She struggled.

Then the counselors discovered she loved water. The girl spent so much time in the pool, the counselors had her wear socks because her toes were getting raw from the pool bottom.

“You could see that spark in her eye, that spark saying she was tired but excited,” Gmuca said.

This ministry is a calling, LaBatte said.

“The heart of (Johnson’s) gift was to help kids before they start heading down a bad road,” LaBatte said. “We definitely live that.”

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