In a few weeks, Fred Williams will head to summer camp and look for the kids who remind him of himself when he was a boy.
Williams spent his tender years in one of Washington, D.C.’s toughest neighborhoods. His mom later moved him and his five siblings to Charlotte looking for a better life, but he never forgot what it’s like to be young and afraid.
As a high school student, staffers at his neighborhood Salvation Army center encouraged him to give Camp Walter Johnson a try. Reluctantly, he did. And it changed his life.
He attended the camp on a scholarship from The Charlotte Observer’s Summer Camp Fund.
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This year, the 20-year-old CPCC student will spend his second summer as a counselor at the residential camp in Denton, N.C., about 60 miles northeast of Charlotte. He says he won’t have to look hard to find kids facing the same struggles he did. And he will have a message for them.
“If I do anything, the first and the last thing I want to teach the kids at camp is that when you feel like there’s nobody inside, remember that there is somebody who loves you and always has your back,” Williams said. “And that’s God.”
Since 2009, reader contributions as well as grants and matching funds have sent nearly 600 children from low-income families to day and overnight camps.
Last year alone, the fund raised nearly $80,000, which will send 208 children to 12 camps this summer.
The Summer Camp Fund puts special emphasis on camps that provide children a true outdoor experience. Camps are also required to offer children skills in reading and encouraged to teach swimming.
Some specifically serve kids with disabilities, like autism. Some are in faraway North Carolina mountain towns, while others are day camps in Mecklenburg and neighboring counties.
“All children deserve the gift of getting to go to summer camp,” said Ann Caulkins, publisher of The Charlotte Observer. “Children from middle-class families don’t fall behind in summer because they get to continue with activities that inspire them.”
A goal for the fund is to give children the gift of firsts – perhaps the first time riding a horse, singing songs around a campfire, or learning to swim across the pool. “At that moment, there’s not a worry in the world,” Caulkins said.
Rebecca Hefner, a senior researcher at the Council for Children’s Rights in Charlotte who independently administers the camp fund for The Charlotte Observer, says the objectives of the fund are very real.
“The goals of the summer camp fund are that campers respect and value the outdoors, build skills and develop new talents and work on what we call 21st century learning skills – problem solving, teamwork and leadership,” Hefner said.
One other huge objective: Raise kids’ aspirations for their futures.
“For kids that have never been out of Mecklenburg County, this gives them a different view of the world and a different vision,” Hefner said.
Summer is a critical time in the life of a child, experts say. Especially children from low-income families.
“Anything that can be done to keep kids sharp over the summer is going to help,” said Harris Cooper, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University.
“There’s lots of evidence that kids forget (school subject matter) over the summer and that kids from poorer homes forget more,” Cooper said. “Evidence suggests that much of the achievement gap has even more to do with what kids do out of school rather than in school.”
In the week ahead, Salvation Army volunteers are clearing trails and sweeping cobwebs from the cabins at Camp Walter Johnson.
Summer Fund campers will be among the 1,200 kids who will circulate through the camp this summer, each spending one week doing everything from competing in Amazing Race-type contests to sharing stories during the nightly gatherings, camp director Carrie LaBatte said.
Fred Williams can’t wait to get there.
He will think of how far he has come as he coaxes his young charges across the tree line in the ropes course and encourages them to plunge off the high dive – things he did for the first time as a camper at Camp Walter Johnson, too.
“That was a beautiful week.”