In this electronic world, kids don’t always have the chance to enjoy summer pastimes of splashing in rivers or catching fireflies, much less tending a garden or tromping through brush.
But at Camp Celo, they do all those things and more.
Camp Celo (pronounced SEE-low) is a working family farm in Burnsville, about 120 miles northwest of Charlotte. The camp has welcomed children ages 7-12 every summer for more than 60 years. And over the six decades, not much has changed.
Campers wake in their tents each morning to the sound of counselors singing as they walk between the tents, often accompanied by guitar or accordion. They do farm chores such as feeding baby calves and plucking eggs from beneath chickens. They swim every day in the river and write letters home. Every night, they drift off to sleep to the sounds of their counselors serenading them with 30 minutes of song.
“There’s a great warm enthusiasm that goes into everything at camp,” said Drew Perrin, 25, one of the camp’s co-directors. “It’s a real positive appreciation for each other and the world that they’re living in.”
Camp Celo participates in The Charlotte Observer’s Summer Camp Fund, which gives camp scholarships to children from low-income families. In its fifth year, the fund will send 208 children to 12 day and overnight camps this summer.
The camp has made a difference in the lives of Jeryn and Juakeem Lindsay, a brother and sister from west Charlotte who were given Charlotte Observer camp scholarships after being identified by the Bruce Irons Camp Fund.
Jeryn, 15, attended Camp Celo for three years and this summer, Juakeem, a sixth-grader, will return to the camp for his third and final year. Their mother, Evanda Lindsay, says she’s so grateful that one of Jeryn’s teachers at Irwin Avenue Open Elementary School nominated Jeryn for a camp scholarship years ago. That scholarship turned into a family scholarship once Juakeem was old enough to go to camp.
“I just couldn’t afford it,” said Evanda Lindsay, a single mom.
‘They changed my whole point of view’
“They changed my whole point of view about life,” said Jeryn, now a ninth-grader at Phillip O. Berry Academy of Technology. “The big picture I really got from camp was to always be grateful and always be open-minded to others around you, because everyone has something to teach you.”
During her three summers at Camp Celo, she met other kids from as far away as Israel, tapped out her first songs on the piano, and for the first time enjoyed the taste of asparagus, freshly plucked from the earth.
She already has her sights set on Wake Forest University followed by a master’s degree in business management.
Juakeem, 11, says the biggest lesson he has learned at camp so far is “learning to be grateful.”
“It’s not like at home, where you can just go to the store and buy stuff,” Juakeem said. “At camp you have to work hard for what you get. I had to milk the goat so we would have milk. If you were on gardening duty, you had to work for what you ate. You learn that everything you do is for a reason.”
Doug and Ruby Moody founded Camp Celo in 1948 with a handful of kids and a few tents.
Perrin’s grandparents, Bob and Dot Barrus, took over the camp a few years later, and they and their children, Gib and Barbara, expanded the camp into what it is today. This summer, 252 kids will filter through the camp during one-, two- and three-week sessions. The camp can accommodate 62 children ages 7-12 at any one time.
Gathering kids from a range of backgrounds and socio-economic levels has always been a driving force behind Camp Celo – even in the years of segregation, when integrated camps otherwise did not exist.
The camp promotes the Quaker values of nonviolence, simplicity and environmental awareness. Directors say the spiritual element to life at camp is an essential part of the Camp Celo experience.
Part of the camp’s daily program includes time for stories and guided discussion about issues relating to values, virtues or morals.
“We have kids from Jewish, conservative Christian, Muslim faiths, among others,” said camp director Gib Barrus. “We look at what are the values that each of these religions hold, and let’s see what we have in common. We don’t have a religious program, but there is a spiritual aspect to what we do.”
Campers visit a local Quaker Friends meeting to “get a little taste of the meditative worship time we have together,” Gib Barrus said.
For many kids, chore time is one of the best parts of Camp Celo.
Besides milking cows and feeding baby calves with bottles, they learn to compost waste and how to harvest and clean fruits and vegetables from the garden.
Even scrubbing toilets has a joyful place at Camp Celo. Kids take turns serving as the “Master of Sanitation” – a job that even comes with a special crown. To sweeten the deal, the child who completes the bathroom task gets first dibs on picking his or her next chore, whether it be milking the cow or tending the baby rabbits, Gib Barrus said.
Drew Perrin leads by example, transforming the mundane task of vacuuming out the camp’s cars into a party mentality for the kids, chanting “Get out the dirt!”
“When they’re working with things later on, they might not always be chanting and singing, but it translates into their own personal fulfillment that comes from doing a really good job and the satisfaction that comes from knowing they’re fully committing themselves to something,” Perrin said.
Juakeem says he’s already started having dreams that he’s on the way to camp. “Then I wake up and I’m like, ‘Oh. I’m not at camp.’ ”
He’s eager for June to come, when he will finally catch that first glimpse of the “Camp Celo” sign.
“When I see the camp, I start getting a big smile on my face.”