The summer before his seventh-grade year, Karel Mazanec was a sullen, angry kid.
Life had been tough for him and his mom. They had come to the United States from the Czech Republic just two years earlier. With his mom, Mila, working two and three jobs at a time to make ends meet, she often left Karel (pronounced CAR-el) home alone at night, and Karel got in trouble.
But along came a scholarship for 12 days at Camp Thunderbird, a YMCA camp on Lake Wylie.
That’s when the turnaround began.
During those 12 days, Karel took part in activities he’d never done, such as water skiing, tubing, ropes courses and sailing. But it was in the quieter moments, during group devotions and one-on-one time with counselors and other campers, that a new, improved Karel emerged.
“Before camp, I was completely lost,” says Mazanec, now a married 24-year-old law student at the College of William & Mary. “If I hadn’t gone to camp, I’m pretty certain I would have been in an awful place, if I was here at all. I truly and honestly feel like camp saved my life and put me on the right path.”
Camp Thunderbird participates in the Observer’s annual Summer Camp Fund, which gives camp scholarships to children from low-income families.
Since 2009, reader contributions as well as grants and matching funds have sent nearly 600 children to day and overnight camps. Starting this week, another 208 children will head off to 12 summer day and sleep-away camps for adventures.
Camp made such a difference that Mazanec returned to Camp Thunderbird for 12 straight summers. He was a camper for four years, and then served as a counselor-in-training, junior counselor, senior counselor, head counselor and boys camp director.
During that time, he graduated from North Mecklenburg High School, got a bachelor’s degree from UNC Charlotte and applied to law school.
His transformation from a withdrawn child who didn’t know how to talk to people to a successful student and role model for other youths didn’t happen overnight. But he still remembers what it felt like to attend Camp Thunderbird that first summer.
“For the first time, I had people that actually listened to me,” he says. “I had counselors that actually cared about me and my seventh-grader interests and what I wanted. That’s the sort of thing that will stick with a kid for the 50 weeks (of the year) that they’re not at camp.”
He started dating his wife, Michelle, while the two were students at UNCC and even proposed marriage to her during a summer at Camp Thunderbird.
Mazanec asked Michelle to come for a visit one evening, and when she arrived he had a friend, dressed in suit and tie, pull up in a boat and take the two to a water ski landing dock in the middle of Lake Wylie.
With the help of Camp Thunderbird Leadership director Kaye Carraway, he prepared the dock with a beautifully set table and asked the kitchen staff to cook a special steak dinner. With her favorite song playing (“Iris,” by the Goo Goo Dolls), he proposed marriage. She said yes.
At the wedding, Michelle’s big Italian family attended in droves.
As for Mazanec, his mom was his only blood relative there. But his other “family” filled the seats.
“All my camp friends came, and they filled in for my family,” he says.
This will be the first summer in 12 years that Mazanec doesn’t pack his bags and head off to Camp Thunderbird.
He and Michelle are living in Williamsburg now. He’s commuting to Richmond for an internship as he prepares to start his second year of law school in the fall.
The couple traveled back to Charlotte to visit Michelle’s family last weekend. He felt the tug of Camp Thunderbird.
“It felt so strange to be so close to camp and not be there,” he says. “This past weekend was returning staff day. They were saying their hellos and catching up and I wasn’t there. It was strange, but I guess it was time to move on.
“It is still a huge part of my life,” he says. “You carry camp with you always.”