Every weekday morning for the last four summers, Cobey and Orlando Montgomery have headed into the Old Armory in Monroe for YWCA summer camp.
The camp, which serves approximately 30 kids from low-income families in Union County in a 20,000 square-foot former National Guard armory, is open to kids from kindergarten through fifth grade. The camp offers indoor and outdoor sports and games, a computer lab, arts and crafts and field trips.
Two years ago, Orlando, now a 14-year-old incoming eighth grader, aged out of the program.
But he enjoyed it so much and proved to the camp leaders that he was responsible, so they brought him on as a volunteer counselor.
He and his brother, Cobey, an 11-year-old rising fifth grader, have always been close. When they and their mom, Crystal, learned that volunteering at camp was an option, Orlando jumped at the chance.
“It’s a lot of fun. When the kids need help with something, they always come to me if I’m there,” Orlando says.
The brothers, who love fishing and playing sports together, get to pal around at camp each day.
Kelsey Livingston, YWCA learning center coordinator at the Old Armory site and director of the camp, says she was surprised when she was assigned to work at the center last summer and discovered that Orlando was only 13. “I thought he was a high school student,” she said.
“The kids really look up to him. When he jumps, they jump,” Livingston says. “You can see it in their eyes. They’re drawn to him.”
The YWCA camp in the Old Armory is one of two YWCA Central Carolinas camps in Union County that receive scholarship funds through the Charlotte Observer Summer Camp Fund.
This summer, 206 children will attend day or overnight camps thanks to the Observer’s fund. This is the fund’s fifth summer.
Poverty is an issue for some of the families the free YWCA camp serves. Livingston partners with local churches, restaurants and even a food bank to provide as many meals to the children as she can each day.
The children are provided breakfast and a snack through the camp every day, and a few days a week a local church, Langford Chapel CME, provides a hot lunch for the kids.
During the school year, Livingston coordinates with Siler Presbyterian Church in Wesley Chapel, which solicits free dinners from local restaurants for the center’s afterschool kids about once a week — a service Livingston says may extend through summer.
“The majority of the kids are in a situation where money is an issue,” Livingston says. “You just never know what they’re going home to, or if they’re getting enough. It always warms us that at least we know they ate enough before they left.”
Crystal Montgomery says she’s simply grateful that both of her boys have a safe, fun place to go during the summer while she works in the kitchen of a local daycare center.
“It’s not only summer camp, it’s a learning experience,” Montgomery says. “They’ve learned a whole lot of responsibility there.”
The consistency of having a place to go each summer where they’re loved and cared for has helped the boys adjust to changes in their lives, such as when their dad needed to take a new job as a long-distance trucker. While he is away, their mom gets help from her parents to raise them.
At camp, “they’re very consistent,” Montgomery says. “If you’re having problems, they get you to help. They’re there for you every step of the way.”