Summer Camp Fund - INACTIVE

This camp gets kids to abandon electronics for a paddle, compass or climbing wall

Campers attending Urban Outdoor Connection Camp at McDowell Nature Preserve in southwest Mecklenburg County float on the Catawba River.
Campers attending Urban Outdoor Connection Camp at McDowell Nature Preserve in southwest Mecklenburg County float on the Catawba River.

Urban Outdoor Connection Camp, run by the Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation department, has one goal: to get kids outside.

That wasn’t always such a hard thing to accomplish.

There was a time when summer break meant going barefoot in the grass and biking to the neighborhood pool each day. Now, kids may be too engrossed in Minecraft or other electronics to notice that it’s light outside until nearly 9 p.m.

Urban Outdoor Connection Camp has been the best part of summer for Rachel Francis, 14, and brother David, 12, for so long that their mom can’t remember when they started going.

“This is David’s fourth or fifth year,” said Lisa Nelson. “Honestly, I cannot remember. It could be his sixth. It’s been so long that the staff feels like family.”

Donations to the Charlotte Observer Summer Camp Fund are helping send more than 500 kids going to 33 camps this summer. Rachel and David are among 12 children attending Urban Outdoor Connection Camp thanks to the Summer Camp Fund. The goal this year is to raise $215,000 to send hundreds more to camp next summer.

Kayaking, fishing, hiking, a ropes course, and fire building are on the agenda for Urban Outdoor Connection campers – boys and girls ages 7 to 12. The four-week camp includes field trips to the Lazy 5 Ranch, Crowders Mountain, and the beach at Ebenezer Park on Lake Wylie.

Many campers are getting out in nature for the first time, said Melissa O’Lenick, manager at McDowell Nature Center and Preserve in southwest Mecklenburg County. She oversees the outdoor adventure camp.

“Some kids really expect to encounter lions, tigers and bears on the trails and sharks in the water,” O’Lenick said. “We meet them where their comfort level is.

“We don’t just go into the woods or the water right away,” she said. “We’ll talk about the importance of a life jacket before they ever wear one. We demonstrate how to paddle on land before we get in a boat.”

The all-day camp is a good resource for working parents who need a summer daycare solution, and this camp is designed for kids who may not have many affordable options.

This will be David’s last summer to attend; he’ll be too old next year. His mom said his favorite camp memories include learning water rescue.

“The kids practiced flipping their canoes or kayaks over and saving themselves and their friends,” Nelson said. “Honestly, I don’t know the difference between a kayak and canoe, but David and Rachel can tell you which is which!”

David and his fellow campers also learned about outdoor survival. They learned to read a compass, safely capture rain water, tracked animals and ate bugs, his mom said. “Before this exposure, he was never really an outdoor kind of kid,” she said. “I credit the camp and his favorite counselors – some of whom are current CMS teachers – with creating a spark in him and a genuine appreciation for nature.”

Nelson is happy about that, but her excitement about camp runs deeper.

“I think our kids are over-scheduled, over-tested, stressed-out little people,” she said. “(David) had fun and learned how to play with others, – without an electronic device – hiked trails, jumped off rocks into lakes, caught frogs, went zip-lining, rode a horse, paddled down a river, and created a diverse social network of friends.”

Minecraft can’t seem nearly as exciting after all that.

To give to the Summer Camp Fund

Donate at Or send donations to The Summer Camp Fund, P.O. Box 37269, Charlotte, NC 28237-7269.

Each Sunday during the drive, the Observer will list contributors to the fund. If you wish to make an anonymous donation, indicate it on the “for” line of your check or on PayPal, note your preference in the special instructions field. To donate in honor or in memory of someone, use the “for” line or special instructions field. Donations are tax-deductible and are processed through Observer Charities, a 501(c)(3).

If you have questions about your donation: 704-358-5520.