Summer Camp Fund

Camp Cherokee: Where kids connect – without electronic devices

A camper jumps off a giant inflatable on the lake at Camp Cherokee in Blacksburg, S.C.
A camper jumps off a giant inflatable on the lake at Camp Cherokee in Blacksburg, S.C.

Campers at the YMCA’s Camp Cherokee in Blacksburg, S.C. can learn to paddle board, kayak, and white-water raft. But they’ll also learn, or be reintroduced to, something that may seem just as new and exotic: conversation – the kind that happens in person, not on a screen.

No phones are allowed at camp. Even counselors keep their phones locked up while they are working.

The camp staff is so intent on fostering human interactions that they’ve set up a “hammock village” where kids can just hang out and, you know, talk – like people used to do before we got so attached to our devices.

Camp leaders schedule unstructured time where kids can connect with each other, read, or entertain themselves without an electronic device.

Cherokee is not just a low-tech camp. “We’re a no-tech camp,” said Executive Director John Gordon. “We all deserve a tech respite.”

Thanks to the Charlotte Observer Summer Camp Fund, 12 kids will put down their phones and go to Camp Cherokee this summer. Eight will attend a one-week overnight camp, four others will attend “Bold & Gold” leadership camp.

They are among more than 500 heading to 33 camps this summer because readers donated to the Observer’s Summer Camp Fund. The goal this year is to raise $215,000 to send hundreds more to camp next summer.

That includes kids like Nina Hall, 13, who went to camp for the first time this summer.

Her mom, Dreama Cherry, said making new friends was one of Nina’s favorite things about camp.

Dreama marveled at the changes in Nina after camp. For one thing, she had physically changed. “Nina was taller than me when we picked her up from camp,” Dreama said.

The camp’s location within Kings Mountain State Park means there’s plenty to do with all that time not spent staring at a screen.

Waterfront activities, including sailing and swimming, are perennially popular. So are rock climbing and mountain biking. But the arts are also part of summer fun. Pottery classes always fill up fast, Gordon said.

Soft skills are also emphasized. “We try to help campers become the best versions of themselves they can be,” Gordon said. “And we want everyone to come away with new friends.”

Brandon Mayes, 11, made new friends at Camp Cherokee this summer. “My son is an only child. He needed this experience to see what it’s like to...share like brothers,” said Brandon’s mom Yolanda Cherry. “He loved it!”

Counselors ensure campers work together to accomplish team goals. Kids take turns on kitchen patrol duty. Meals are served family-style to encourage camaraderie, and while Gordon says camp is hardly cotillion, kids often come away with better manners.

“We’re not giving etiquette lessons,” he said, “but we do have a song everyone sings when someone puts his elbows on the table.”

Scholarship kids and those paying full fare are one happy family at Camp Cherokee, he said. “We emphasize the importance of getting along with others here,” Gordon said. “Everyone learns from everyone else. Nobody knows who’s on scholarship and who isn’t.”

Camp isn’t about where you live or your financial situation. Summer camp is pure; it’s just about friends and fun.

The best sign a kid loved camp? Dreama Cherry saw it firsthand. “Nina wasn’t ready to come home,” she said. “She wanted to stay another week.”

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.