Summer Camp Fund

Camp Thunderbird helped Landon shed limitations to reach new milestones

Campers enjoy paddling at the YMCA’s Camp Thunderbird on Lake Wylie.
Campers enjoy paddling at the YMCA’s Camp Thunderbird on Lake Wylie.

In 1936, the Baseball Hall of Fame inducted its first members and Jesse Owens won four gold medals at the Berlin Olympics.

That’s also the year Camp Thunderbird’s precursor – the Observer Fresh Air Camp – was founded. The YMCA took over in 1946.

Campers, ages 7 to 16, generally think the best things about this camp on Lake Wylie are archery, sailing, and the challenge course. Their parents know there’s more – the gift of independence.

Thanks to the Charlotte Observer Summer Camp Fund, 18 children will attend Camp Thunderbird this summer. Six will attend day camp, 12 overnight camp.

They are among more than 500 children heading to 33 camps this summer thanks to donations to the Summer Camp Fund. The goal this year is to raise $215,000 to send hundreds more to camp next summer.

Landon Payne, 10, was among campers who attended Camp Thunderbird last summer with help from the Summer Camp Fund. It was his first overnight camp experience.

Sleep-away camp is a big deal for any kid, but it was an even bigger milestone for Landon, who was diagnosed with leukemia in 2011 at age 4. He endured 3 1/2 years of treatment.

“Never did we think we would see the day our little boy was healthy enough to leave Mom and Dad for a week,” said his mother, Kelly Payne. “The love and kindness he received from the counselors and staff…will never be forgotten. He is counting the days until camp (this year) where he can be reunited with his camp friends and counselors.”

Gwen Tolman, financial development director for the YMCA’s Camp Thunderbird and Camp Harrison said Camp Thunderbird has a rich history. “Many of our staff are former campers who come back to provide the same experience they had as children,” she said.

Camp allows kids to “try things they never thought they would have the chance to experience,” Tolman said. “They leave camp confident in their abilities to tackle any challenges life throws at them.”

Feeling leery about overnight camp last year, the Paynes attended an open house at Camp Thunderbird. “After entering the beautiful grounds and meeting all the fabulous staff, we knew…this is where Landon wanted to be for his first overnight camp experience,” Kelly Payne said.

Landon’s favorite things included “The Blob” (a giant inflatable on the lake that kids can jump on), the zip line, fishing, basketball, soccer, sailing, and archery.

“He often speaks of staying up late with his cabinmates and telling ghost stories, laughing until his stomach hurt at the talent show, and all the delicious meals he enjoyed while at camp,” Kelly Payne said. “He’s a ‘carb man,’ so he especially loved the pasta and pancakes.”

Life had already handed Landon and his family some hefty challenges. For him, camp proved he is just a regular kid, with no limitations placed on him. His mom said he returned from camp more self-sufficient. He was suddenly making his own breakfast, making his bed, and offering to help around the house.

Camp is a great equalizer. “No matter where you come from, when you are at camp everyone is on the same playing field,” Tolman said. “Camp is full of love and acceptance; there really is no other place like it.”

To give to the Summer Camp Fund

The Summer Camp Fund has a $215,000 goal this year and only a couple of weeks to go. 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.