At Camp Thunderbird, kids think they’re just learning how to swim, sail and ski. (Or play baseball, laser tag and ultimate Frisbee.) They don’t realize they’re also learning how to make their own decisions.
“Parents tell me they see a significant increase in their child’s ability to make independent decisions after they return from camp,” said Laurel Zitney, the camp’s associate executive director. “But there’s another side to that: Their child now has an opinion.”
This summer, more than 500 kids will attend 33 camps, thanks to donations from Observer readers and the community. Eight of those children will get to experience Camp Thunderbird just over the North Carolina/South Carolina line from Charlotte.
Since 2009, the Observer’s Summer Camp Fund has raised over $1.5 million and sent more than 3,000 area kids to camp.
At Thunderbird, campers – from age 6 to 16 – are empowered to make choices. And making choices leads to a feeling of independence.
“We have 26 land activities and 17 water activities,” Zitney said. “Kids get their pick. One camper, who’s been coming on a scholarship for a couple of years, recently told me how happy he is to choose what he wants to eat.”
Kids grow up a lot in the weeks they’re at camp.
For 17-year-old Avery Primis, a senior at Myers Park High School, this will be her 11th summer at the camp. She was a camper for eight years, a counselor trainee for one and now a junior counselor for the second summer.
As a camper, she enjoyed “the people, atmosphere and time away.” Now that she’s a counselor, she loves the opportunity to give back. “I want to give campers the same experience I had,” she said.
She likes seeing kids get out of their comfort zones and try new things: “There’s so much you learn at camp that you can take back with you.”
As a faith-based camp operated by the YMCA, the subject of faith is inherent in the day-to-day operations of camp. It’s evident each morning during devotion.
“We’re proud of our (Christian) heritage,” Zitney said. “But we work hard at inclusivity. Thunderbird has a large population of families who are Jewish. Campers are invited to pray and participate in faith-based activities based on their own comfort level. We invite campers to teach us new ways to pray.”
A chaplain is on-site all summer and available to talk to kids about faith. But he alerts parents to a child’s inquiries. “Some kids come to camp without a faith,” Zitney explained. “They may have questions, and if they do, the chaplain calls the parents to ask for guidance.”
Camp Thunderbird allows campers to grow in skill, faith and decision-making.
It’s a safe, happy place – one that counselors refer to as “The Thunder Bubble,” Avery said. “Campers aren’t allowed to have phones, and counselors are encouraged to stay off ours, too,” she said. “So, for five weeks, nothing from the outside world is weighing on you. You can just be yourself 24/7.”