Green River Preserve, nestled in Cedar Mountain, is a camp is for bright, curious and creative kids who are rising second through ninth graders.
“Our campers are highly intelligent,” explained Avery McGaha, the camp’s program director and a former counselor himself. “But they may have been sidelined in school.”
Green River Preserve is a place where kids don’t have to act less smart to fit in. They’re among their peers. The camp, according to its website, provides “an atmosphere free of materialism and cliques where the quality of one’s character is what really matters.”
“A camper’s home away from home … is the cabin,” the website reads. “Cabins are nestled in a wooded area ... each evening (they) fall asleep to the night sounds of spring peepers, crickets, and whippoorwills.”
Each day, campers go on a 3-mile “mentor hike,” which is the camp's signature program. They play under waterfalls, explore caves and archeological sites, track wildlife and taste edible plants.
No two hikes are the same on the 3,400-acre property.
But these walks in the woods aren’t just about exercise. All campers are part of a mentor group, which is a camper’s core group during camp. It’s a co-ed group of 10 to 12 campers who are within two to three years of one another and are of similar hiking ability.
“A different naturalist – or mentor – accompanies them every day,” McGaha said. “The hikes are designed to foster a joy of discovery. We talk about what lives in the forest and our place within that ecosystem.”
While kids are learning about honoring nature, they’re also learning about honoring themselves and others.
“Respect is a basic foundation of camp,” McGaha said. “We help campers identify and express their feelings and work through conflict resolution. We’re focused on how to be nice to people.”
And being nice is undervalued these days.
Since 2009, the Observer Summer Camp Fund has raised over $1.5 million and sent more than 3,000 children from the area to day and sleepaway camps. This summer, more than 500 kids will attend 33 camps. One camper is headed to Green River Preserve on an Observer scholarship.
McGaha recalled two boys who came to the camp on scholarships in 2013 – his first year as a counselor. “They were sweet, friendly, shy and a little homesick. They were out of their element, asking questions like, ‘If we see a snake on a hike, can we keep it as a pet?’ ”
When the group went on the requisite two-night backpacking trip, those boys were especially anxious. But once they reached the campsite, McGaha saw them blossom. “They loved the freedom and the sense of responsibility.”
“For me as a counselor, it’s really something to see a kid show courage,” he continued. “They take such pride in taking on a hard thing and succeeding at it.”
“There’s a Thoreau quote that seems cliché, but it’s really true,” he added. “It’s ‘I went into the woods and came out taller than the trees.’ That’s what happens here.”