Khayla Johnson finessed her dive. Layla Johnson bolstered her breaststroke.
The twin sisters can’t wait to test their new swimming skills when they head to 4H Camp this month. It’s a week they look forward to each summer.
At 13, they like the independence and challenges that sleep-away camp offers.
They meet new friends and reconnect with old ones. They work in teams to get through an obstacle course. They kayak and canoe and eat meals loaded with fresh fruits and vegetables. And they experience life away from their rural Chester County, S.C., home.
“It’s like I’m more mature and I can do more stuff without my mom,” Khayla said. “We do cool 4H stuff and lots of activities. It’s really fun.”
This year, The Charlotte Observer’s Summer Camp Fund will pay for 20 kids to go to the Clemson University-run 4H camp in Aiken, S.C. They’re among 550 children attending 19 camps thanks to donations from newspaper readers and the community.
By Friday, donations totaled more than $244,000. The honorary fundraising chairman, NASCAR team owner Rick Hendrick, has urged people to up the ante to give more children a summer camp opportunity their families couldn’t otherwise afford.
The fund’s intent is to put kids in touch with nature. Swimming helps them learn water safety. And reading is incorporated to help prevent the “summer slide” that causes academic setbacks when the school year ends.
As the 4H agent for Chester County, Robin Currence actively recruits children to go to camp. A former camper herself, she believes in the values of self-reliance and life skills that a child gains from the experience.
It’s also exposure to new scenery.
Chester’s fortunes fell in recent decades when textile mills shut down, costing thousands their jobs. While new industry moving in offers hopeful signs of improvement, the county’s still recovering from years of economic battering. About a quarter of its residents fall below the federal poverty line.
Camp can give kids an escape from their parents’ worries and help them set up goals for the future.
“This helps a child grow up and be able to meet the challenges of the classroom – and life itself,” Currence said.
Sometimes she faces a tough sell. Parents who didn’t go to camp as children are leery about sending their own kids. Paying for it would be out of the question for many who struggle to meet basic needs.
“Without scholarships, we would have very few to no campers,” Currence said.
At Camp Long in Aiken, kids swim and canoe in a lake. Because many of the 4H campers aren’t proficient swimmers, the camp enlisted the Chester County YMCA to provide lessons as part of the scholarship.
Like camp, swimming lessons are a luxury many families can’t afford, Currence said.
The Johnson twins loved the swim lessons and say they have more confidence in the water than they used to. “I can dive in without help,” Khayla said.
The twins became involved in 4H when they were 6. Their mother, Kesha Johnson, heads the club.
The mission of 4H is to develop leadership skills and promote smart choices in everything from working hard to protecting the environment.
The 4H’s stand for Head, Heart, Hands and Health. Camp expands on the 4H mission.
“It’s very important to be in nature and find out what it’s about and how you can protect it,” Kesha Johnson said. “They learn how to be leaders and be followers. In life you have to learn how to take direction, and how to lead. They learn, ‘My mom’s not here – I need to know how to do this myself.’’’
Last year at camp, the girls grew plants from seeds, then brought them home to put in the ground. They wrote letters to children whose parents serve in the military. They slept in bunk beds in a dormitory. They made friends from different towns they still keep in touch with.
“It’s an opportunity to get to know a lot of people and to be healthy while you’re doing it, and to learn new things,” Layla said.
The girls are used to the outdoors because their mom insists on it. They often help their grandmother in her garden. They plant, water the soil and pull weeds. They’ll harvest squash, tomatoes and collard greens from it, Layla said.
Both girls want to be 4H counselors when they’re older. They also have big plans for college and careers.
Layla hopes to win a 4H scholarship to attend Clemson.
She wants to be an artist because she loves to draw. She’s also got a knack for turning nature’s materials, such as leaves and grass, into colorful collages.
Khayla, the self-described family comedian, has visions of teaching or a law career. She suspects that being a lawyer may be a good fit for her. She has some experience in self-representation.
“My mom says I can argue the point,” she said, explaining that if there’s a sisterly dispute, her mother might reach a conclusion before hearing all the evidence. “I think some things aren’t my fault, so I have to defend myself.”
To give to Summer Camp Fund
Donate at charlotteobserver.com/summercampfund. 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 in the Local section. 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.