Jamir Easter’s first time on a kayak scared him.
He’d seen another kid crying and it made him nervous about navigating such a skinny boat on such a big lake.
That ride ended with a tow from his camp leader. But the next time his group went out on kayaks, Jamir tried it again and discovered he liked paddling, and that tipping over can be fun.
Nine-year-old Jamir has spent many of his summer days at the McDowell Nature Center in southwest Mecklenburg County. He hikes, fishes and plays games like “stinky fish” at the Outdoor Urban Connection Camp.
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This year, The Charlotte Observer’s Summer Camp Fund is sending 100 children to the camp. They’re among nearly 550 kids attending 19 camps thanks to donations from readers and the community. This year’s honorary fundraising chairman, NASCAR team owner Rick Hendrick, has urged people to donate what they can to give children from low-income families a camp experience.
The McDowell Nature Center’s program defines a key component of the summer camp fund’s mission: to connect kids to the outdoors. Learning water skills and keeping brains active are also important.
With Lake Wylie as its backdrop, the nature center offers miles of trails and endless opportunities. Kids play in the mud, look for fish, frogs and salamanders, and learn about plants and trees.
“We consider these kids at-risk of not being exposed to nature,” said Melissa O’Lenick, the center’s manager. “Some of them have never played in the mud before. They’re hesitant at first and once they realize it’s not scary and there aren’t repercussions, they can enjoy it and be themselves.”
Anthony Shaheen, the center’s outdoor recreation specialist, likes to watch the transformation as kids master challenges such as long hikes, balancing a kayak and climbing Crowder’s Mountain during a daytrip.
“It’s an opportunity to help them grow and develop,” Shaheen said. “They’re not too sure when they start out – then they fall in love with it.”
‘It is cool’
Shaheen says Jamir is a kid who started out hesitantly and is emerging into a confident leader. When other kids complain about bugs, or heat or tired legs, Jamir offers encouragement and a positive outlook.
Jamir is a rising fourth-grader at Hickory Grove Elementary. At home he plays a lot of basketball and is on a quest to develop a shooting style like his favorite player, Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors.
When his mom talked about summer camp, Jamir assumed he’d spend it playing basketball in a recreation center. He was surprised when he got to camp and discovered it was very different from his expectations.
“I thought it was going to be cool,’’ he said, then hesitated as if surprising himself: “And it is cool.”
He’s always dreamed about becoming a professional basketball player, but since camp, he’s expanding his career options. He thinks he’d like a job like Mr. Anthony (Shaheen) has – teaching kids about nature.
Jamir says he’s learned a lot of new stuff at camp. Besides kayaking, he now knows how to put a worm on a fishhook, blend into the woods and identify different kinds of bugs.
He used to not like bugs but now thinks they’re pretty interesting. One time he and his older sister were walking into a building and he saw a bug on the floor. He started to squash it, but thinking of camp, picked it up and took it home. (His sister thought that was weird.)
At home his favorite foods are pizza and chicken wings; at camp he learned you can eat some kinds of leaves as snacks. “The sour leaf was good.”
The thing about camp is that it’s full of surprises.
One day last week, he and a couple others were racing their kayaks to get from a cove to the shoreline. It was rowdy, they were loud, and just up ahead, a wedding ceremony – (bride, groom, flowers, gown and a few dozen guests) – was taking place on the center’s waterfront deck.
Jamir realized he had a responsibility to warn the other kayakers.
“Everybody shush!” he shouted in a voice big enough for the other kids, the wedding party, and anyone within the vicinity to hear. “They’re having a wedding!”
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.