He was 9 years old when his dad died in a motorcycle accident. A few months later he and his mom drove two hours from Charlotte to Camp Celo, a working family farm in the North Carolina mountains. It was a hard goodbye: He’d never been away before, had never experienced the wilderness and was still grieving deeply.
Camp counselors and other kids welcomed him. He woke up each morning to breakfast that came straight from the farm. He hiked, slept in a tent and splashed in a lake. He fed baby pigs and goats and rabbits. He made a stepping stool for his little sister, and painted it pink. At night, he read books and wrote letters to his mother.
“I ate a lot of healthy food and drank a lot of water,” said Dey’Mauriey Williams, who’s now 11 and admits to being a former vegetable hater. “My taste buds got used to healthy food. And it was my first time seeing animals like that in person. Before camp, I’d only seen them on TV.”
This year, The Charlotte Observer Summer Camp Fund will send 12 kids to Camp Celo for two- and three-week sessions. They’re among more than 1,000 children across the Carolinas scheduled to attend 37 summer camps, thanks to donations from readers and the community.
It’s the biggest number of children ever served by the Summer Camp Fund, which last year raised more than $450,000, the most since beginning in 2009. As this year’s fundraising drive kicks off, donations will pay for a diverse array of day and sleepover camps geared toward children with a wide range of needs.
Many come from the region’s poorest families. Others come from working and middle class homes but have conditions such as autism, diabetes and Down syndrome that carry huge financial and physical burdens.
Some live with the anxiety and grief of having a parent who’s fighting cancer, or has lost the battle. Others struggle with their own life-threatening illnesses.
The Summer Camp Fund’s primary mission is to connect the children to nature. Swimming, for fun and water safety, is a strong component. And the camps funded must offer reading time to help prevent the “Summer Slide,” that often causes academic setbacks, especially in low-income children, when school is out.
“Summer camps give children a safe and healthy place to be a kid,” said Susan Manz, a school nurse at Billingsville Elementary in Charlotte, where most students come from low-income homes. She says she has seen big changes in kids after camp. “It helps them build social skills and self-esteem, and to make positive friendships. “All of those things help build a stronger resilience that can make a positive difference as they work hard to get their education and face life’s challenges.”
At Camp Celo in Burnsville, mixing kids from different income levels, ethnicities and regions is paramount, and in step with the connect-to-nature-peacefully philosophy, says co-director Drew Perrin, whose family has run the camp since 1955.
“It gives them a love and deep understanding of the outdoors,” Perrin said. “They learn where their food comes from and get to experience the simple joy of seeing how the world works. They learn to listen to each other, and understand where others are coming from. They get to share the same space and show respect to each other.”
For Dey’Mauriey, the first trip to camp was scary. He worried about being homesick and meeting so many strangers.
“I was nervous that I would miss my mom and I was afraid they weren’t going to like me,” he said. But he met kids from Texas, Florida, and even Africa. It wasn’t always friendship at first sight, he said, “But I got along with everybody. We got used to each other and became friends.”
Dey’Mauriey’s mom, Gwendolyn Murray, says when she went to pick him up from camp, she was struck by how many friends he’d made. She says he came back profoundly changed by the experience: “He got reprogrammed. Kids today are so rarely outside, they’re watching TV or on the PlayStation. … when he came back, he was actually a kid, he was 100 percent active – he just wanted to be outside.”
Murray, a Wal-Mart sales associate, says Dey’Mauriey’s first camp experience came at just the right time in their lives.
His dad, Michael Williams, was an auto mechanic before his death in 2014: “He did everything with the kids. Whether it was going outside, riding a bike, playing basketball, cooking for them … he was very family oriented,” Murray said. “Dey’Mauriey didn’t only lose his dad, he lost his best friend.”
“Camp was a great way for him to find himself and get a release through nature. I called it outdoor therapy,” she said. “It kept him occupied, physically and mentally, so he didn’t have time to sit and ponder.’’
Sometimes during camp quiet time though, Dey’Mauriey would think about how much he missed his dad. So he wrote letters to his mom, and she wrote back.
“Remember that your dad is always watching you and you’re never alone,” she wrote. “Dad is your angel and protector always.”
Mary Elizabeth DeAngelis: firstname.lastname@example.org
To give to the Summer Camp Fund
Donate by clicking here. 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.