Najah Walls can be shy. Her mom worried about that especially last summer as Najah prepared to start middle school. She didn’t want her daughter to miss out on opportunities to shine.
That shyness disappeared at Girl Scout camp. From the moment she got on the bus in Charlotte with some girls she knew and others she didn’t, Najah sums up her two weeks at camp as “amazing!”
“There were a lot of new experiences, and you could learn a lot of things,” says Najah, a sixth-grader at McClintock Middle School who sounds anything but shy when she talks about camp. “They had these little cabins that were amazing. I learned how to make a fire and get out into nature. We went on nice hikes, and I learned a lot about animals and insects.”
Her little sister, Samiyah, enjoyed making s’mores by the campfire and searching for fairies in the woods. Both girls loved swimming in rabbit-shaped “Bunny Lake” and coming home filthy, mud-covered and in desperate need of baths.
This year, the Charlotte Observer’s Summer Camp Fund will send 50 girls to the Dale Earnhardt Environmental Leadership Camp at Oak Springs. They’re among more than 1,000 children heading to 37 camps this summer thanks to donations from Observer readers and the community.
Summer Camp Fund scholarships give children from mostly lower-income families an experience many middle-class and wealthier kids take for granted. Connecting kids to nature is the fund’s main mission. The campers swim for fun and to become stronger at it. Camp reading time helps them stay on track academically over summer break.
This summer, hundreds of girls will flock to the Dale Earnhardt camp just north of Statesville. The Girl Scouts Hornets’ Nest Council, which serves Mecklenburg and eight nearby counties, owns the more than 700 acres of woods and streams that border the South Yadkin River.
The camp is named after the late NASCAR legend, who loved the outdoors and had a favorite skeet shooting spot there. In 2012 the Dale Earnhardt Foundation donated $2 million to the Hornets’ Nest Council to preserve the land and help develop the camp.
Last year the Girl Scouts only offered a day camp, with one sleepover night per week. This year, they’ll have both day and sleep-away camps and are expecting about 700 girls throughout the summer.
“We have some girls who’ve never left Charlotte. There’s something magical that happens … when you’re taking girls out of their environments and putting them in an all-girl setting,” said Taryn Rimland, of the Hornets Nest Council. “Some of the girls might be shy or embarrassed at other places, but those barriers fall down at Girl Scout camp. We sing and dance and act crazy – it’s an opportunity for girls to exist without fear of being judged or worrying about appearances.”
Najah Walls and her family moved to east Charlotte from North Philadelphia four years ago. Her mom, Sharee Walls, works in medical billing and saw Charlotte as a better place to raise her three daughters.
“We just needed a change,” Sharee Walls said. “I love Charlotte. I think my girls are really thriving here.”
Najah joined the Girl Scouts three years ago. Before last summer, she’d never camped and had never been out in the wilderness.
“It was a great way for her to open up,” Sharee Walls said. “When they asked what our goals for camp were, I wrote that I wanted her to be willing to come out of her shell. Being shy can really hold you back in life. I wanted her to get out and talk to new people.”
Najah loved her two weeks at camp and the many challenges she gave herself.
She learned how to shoot a bow and arrow, make quesadillas to toast over the campfire, and canoe. “It was my first time canoeing. I was afraid to do it because I never really trusted boats because it feels like they’re going to sink. But I learned how to use the paddles.”
She ate lots of healthy food and made arts and crafts projects.
Najah and her mom say camp smoothed the way for middle school. Najah loves McClintock and says she’s had a great year academically and socially. She enjoys her classes, especially math and science, and belongs to several clubs.
She learned a lot about science at camp: She waded in the streams and learned to identify centipedes and tadpoles. They took a field trip to an animal rescue farm one day, and she met some friendly snakes.
A new experience? Yes. Scary? Not at all.
“I’m not afraid of snakes,” Najah said. “I found out I like snakes.”
Mary Elizabeth DeAngelis: email@example.com
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