With the Memorial Day weekend in full swing, Heather Wolf Turner is happy to welcome the tourists and part-time residents who’ve begun their annual summer climb to the N.C. mountains.
If all goes well, the waitress and single mother will catch up on her bills and hopefully set aside money to help keep her family afloat during winter, when mountain life slows and her tips dwindle.
As she pulls extra shifts, she’s at ease knowing that her 9-year-old son, Jackson, will be happy, active and making new friends at The Williams YMCA’s summer camp near their Avery County home.
The YMCA serves many families like hers, who depend heavily on summer tourism to survive. They’re workers who wait on tables, clean hotel rooms, caddy at country clubs and sell trinkets to tourists.
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Summer camp for their children is a luxury many can’t afford. That leaves parents juggling the scramble for childcare with the need to earn a living.
“The Y camp is so fantastic, I don’t know what I’d do without it. They do such a good job and they’re so great with kids,” Turner said. “Jackson just loves it.”
This year, The Charlotte Observer’s Summer Camp Fund will pay for 10 children in Avery County to attend the day camp. They’re among more than 1,000 kids heading to 37 camps this year thanks to donations from Observer readers and the community.
The Summer Camp Fund’s mission is to immerse the children in nature. They also swim, to cool off, have fun, and learn water safety. Reading time at camp helps them avoid the brain drain that often sets kids back academically over summer break.
People often associate North Carolina’s picturesque mountains with the well-off vacationers who own second homes there or visitors who fill hotels and bed-and-breakfasts during fall’s colorful leaf-changing season. In reality, nearly one in five full-time Avery County residents lives below the federal poverty line.
Many work in the boom-in-summer-bust-in-winter retail and service industries.
“I can only imagine how much these parents struggle – it’s such a challenge,” said Allison Phillips, director of youth programs for the Williams YMCA. “In the winter, there’s just not a whole lot for people to do. Being able to provide the summer camp experience for these kids is huge.”
For all the beauty that surrounds them, some kids don’t hike or swim or explore nature when they’re not at camp, Phillips said.
“Grandfather Mountain is right in our back yard, but a lot of our local kids have never hiked it,” Phillips said. “It’s so cool to give them that experience for the first time.”
Heather Wolf Turner was married to a chef when the family moved to the North Carolina mountains from New Orleans 16 years ago. She has divorced but opted to stay because of her two sons. (Her older son, Seth, is 17 and also works through the summer.)
Sometimes people ask why she doesn’t move to a bigger city, such as Charlotte, where she could work in a less-seasonal economy. She said she wanted her boys to grow up with an appreciation for the outdoors and the simplicity of small-town life. Slow winters are the tradeoff.
“I love it here. It’s a safe place to raise my kids,” Turner said. “We’re a very close-knit community. In winter-time we all look out for each other, especially during snowstorms, to check on who’s out of electricity” and what they need.
The YMCA camp offers Jackson a variety of fun and interesting summer activities, she said. Besides hiking, the kids swim every day, play on a playground and take field trips.
“I want him in an environment that is enriching and educational and physical,” she said. “I feel very fortunate to have him there.”
Jackson, a third-grader, has been going to YMCA programs for most of his life. He’s especially fond of summer camp and calls the field trip to Grandfather Mountain, “a nice activity to have a little fun.
“My favorite thing about camp is being together and making new friends. It makes my summer very nice.”
To give to the 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.