Summer Camp Fund

Summer camp opens dramatic new vistas for city kids

Camp Grier, east of Asheville, wants to help turn kids into leaders. From left to right: Camp Grier Counselors Amy Vandenheuval and Eli Kaczinski; campers Jason Parks, Dwayne Bacon, Erick Wannamaker; counselor Luke Slater, camper Michael Dunlap and kneeling, camper Benjamin Little.
Camp Grier, east of Asheville, wants to help turn kids into leaders. From left to right: Camp Grier Counselors Amy Vandenheuval and Eli Kaczinski; campers Jason Parks, Dwayne Bacon, Erick Wannamaker; counselor Luke Slater, camper Michael Dunlap and kneeling, camper Benjamin Little. Courtesy of Camp Grier

On a stormy day in the mountains last week, away from the heat of Charlotte’s inner city, a group of teenagers learned about rock climbing from a world champion.

They marveled at Kai Lightner’s strength and his ability to scale a wall. They tried it themselves. It was his bigger message though – about what it takes to succeed – that they’ll bring home.

Courage. Discipline. Perseverance. Maintaining priorities.

Each of the teenage boys left the outing motivated. All want to improve or maintain their grades. One plans to train hard to make his school basketball team. Two want to play their best football in fall and catch recruiters’ eyes. Collectively their goals range from managing anger and shouldering heavy family responsibilities to becoming the first in those families to attend college.

Camp Grier has its own plan for them: that they’ll turn into leaders who will help younger kids at camp and in their communities, overcome their obstacles and see a world much bigger than the one they’re growing up in.

The teens are among 87 kids attending Camp Grier on scholarships from The Charlotte Observer’s Summer Camp Fund. Thanks to donations from readers and the community, more than 1,000 children will attend 37 camps this summer.

For many kids growing up in urban environments, going to summer camp offers the first real exposure to nature. It also gives them a chance to interact with kids and counselors from different backgrounds.

Mixing worlds is a vital component of Camp Grier, which is affiliated with the Presbyterian Church (USA). Today, many children attend schools and live in neighborhoods largely segregated by race and income.

About a third of the 550 campers there this summer have full scholarships, which helps ensure that kids of all incomes will share in nature’s beauty, says executive director Jason McDougald.

Most of the five teens from Charlotte have been going to Camp Grier for years. This summer, they’re also in the Navigator program, which is a two-week wilderness leadership challenge for potential future counselors. “We want them to come back and work for us,” McDougald said. “We want our staff to reflect the diversity of our kids.’’

This summer’s theme at Camp Grier – about 25 miles east of Asheville – is Super Heroes. McDougald enlisted Kai Lightner, who’s 16 and lives in Fayetteville, to talk to campers about his career as a professional, world champion rock climber. Last month, Kai was one of a select group of top outdoor athletes chosen to meet President Barack Obama at Yosemite National Park.

McDougald said he wanted to highlight the achievements of a teen who’s excelled in a sport that many of the kids were never exposed to before camp. Kai talked about balancing school work and professional obligations with a tough regimen that requires hours of training each day.

“A lot of kids have aspirations and don’t realize the work that it takes. It was great for them to hear that...,” McDougald said. “He’s not Steph Curry or LeBron James, but they respect him for the work he’s done and what he’s put into it. They were friends by the end of that climbing time, which is priceless. Any time you can give kids exposure to new things it gives them options to what they can be.”

Kai and his mother, Connie Lightner, said they were impressed by Camp Grier and how the kids canoe, hike and camp. Too many kids growing up in urban areas end up watching a lot of TV or playing video games and never experience a connection with nature, they said.

“It can keep them busy in a positive way and open their minds to new options,” Kai said. The message he hopes to convey: “Open your eyes and don’t be afraid to try something different ... if you have a passion for something, you should pursue it.”

Connie Lightner, who grew up poor in inner-city Cleveland and is now a college professor, says she wants more kids to have opportunities that a nature-based camp offers.

“Once you open up the door and show them how much bigger the world is, you’ll be surprised by how much they’ll roam and what they’ll try,” she said.

The aspiring leaders from Charlotte offer their own testimony about overcoming challenges and growing from them.

“The first time I came here I didn’t want to be here. Climbing was hard,” says Erick Wannamaker, 15, who’s gone to Camp Grier for six years. “As the years went by, it grew on me. I have better manners, I’ve grown closer to God – it really helps your life in the long run. When I first came here, I felt like an outcast. Now it feels more like my second home.”

maryedeangelis@gmail.com

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.

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