If you’ve ever doubted a summer romance could last, meet the Carraways.
Their story started 40 years ago when Bill, a young teacher from South Carolina, met Kaye, a rookie teacher from Arkansas, after both landed summer jobs at Camp Thunderbird.
They started as friends, were dating by summer’s end and kept in touch over the school year. They returned the next summer and on a hot August night as camp was winding down, he proposed on the waterfront, she said yes, and the rest is Thunderbird history.
The Carraways have since retired from teaching, but still live and work at the YMCA camp on Lake Wylie. They’re its longest-serving staffers; Kaye is Residential Camp Director and “Captain” Bill’s in charge of water sports. They raised two daughters, Kris and Katie, who also married guys they met as camp counselors.
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And they’ve attended quite a few weddings of former campers and counselors who met there, so many that Bill cautions newcomers that they may be in the presence of a future spouse.
For the Carraways, summer camp isn’t just a job, it’s life.
“We’re a big family,” Bill Carraway says. “Seeing these young people being able to enjoy themselves…watching the energy and enthusiasm they have–it keeps you young.”
“We feel like we’ve had thousands of children,” Kaye Carraway said. “Watching all these young people become who they are going to be…what a gift. It’s been a wonderful journey.”
Some kids have come from stable families with healthy incomes that can afford camp, others have lived in poor communities from inner-city Charlotte to the Appalachian mountains and needed scholarships to get to camp.
What the couple’s seen is this: Kids once afraid of water riding confidently in paddle boats, kayaks and sail boats. Former non-swimmers swimming. Campers afraid of heights conquering climbing walls and sliding down zip-lines. Children who never thought about college becoming the first in their families to graduate from one.
“A real joy for me is taking children out of a set of circumstances that have come to define their lives because they’ve not had the exposure to so many opportunities,” Kaye Carraway said. “So many kids come… and see that the possibilities exist, that they could become part of a dream they didn’t even have before they came to camp. That’s phenomenal.”
This year, The Charlotte Observer’s Summer Camp Fund is sending 36 children from low-income families to Camp Thunderbird. They’re among more than 1,000 children heading to 37 camps thanks to donations from readers and the community. Last week the Summer Camp Fund met its goal to raise $190,000, which enables it to receive an additional $25,000 challenge grant so that even more children can go to camp next year.
Karel Mazanec says the 12 summers he spent at Camp Thunderbird, first as a troubled kid from a tough neighborhood on a scholarship, then later as a counselor, turned his life around.
The Carraways were like camp parents. When he proposed to his wife, Michelle, at Camp Thunderbird, Kaye Carraway helped with the details, from suggestions on timing, setting and what to serve for dinner. The couple and his other camp family members attended the wedding.
“I love them both so much, they’re amazing people,” says Mazanec, 27, now an attorney in Washington, D.C. “They’ve made an impact in so many kids’ lives. When you think about camp, you think about the Carraways. I can’t imagine Camp T-Bird without them.”
The Carraways’ daughter Katie Belich says her parents have inspired many of her life’s choices. She spent every childhood summer at Camp Thunderbird, watching them interact with campers and the counselors she idolized. She became a counselor and is now the girls’ camp director.
Like her parents, she’s also a teacher. She says one of her greatest experiences in both roles came this summer, when 23 low-income fourth-graders from Fort Mill Elementary School—“my babies”— spent a week at Camp Thunderbird.
“It was so fun to see them outside the classroom in an environment they’d never been in before and experience things they never had before,” she said. “They were joyful. Some of these kids had grins you couldn’t pry off their faces. I think that experience changed them.”
Katie also got a wedding proposal at Camp Thunderbird. It was the awards ceremony night and for the third year in a row, she and her then-boyfriend, Andy Belich, got called to the stage to the music of Beyonce’s, “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It.)”
He got down on one knee, produced the ring, and campers, counselors and the staff erupted into cheers. Last year, they got married at Camp Thunderbird in a ceremony performed by a minister who was once the camp director that hired her parents so many years ago.
It’s all very circular. As Katie Carraway Belich says of her own marriage:
“There’s a day when my husband and I hope that we can live the legend that is the Carraways.”
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.