Camp Thunderbird offers some long-lasting lessons

If you grew up in the Charlotte area, you may have been lucky enough to attend Camp Thunderbird - at least once.

Since 1946, YMCA Camp Thunderbird has welcomed thousands of young campers to the 100-acre site on the shores of Lake Wylie, just across the state line in South Carolina.

There are traditional land activities: horseback riding, ropes courses, sports and crafts. There also are water sports such as wakeboarding, water skiing, sailing, kayaking, canoeing and water slides.

And there are relatively new activities, such as gymnastics and digital media.

Here's how readers can help an economically disadvantaged child have experiences like those at camp Thunderbird:

The nonprofit POST (Partners in Out-of-School-Time) and The Charlotte Observer jointly operate the Summer Camp Fund. Readers who make contributions to the fund help children from low-income families go to camp.

This year, the Summer Camp Fund is providing 20 weeklong day camp scholarships and five one- and two-week long residential camp scholarships to Camp Thunderbird for new and returning campers, who will come from Mecklenburg and surrounding counties.

The campers are 6-16. For many, it's the only vacation or enrichment activity they will have.

Rhonda Auten, the financial and resource director at Camp Thunderbird, says it's amazing to see the transformation of the kids once they've been through the camp.

"Before they even get here, they come in and talk to me and you can tell they are a little excited, but also very unsure. When they get ready to go home from camp, they can't stop talking," Auten said.

"I've had parents call me, crying, thanking me and telling me how much camp has changed their child. They want us to know what a difference it has made in their child's life."

Auten says campers also develop life skills they will take with them forever.

"They learn to communicate with others ... campers as well as the counselors. They learn teamwork, decision-making and self-confidence. Many of them come here with very low self-esteem, but a camp experience helps them realize that they can do whatever they set out to do. They make new friends from a variety of diverse backgrounds and build bonding relationships with camp staff," Auten said.

Each year, many scholarship recipients send thank-you letters to the camp.

Last year, Auten received such a letter from a college-bound teen who had attended Camp Thunderbird every year since she turned 7, and became a camp counselor once she was old enough.

"Camp is a whole new world ... a world where happiness is the new standard and each day is not 'just another day' but a great day in paradise. Camp is a world where caring honesty, respect, responsibility, and faith is the code of the day ... where people love and accept you - no matter race, income, family or history," the teen wrote.

"I have touched and felt the power of love through camp, both as a camper and counselor. There's beauty to be found in the unity of our differences. If such unity can be found in a small world of differences, why not in a big world of them?"