The Summer Camp Fund helps children get outdoors

Ariana Carrothers just came home from more than two weeks sleeping in a big tent at Camp Celo.

She spent most of her days outdoors, busy with chores such as milking the resident cow.

The camp, which sits on a family farm near Burnsville, is surrounded by the Pisgah National Forest, near the highest peaks of Appalachia.

It didn't even have a television.

"I love it," the 11-year-old Charlotte girl said last week while on a break. "It's less technology and more outdoors."

This summer, 173 children from 10 Carolinas counties attended one of 13 summer camps in the two states, thanks to The Summer Camp Fund.

The fund is an initiative of The Charlotte Observer and nonprofit Partners in Out-of-School Time, or POST.

The Charlotte-based organization works with after-school care providers, summer camps and other entities to provide learning opportunities for children.

The Observer and POST joined forces three years ago to start raising money for camp scholarships.

This year the fund collected more than $55,000, which provided scholarships to children in 10 counties. The fund provided more than $57,000 for summer camps in 2010.

Without these scholarships, most of the children would not have a chance to be involved in a supervised outdoor learning program.

The fund is patterned after the Fresh Air Fund in New York City, founded in 1877 and still supported by The New York Times.

The Observer's support for summer camps dates to the late 1930s, when then-owner Curtis Johnson started what was called the "Observer Fresh Air Camp," according to Jack Claiborne's book, "The Charlotte Observer: Its Time and Place, 1869-1986."

Similar to today's fund, readers donated money so economically disadvantaged children could attend camp.

The effort led to what we know today as the YMCA's Camp Thunderbird.

Activities at Camp Celo are meant to teach long-lasting lessons by tying in values such as compassion, integrity, responsibility, service and appreciation for nature, while also emphasizing cooperation over competition.

"(You) get to know more about nature and the outdoors," Ariana said. "There are a lot of trees around. There are animals. They have baby cows, turkeys and baby chicks, rabbits, three dogs and a garden."

Daquawn Rinehardt left his home in Newton, a Catawba County city of 13,000 people, for one week at the Betsy-Jeff Penn 4-H Educational Center in Reidsville, N.C.

The camp's goal is to create an environment where campers feel safe and accepted. Then, they can challenge themselves through a range of activities.

During the day, the 14-year-old Daquawn swam, hiked, fished, rode a horse and paddled in a canoe. At nightfall, he sang at a campfire in the mountains while on a camping trip. Daquawn said, the activities are the reason he hopes to return to the camp one day.

When asked what he enjoyed most, Daquawn said: "I got to meet more people."

Maximilian Moise lives in a Mint Hill neighborhood where there are few children his age. He often stays inside, said his mother Peaches Pasamba.

In one of the camps by Discover Place science museum called Outdoor Adventures: H20, the 8-year-old headed out each day to unfamiliar places learning about water, discovering where it comes from and why it is so important to the environment.

Moise hiked on Crowder's Mountain and visited McDowell Nature Preserve and South Mountain State Park. During the trips he tested water and identified tiny invertebrates. Maximilian also found he'd made a friend. They've kept in touch since leaving camp.

"It exposed him to experiences and places that he probably would not have been exposed to," Pasamba said. "It wasn't just about fun. It was a learning experience as well."