Youth experience a more simple time at Camp Celo

For more than a half century, Camp Celo in Burnsville has offered kids a distinctive experience.

Long before North Carolina schools were forced to desegregate, the camp recruited children of all races.

Decades before “organic” became popular, campers harvested fruits and vegetables.

And in today’s wired age, campers leave their cellphones, iPods and laptops at home.

“We’ve always felt like part of coming to camp was to get away from mainstream media and popular culture,” said camp director Gilbert “Gib” Barrus.

Camp Celo is supported by The Charlotte Observer’s Summer Camp Fund, which gives camps scholarship money for children from low-income families. The camp received four scholarships for three-week sessions worth $6,700 total.

The camp, founded in 1948 on a 16-acre family farm about 120 miles west of Charlotte in Yancey County, borders the Pisgah National Forest.

It’s located in a nonprofit cooperative of about 1,100 acres divided among 60 families.

Doug and Ruby Moody founded the camp in 1948, soon after they moved to the Celo community. They started with a handful of kids and a couple of tents.

When the Moodys moved away several years later, the Barrus family – including parents Bob and Dot, and children Gib and Barbara – took over.

Bob Barrus was a local school teacher who spent his years in the classroom and his summers in the campground.

Gib and Barbara grew up at the camp.

“It was wonderful growing up in a real rural environment, but you don’t have a lot of close friends nearby,” said Gib. “Then I would have 30 to 40 playmates come stay for the summer.”

Gib and Barbara run the camp with their spouses, all members of the Society of Friends, better known as Quakers.

The camp program focuses on Quaker values such as nonviolence, simplicity and environmental awareness.

In the camp’s early years, when segregation was prevalent, the Barrus family recruited kids of all settings for camp.

“Part of their philosophy was for boys and girls to have an experience with people from different ethnic backgrounds and races,” said Gib.

The camp also teaches hard work. Responsibilities include milking the cows, working in the garden, pumping air into the inner tubes and feeding the baby goats, guinea pigs and rabbits.

The camp is small, serving only 62 kids, ages 7 to 12, for one-, two- or three-week sessions.

Though the campers sleep in tents, they cook and eat in the Barrus’ kitchen and dining room.

The camp is famous for its food, said Miika Rolett, kitchen manager for 33 years.

“It’s not your classic camp food,” said Rolett. “Everything is from scratch. Bread is baked twice a day. There are almost no canned goods.”

Every day the campers eat something fresh from the garden, where they harvest onions, radishes, kale, carrots, lettuce and blueberries.

Those who harvest the crops in the morning receive a standing ovation at meal time.

Campers spend at least one night a week camping in the mountains.

Twice a week campers are required to write a letter home.

“We try to ... keep alive the value of doing some things the way they used to be,” Gib said.