He’d never been to the mountains before, much less a sleep-away camp tucked in the woods, so Raphael Bikai was leery of what to expect as the church van wound its way from Charlotte to Lutheridge Camp in Arden, near Asheville.
Last spring, a guidance counselor at McClintock Middle School encouraged Raphael, then 13, to take advantage of a camp scholarship from nearby Christ Lutheran Church. The church has an extensive outreach program at McClintock, on Rama Road near Monroe Road, where 82 percent of students live in poverty.
Raphael agreed to go, but as he packed up, he wasn’t so sure.
He’s an only child to a single mom who works long days at the hair salon she owns across the street from their home. He worried she’d miss him.
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But by the middle of day two at Lutheridge, Raphael knew he’d made the right decision. For the first time, he went whitewater rafting. He took a 13-mile, 7 ½ hour hike through the woods and got his first taste of real s’mores, cooked over a campfire.
But most importantly, he connected with kids and counselors from all walks of life.
“It showed me that there’s more out there than just this life,” he says.
The camp, run by the Lutheran Church, is a faith-based program where kids enjoy all the traditional camp experiences – hikes and swimming, campfires and ropes courses, archery and crafts. Campers take part in Bible studies and creative devotions.
Raphael attended Lutheridge Camp last summer on a scholarship from the Summer Camp Fund, an effort by The Charlotte Observer to provide day and overnight camp experiences to underprivileged youth in Mecklenburg and surrounding counties.
Since 2009, nearly 600 children have benefited from the program.
This summer, thanks to the generosity of readers, grants and corporate sponsors, 208 children will head off to 12 camps this summer.
As director of outreach for Christ Lutheran Church, Amy Daniels works with needy families from McClintock every week, and sees the effects of summer camp first-hand.
The first year Christ Lutheran sent kids from McClintock to summer camp, they were overwhelmed by the impact.
“Teachers told us the very next year that kids were still writing about camp in April,” Daniels said. “For some, they just never had anything to write about. We don’t have to send them to a literacy camp to help their literacy. (Camp) gives them things to write about for years.
“Youth in poverty have very limited exposure and very limited experiences of any kind. They live in a concrete jungle of apartment complexes and don’t get much beyond that without help,” she said. “Their parents do everything they can to get them educated and keep them safe. … It’s beyond the realm of possibility to send them away to camp.”
For so many kids, summer vacation isn’t a carefree time of afternoons by the pool, beach vacations and sleeping in.
“Kids in poverty grow up really fast, and they’re taking care of younger brothers and sisters and they’re taking care of household things,” she said. “The pressure and stress of being a kid in poverty is heavy, and it takes childhood away.”
So for one week at Lutheridge Camp, they get to be kids again.
Raphael says he still finds himself thinking of one of his favorite moments from last summer, when he and about 20 of his fellow campers spontaneously formed a dance circle at their campsite. Boys and girls from all parts of the United States, from different economic and racial backgrounds, shed their inhibitions and danced for each other.
“That was the one moment that I will always remember from that camp, because everyone was involved and nobody was shy,” Raphael says.
His mom, Isabelle Ngo-Bikai from Cameroon, says that Lutheridge Camp made her already responsible son even more mature.
“He has learned so much from the camp. He learned so much responsibility,” she said.
A member of his school’s wrestling team who loves basketball and drawing, Raphael was never one to cause trouble at home. But since returning from camp, his mom says she’s seen him step up even more, from pitching in on many of the household chores to more efficiently managing his schoolwork.
Christ Lutheran’s Amy Daniels first met Raphael when he agreed to go to camp last spring.
Now, she sees him every week. He participates in several church activities, including Sunday worship services and Wednesday night choir practice.
Raphael thanks camp for opening him up to new people with new ideas.
“Now I’m not as shy meeting new people, and I know how to go out and try to meet new people. I’m more spiritual,” he said. “Not a day goes by that I don’t think about how I want to go to Lutheridge Camp again.”