Camp offers kids a taste of the great outdoors

Karan Barber sees it every summer.

When kids file in for the first day of camp at the Carolina Raptor Center, many are dismayed to find it’s a no-electronic-gadget zone.

Then comes their first foray into the wilderness around the Huntersville facility, and some are downright scared.

She remembers a day last summer when a nearly 6-foot-tall, 13-year-old boy who attended camp through a Charlotte Observer scholarship was so afraid of walking through the woods that he asked to put his hand on her shoulder.

“We had taken him into a completely foreign environment,” Barber says. “He had never been where all you could see was nature.”

But he managed.

And by the week’s end, his whole philosophy on the outdoors had changed.

“Indoor kids become outdoor kids,” Barber says.

The Carolina Raptor Center, a nonprofit dedicated to rehabilitating injured and orphaned raptors as well as educating the public about environmental stewardship, hosts 24 children each week for a five-day themed camp. The day camp, which costs $261.50 a week, is offered for six weeks during the summer for children ages 7-14.

Camp themes range from young veterinarians camp, where kids learn about the anatomy and physiology of birds at the facility’s medical center, to an “NSI” camp (Nature Scene Investigators) where youngsters learn to use knowledge and curiosity to enjoy the mystery of nature.

This is the third summer the Raptor Center, founded in 1981, will host scholarship children through the Charlotte Observer’s Summer Camp Fund.

The fund, in its fifth year, aims to send children from low-income families to day and overnight summer camps. This summer, 206 children from the Charlotte area will attend camp through the fund.

The most popular themed camp at the Carolina Raptor Center this summer has been the sold-out Harry Potter-themed “Hawkwarts” camp. Barber and her crew will mix fantasy and reality as they take kids through science experiments, botany, and arts and crafts. Directors and counselors get creative with the camps, starting the day with morning “Raptorstenics,” a twist on calisthenics using movements and behaviors unique to raptors.

They ask campers to bring an “environmentally conscious lunch” with as little waste as possible. This means reusable containers and cloth napkins – no packaged Lunchables. Each day, they compost lunch waste and weigh the trash, logging the weights on a chart.

“We usually reduce it to less than a pound by the end of the week,” Barber says.

Camp staffers talk to the kids about environmental issues and how they affect birds and other wildlife. They show campers how oil affects bird feathers, so that when kids hear about oil spills and other disasters on the news, they can understand the fallout for nature.

But perhaps the most valuable lesson Barber and her crew teach is the appreciation of the great outdoors, because their audience is at an age when many have lost the thrill of discovering an inchworm or sniffing a wildflower.

After early childhood, kids “stop going outside as much – they stop playing,” Barber says. “You have kids that are really inward focused as opposed to outward focused.

“We really are trying to bring kids back to nature so they can see what the world has to offer them,” she said.

Tyler Floyd, 10, said his attitude toward the outdoors changed after attending the center’s Nature Scene Investigators camp on a Charlotte Observer scholarship last summer.

“Before I went to that camp I usually stayed inside, but after I went to camp I was outside most of the time,” said the incoming fifth-grader at Kiser Elementary in Stanley.

Going canoeing for the first time and learning to identify trees, birds and wildlife tracks sparked an interest in the outdoors that stayed with him.

He says he started riding his bike more and helped his dad plant a garden and pull weeds.

He enjoyed camp so much last year, he’ll attend the center’s Hawkwarts camp on an Observer scholarship this week.

His grandmother, Charlotte resident Bonnie Johnson, drove Tyler to and from camp each day last summer and couldn’t believe how much he learned about nature.

“He had a blast,” Johnson said. “It was fun watching the excitement on his face when he could show me some of the things he learned, when it would just be me and him at the raptor center. He taught me things that I didn’t know.”

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