Good Neighbors

| By Kristin Dunn |

These mountains became a haven for my family when we moved from the coast to the opposite end of this beautiful state. What did we know about this area? Hardly anything except there was a job waiting. We toured Main Street in Hendersonville during an interview and decided that West First Pizza was excellent food. And thirty two days later, we moved to an apartment off of Highway 64.

When we arrived, we saw paradise, industry, and schools worth bragging about. The mountains have culture and heritage – and occasionally, decent snow for skiing. We learned that the mountains have summer camps, and that overnight camp equals big money.

From the time before air conditioners and bug repellent, our mountains became a refuge for Charlestonian women and children. Folks refer to Hendersonville as Little Charleston for a reason. Charleston was riddled with bugs carrying disease through the hottest part of summer but the mountains offered clean water and fresh air during those sweltering months. It is no surprise that camp became a huge part of the tourism industry through the early 1900s. With the arrival of the railroad through the Saluda Grade, people had the ability to flock to the high country.

Across the East Coast, a movement was forming to encourage people to get outdoors. In 1900 there were fewer than a hundred camps in the US. By 1918, there were over a thousand. This took off quickly in the mountains of NC and some of those historic camps are still in operation. Located in Sapphire, Camp Merrie-Woode for girls celebrates their 100th anniversary in 2019, still honoring founder Mabel Day, who directed camp for 30 years.

Newer camps are blossoming, too. Camp Watia, the first residential camp operated by the Y of WNC, sits on 900 beautiful acres in Swain County. Camp Watia is open for their second summer and aims to stand out in a number of ways. Executive Director Ryan Hove explains that “all children in our community deserve a chance at camp where they can develop in a values-based environment.”

The Dollars and Sense

So who are these campers? Where are they from? And does camp really matter? With 95% of children attending local camps coming from 500 plus miles away, parents are flying here with their families, staying at bed and breakfasts, and vacationing at our Main Street when they pick campers up after the season. The average residential camp costs upward of $600 per week, with some multi-week programs hovering over $7,000.

Make no mistake: the camp industry is a booming business with huge impacts. Approximately 55 residential camps operate today in WNC. With approximately 14 weeks of programs to generate revenue, camps have to be savvy and full of hard-working, good-natured people. In 2010, the North Carolina Youth Camp Association tasked NC State University with a challenge: evaluate the fiscal impacts of camps in four counties. The discovery? Camps create over 1,500 seasonal and year-round jobs and contribute more than $355 million to our economy.

The Case for Camp

The case for camp is growing stronger, with new data about the value of 21st century skills and heat on the traditional education system. Similar to enrolling in dance lessons or sports, camp introduces children to a world outside of a classroom. One such camp is Green River Preserve (GRP) in Cedar Mountain. Sara Huffman, Administrative Director stresses, “Camp matters for students because most school situations are limiting in their design. By streamlining the education process, opportunities for individual strengths can get lost. Camp exists to support growth in campers’ independence and confidence through non-traditional learning experiences in nature.”

Camps are multi-faceted. They teach children, employ individuals and even protect forests and streams. Eight local camps including GRP have conservation easements, teaching children about permanently conserving important areas and protecting water quality. Gwynn Valley Camp in Brevard has a farm that generates 70% of its own food. Campers take initiative working with livestock and crops. Others such as Camp Merri-Mac in Black Mountain have puppy training, teaching responsibility by caring for another life. Some even have culinary programs where campers work together towards a common goal – even if that goal is brownies!

What Are We Missing?

Retiree George Howell explains that “though we live surrounded by national parks and forests, many local parents don’t have time to spend with their kids at all. They need to make ends meet. Have you ever asked students in our public schools how many have gone hiking?”

There is a disjointed view of our community that includes a flourishing retirement industry, local brewery scene, and tourism that neglects this: in most WNC counties, over 55% of students receive reduced priced meals with some schools teetering on 90%. With this knowledge, Howell founded Camplify in 1994, a non-profit that uses residential camp as a vehicle to propel local youth to brighter futures.

Since Camplify’s inception, the agency has come alongside 3,000 families who desperately desire to provide for their children, but are often unable. With support from partners including Kanuga Conference Center in Hendersonville, Camplify welcomes seventy new students each spring to begin this multi-year program. Fourth grade students are nominated by professionals who see that these children have potential, but often do not have positive role models outside of their families.

Through three weekend camps in elementary school and intense programming through middle and high school, students strengthen crucial skills such as communication, confidence, and respect. Over 75% of Camplify students receive reduced price meals at school. Many live with grandparents, single parents, or have had past traumas. What do they say about the experience? “I am thankful I get the chance to go to camp. I have learned to be trustworthy to my peers. I practice team-building exercises and listen to my cabin mates.” This program is changing family trees.

This June, one participant graduates high school and has enlisted in the military after spending a decade growing through camp and monthly programs. Last summer, he spent five weeks as a Counselor-In-Training at Falling Creek Camp in Zirconia, which gave him skills necessary to succeed in his career. A second graduate is applying for university scholarships. His references include adults in the camp industry who have watched his successes since he was nine years old.

The young men know that camp has changed their paths. Sara Huffman highlights that for every child, camp “provides the time and tools needed to set personal goals, the skills to attempt to reach those goals, and a safe environment to fail and be rewarded with constructive feedback, regardless of the outcome. Without these types of experiences, students miss developing the aptitudes that allow for a rich and often unpredictable life.”

The Mountains Call

Before staffing my first weekend camp, a colleague remembered, “There was this new camper, Anthony. When asked whether anyone had spent time in the woods, Anthony’s hand shot up. He said that he loved to hunt. He said that he shot a deer and it was the proudest moment of his life. I asked if his dad took him or if he went with friends. Anthony looked me right in the eye and said that he did it in his living room. Playing a video game. Do you see the issue now? In his mind, there was no difference between the forest on his TV and actually setting foot outside. This ten year old lives five miles from Pisgah National Forest, and he had never been”. Sometimes we miss what is right in front of us. That gas station attendant, that school bus driver, that grandmother shopping clearance? They are all our neighbors. They’re supporting their families to the best of their abilities. Their children deserve to make the most out of life, and camps are helping all families, including these, succeed every year.

Local camps support a multitude of small and mighty victories for families now, community in the future, and WNC for years to come. John Dockendorf, Executive Director of Camp Pinnacle in Flat Rock, summarizes, “we are the silent giant in Western NC. We don’t ask for much. We’re all pretty low key. We’re environmentally friendly. We bring a lot of great people to the area to live and most importantly, we’re good for kids.”

A believer in local non-profits, Kristin Dunn was named Executive Director of Camplify in 2015. Dunn is a graduate of Appalachian State University where she met her husband, Shane.

Sandi Tomlin-Sutker
Written by Sandi Tomlin-Sutker