Written by Jennifer Fitzgerald | Photos courtesy North Carolina Youth Camp Association
It’s a golden age for summer camps, and options are bountiful in Western North Carolina.
It’s March, and, with summer approaching soon, many children and parents are anticipating and making their summer camp plans. It has been two years since Capital at Play reported on the state of camps in the area—so let’s take a closer look. (Note: see pages 48-49 for our comprehensive guide to the region’s summer camps.)
Summer Camp (noun) /səmər kamp/
1. A place for youth to go when the school year has been completed in order to learn new skills, gain independence, and cultivate leadership.
2. Can be overnight or a day camp.
3. Must have amazing counselors and activities.
4. Leads to lots of smiles and laughter.
Synonyms: fun, awesome, experience of a lifetime
“Mom, I can’t wait to go back to summer camp this year!”
Western North Carolina is home to a wide variety of camps—including traditional, day camps, and adventure/travel, many of them with specialized themes or orientations such as Christian, Jewish, academic, sports, special needs, Girl Scouts, etc.
With so many options that are available, how does a parent make the decision as to what is right for their child?
Charlotte resident Kelly Leahy knew when her oldest daughter, Amelia, was ready for camp.
“My oldest has always loved visiting and staying with family and friends,” Leahy says. “I felt that she would adjust to camp life easily as well. She was nine the first summer and there are campers as young as six. With my second child, it was more of a guessing game. But because her sister had two summers of camp under her belt, and would be there with her, we felt the timing was good.
“I wanted them to have that experience. To have a chance to meet new friends, try new things. Friends that sent their kids always talked about how much their kids loved it.”
Given the sheer number and diversity of camps in the region, selecting the right camp for a child can be an overwhelming task for a parent. North Carolina Youth Camp Association (NCYCA) Executive Director Sandi Garcia Boyer understands this, and says that we are fortunate to have such a wealth of options. Her association, which was formed in 2009 to expand public understanding of summer camps in North Carolina and to represent their interests with policymakers, recently commissioned a study conducted by Clemson University, the Parent Perceptions Study, in which parents were asked to identify why they decided to send their child to camp. The top response was the reputation of the camp (50.1%); followed by the camp being consistent with their child’s interests (18.7%); a family history of attending the camp (14.8%); and “other” reasons (13.7%).
The study also found that parents reported that camp helped their child grow and develop in the areas of resilience, cooperation, communication, critical thinking, and decision-making. Ninety-one percent indicated that attending overnight camp helped their child succeed in a school environment. Boyer notes that the study brought to the forefront the importance that parents hold for camp in building skills that aren’t necessarily taught in a classroom setting. “Skills like independence, confidence, and resiliency,” she says. “We have been a strong voice for the benefits of experiential outdoor learning for children, and will continue to advocate for these unique opportunities.”
Among the benefits of camp highlighted in the study: helping youth navigate important life transitions; reinforcing life lessons that youth learn at home; preparing youth for independent living; building self-confidence; and providing opportunities for hands-on learning.
So does attending camp help prepare a child for college and develop leadership skills?
“Healthy independence is a starting point for college success,” says Adam Boyd, who, along with his wife, Ann, are the executive directors of Camp Merri-Mac for girls and Camp Timberlake for boys in Black Mountain.
“When we dropped our first child off at college,” Boyd continues, “we decided that the whole idea of thousands of 18-year-olds set free was a terrible idea. We had never been so glad that our daughter had the chance to figure out who she was in a safer environment. Leadership is about loving something. Since camps are a safe place to fail, they are a safe place to try things that campers are not sure they will be good at doing. That is how a girl discovers what she loves and what she is great at doing.”
“We have actually been told by college administrator types that they have learned to recognize those kids during orientation who have been campers growing up,” Dan Singletary, director of Camp Timberlake, says. “These former campers know how to meet new people, know how to navigate class schedules, and know how to better take care of themselves because they have been doing this, oftentimes, since age seven or eight at camp. Campers develop a set of shock absorbers for life that kids who have been sheltered from time away from parents might not have. Leadership is also a huge byproduct of camp. Most good camps also offer leadership opportunities within their program in the summer.”
Choosing the Right Camp
The majority of summer camps in North Carolina are located in the Western North Carolina area—over 60% of the state’s accredited residential camps.
“These camps are steeped in traditions that span four and five generations, and they sit on some of the most beautifully preserved land in the country,” NCYCA’s Boyer says. “They all work incredibly hard to stay connected to the principles that make camp a valuable learning experience. You find this type of quality camp all over the state. North Carolina’s camping industry really understands how to work together to create the best possible camping environment for children from all over the world.”
Leahy found her decision of camp selection to be an easy one. “I only looked at Camp Merri-Mac, because growing up [in Black Mountain], I used to deliver candy and chips to the camp with my grandfather on his vending route. It was the first place that came to mind, and once I researched it and saw that it was a Christian-based camp, there was no doubt in my mind.”
Children need four things to grow: friends, adventure, mentors, and healthy independence.
Camp Merri-Mac and Camp Timberlake are located on the same property in Black Mountain. Founded in 1945, 229 girls attended Merri-Mac last summer, and 105 boys attended Camp Timberlake. Campers from 35 states and 17 countries enjoy over 30 activities, including riding, backpacking, climbing, canoeing, kayaking, rocketry, pottery, cooking, gymnastics, tennis, archery, riflery, basketball, paintball, dance, drama, yoga, swimming, diving, fencing, and puppy camp.
Puppy camp, in fact, is a favorite with campers. It involves five lab puppies named after past campers. The campers are taught how to train the puppies throughout the summer. At the end of the summer, the puppies are adopted by camp families. (The idea came directly from Jimboy Miller, of Camp Greystone, another traditional summer camp for girls.)
Amelia Leahy’s favorite Camp Merri-Mac activities are volleyball, cooking, and lacrosse, while her younger sister, Caroline, enjoys pottery.
Girls from the age of six to 16 attend Merri-Mac. Adam Boyd says that parents should first send their child to camp as young as they can possibly stand.
“The best growth from camp is the result of coming year after year,” he explains. “It can also be challenging to find a spot at a great camp when they get older. We start at six. Growth through friends and adventure can start very young, and it continues for generations.”
One of the benefits of attending Merri-Mac for Amelia is “going crazy and having tons of laughs.” She also looks forward to growing in her faith each year and being with friends.
“One of my best friends I met at camp in my first year goes to my same school,” she says. “I have friends all the way from Oregon, Spain, and El Salvador that I keep in contact with year round.”
Boyd says that children need four things to grow, all of which they can find at Merri-Mac. The first is friends.
“We are made to live life together, and residential camps are a special place to do that,” he says. “Because we live together, the girls feel more like sisters than typical friends, and this happens very quickly. At camp, girls make friends with other girls who are older than them, younger than them, and completely different than them.”
The second is adventure. “Adventure is taking a risk in a circumstance where you are not sure whether you will succeed,” Boyd says. “Children will only do this in a setting where they feel safe if they fail. This requires being surrounded by a certain type of friends—ones that will cheer them on when they succeed and when they do not. These sorts of friends are hard to find most places. Because the girls live together, they grow these types of friendships very quickly.”
The third is mentors. “Girls need third party affirmation. It needs to be by people who are a bit older, but close enough that they can imagine themselves being like these people. Great counselors fit this bill perfectly.”
And the fourth thing Boyd says that children need to grow is healthy independence. “Children need the opportunity to overcome adversity, and this is very difficult for us as parents to provide.”
Leahy agrees that attending camp was beneficial in the growth and maturity of her girls.
“For the oldest, it enhanced her confidence, allowed her to figure out more about what she liked and didn’t like within activities, and it taught her how to live with other girls her age,” Leahy says. “She absolutely adores camp and is staying for a month this summer! My younger child had mixed reviews. I think she enjoyed having lots to do each day and being a part of their ‘tribe,’ but she was much more homesick than her sister had ever been.”
Camp Greystone is another traditional camp that was founded in 1920 by Dr. Joseph Sevier. His great-grandson, Jimboy Miller, is now the owner and executive director. Located on the headwaters of Lake Summit in Tuxedo, they have around 1,800 campers each summer, with most coming from the Southeast. Many states are represented—35 states last summer, as well as several countries, including Mexico, England, Switzerland, France, and China.
Campers choose from 50 different activities at the Christian camp for girls, which is non-denominational but has a strong faith component in their community. “Our emphasis is on excellence,” Miller says, “so that we glorify God in our work and tradition.”
Miller sees parents sending their daughter to Greystone because of the “effects” they see when they return home from camp.
“They are sweet, confident, genuinely thankful, interested in having deep, meaningful conversations, and even do chores around the house with a smile,” he says. “It is not just fun—it is one of the best things they can imagine for their growth. They [parents] will make the sacrifices necessary to provide this experience because it is worth it.”
The most important thing Miller wants campers to take away from their camp experience is a sense of “richness” of life.
“They grow in all aspects of their character—physical, social, spiritual, and mental— but the single best part of the growth is spiritual,” he says. “Here they discover that they actually like talking about ‘real’ things with their friends. They find a tight knit community of love that reflects the way life can be if we all just live the way we are supposed to. It is an inspiration and can transform a life in a very positive way.”
They grow in all aspects of their character—physical, social, spiritual, and mental— but the single best part of the growth is spiritual.”
For many families, local day camps are a good option for their children, especially for the parent who works full-time. Many of these are specialized, with cooking, music, sports, and other activities as the focus.
Bricks 4 Kidz is one of these camps that offers a variety of Lego-based activities, from motorized building projects to Lego art. It was started in the Asheville area in August of 2012 and is a mobile business, running camps in various locations throughout Buncombe and Henderson Counties. They average 300 campers per year. Their camp mission is to provide a safe, fun environment for kids to learn, build, and play. They offer camps for ages three to 14, with the popular Junior Engineering Camp designed for ages three to five in order to give them a great jumpstart on engineering at an early age.
“All of our camps for grade school children use technology,” owner and director Wendy Land says. “The children make actual, moving machines using Lego bricks and motors at each camp. We also offer other technology-based camps, like Stop Motion Movie Making, Junior Robotics, and Robotics, which all use some form of computers and programming.”
Bricks 4 Kidz camps feature popular themes like Minecraft, Star Wars, Jurassic Park, and pirates. The camps help children get a head start in the fields of engineering and architecture.
“We want our campers to feel a sense of accomplishment at the end of a week of camp, plus we hope they made new friends, learned how to work well with others, and, most of all, had fun,” Land said.
Camp Muddy Sneakers, also a day camp, seeks to educate campers about the natural world through hands-on exploration.
“Our home base is in Brevard, but we have camp sessions in Brevard, Hendersonville, and Asheville each summer,” co-director Lindsay Green says. “We’re still a young camp and grow exponentially each summer. We added the younger camp sessions last year and saw a huge increase in the number of campers. We keep group size very small. Trail Blazers’ [rising fourth-seventh graders] sessions have a max of 12 campers, with two field instructors, and Nature Explorers’ [rising first-third graders] sessions have a max of 20 campers, with two field instructors.
“We have base camps in three counties: Brevard, we use Brevard College; Hendersonville, we use the park at Flat Rock and Jackson Park/the Mountain Community School; and in Asheville, Ira B. Jones Elementary School.”
Each day at Camp Muddy Sneakers focuses on a different nature themed topic and the older campers get to explore a different site each day. Green shares the memorable story of a large rat snake in the hood of the camp van several years ago.
“It took quite some time to get it to find another location to rest. It was exciting to the campers, and many still talk about it when they return to camp. There are lots of special moments that occur when the campers are out in the field exploring or discovering nature around the base camps where we program.”
Green says she wants campers to take away a growing interest in the outdoors from their camp experience. “Hopefully we ignite a spark that will continue to grow as they age.”
Where better to have a grand adventure than at summer camp? Many camps focus on adventure and once-in-a-lifetime experiences. MindStretch Travel Adventures, LLC, founded in 1978, and based in Columbus, North Carolina, is a travel camp for boys ages 10 and older, rather than a traditional residential camp. They offer the same kinds of activities as residential camps, but enjoy these adventures in some of the most amazing natural areas in the United States. Campers occasionally take trips to international locations. This year, trips will be to Wyoming and Montana, with most time spent in the Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks. There will also be an eight-day adventure to the mountains of West Virginia and Tennessee.
“Our mission is to offer travel experiences and outdoor [and indoor] activities as a means of broadening one’s life experiences in a safe and comfortable setting,” owner and director Mark Levin says. The most popular activity is the thrill of traveling to new places. “Over the years we’ve had trips all across the United States, including Alaska, as well as Canada, Mexico, the Bahamas, and across Europe.”
Levin believes that travel broadens the mind by offering experiences hard to find while staying put in a single residential location.
“The experiences of their sons traveling with other boys and experiencing the world is good for the heart and mind,” he explains. “Camps do wonders to prepare boys and girls for the future. Just being away from home and learning how to adapt to different daily situations is an amazing opportunity for growth. Kids learn how to be independent in a safe environment.”
Jay Jalenak, a participant on MindStretch Travel Adventures’ very first European trip (and a veteran of several others trips), is now an attorney in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He says the trip was one of the greatest adventures of his life. “Every day was a new experience. It was an education in history and different cultures. But most of all, it was an unparalleled education in living and traveling with a group. Our group worked together to chart our travel and plan our activities. No other travel experience allows the participants to have such input; that is the difference between a ‘tour’ and an ‘adventure.’ It is the one trip I still talk about all the time.”
Learning to Go Screen-Free
With many children being electronically savvy and connected to their smartphone and iPad at all times, camp can be a period of adjustment where they are “unplugged.” In addition, parents are used to being in constant communication with their children.
“We are educating both parents and children about the benefit of building independence and being away from phones and technology,” Boyer says. “This is often a harder lesson for parents than it is for children.”
Many camps require that campers are device-free, but utilize technology and social media like Facebook to keep parents informed about their child’s activities.
“We are screen-free during our adventures,” Levin says. “Boys may use the director’s cell phone to call home if there’s a need. Parents are connected to our adventures, however. We post a blog each night along with a complete photo gallery of our day’s events.”
“Campers have no technology, but we love technology for our parents,” Boyd says, of Camps Merri-Mac and Timberlake. “We want parents to have a one-way window into everything that happens at camp, but we want their campers to feel a healthy independence. So we are big on social media for parents.”
“It’s always a little bit nerve racking until you receive that first letter from camp, or see the first pictures of them on the camp website,” Leahy says. “Being able to go in several times a day and look at the pictures from the day is always fun and allows you to feel connected to them in some way.”
Results from a previous NCYCA study conducted in 2011 (and cited in Capital at Play’s June 2014 summer camps story) examined the economic impact of summer camps in Western North Carolina. The study found that the average expenditure per non-resident family while in the area was $2,096, with the average expenditure per seasonal staff while in the area $2,402. The total economic impact on the four counties of Buncombe, Henderson, Jackson, and Transylvania from residential summer camps was $365 million.
Boyer mentions that when the 2011 economic impact study was conducted, the country was in the middle of a failing economy.
“Since the rebound, we have seen a significant increase in the number of children attending camps in North Carolina,” she says. “We would expect that if another economic study was conducted, you would also see a significant increase in the dollars coming to the state from the camp industry.”
“North Carolina is the Silicon Valley of camping,” Adam Boyd says. “A recent study showed that in four counties alone there is a $360 million economic impact and 10,000 full-time jobs resulting from camps.
“Add the thousands of acres of protected land and positive educational impact on children,” he continues, “and you find a long term impact that is difficult to put a number to.”
Camp Greystone is an example of this economic impact. Miller cites big payroll, significant property taxes and maintenance, renovation budget spent with local contractors, and thousands of parents who are visiting (to drop off and pick up their campers) often staying for several days as factors that have a positive impact on the Henderson County economy.
“Nonprofit camps have also seen an increase in the amount of philanthropic money they are able to raise,” Boyer adds. “In most cases, these dollars go directly towards helping children who otherwise could not afford to attend camp.”
Camps of the Future
According to Boyer, over the last five years, summer camp staff have seen more pressure to spend time on “resume building” activities. She says that parents are also looking for healthier food choices at camps, noting, “Camps are trying to balance the ‘fun’ of s’mores and hot dogs with the desire to offer healthier and more local food options.”
In addition, camps have traditionally been inclusive and welcoming places, and they are evolving as society does. “With the changing comfort around gender identify, camps are in the beginning stages of thinking about how this will impact them. Issues related to how to include campers with a transgender orientation in an environment where people are in residence, or even at camps that are single-sex camps, are a challenge.”
Boyer says that there is a very competitive market for activities for children. Children have more options to choose from than ever before, and camps are constantly working to provide superior service and up their game.
Summer camps continue to be a vibrant rite of passage for many youth in the area. They come to camp anticipating fun, while parents hope they develop independence. They return every year because they make such close friendships.
“In a time of less personal interaction and ability to truly connect with peers, camp is a beautiful option for parents to fight against the new normal,” Camp Timberlake’s Singletary says. “Our belief is that parents will choose camping because they want their kids to have real experiences outdoors with friends and be mentored by excellent role models. These opportunities are less and less, and we want to capitalize on that.
“We want our boys to learn what makes them unique and special while at camp. We also want them to find things that excite them in order to personally invest in becoming great at those things. We have watched former campers go on to achieve scholarships in college and even become professionals in activities that they learned at camp.”
Summer will be here soon, and camps will be welcoming their campers with renewed enthusiasm and joy.
“Camps have been a U.S. educational institution for over 100 years,” MindStretch’s Levin says. “While programs have adapted to the times, the traditional summer camp still holds value for a boy’s growth.”
Adds Adam Boyd, “This is a golden age for camping. Parents are seeing the benefits of outdoor adventures for youth development, and the result is that camps are growing stronger.”
To read Capital at Play’s June 2014 summer camps story, go to www.capitalatplay.com/summer-camps-wnc.
The original article is below. Click to open in fullscreen…