Youths never too cool for summer camp

Posted February 25, 2009

Dale Weaver, a Garner Middle School student, is counting the days until summer. Sure, she will be glad to be out of school and spend more time with her friends. But for Weaver, 13, the best part of her summer is attending Camp Kanuga in the North Carolina mountains.

Leaving her cell phone and laptop at home, Weaver looks forward to days filled with hiking, canoeing and swimming at the Hendersonville camp affiliated with the Episcopal Church.

“I have been going to Kanuga for the past two summers and enjoy everything about it,” she says. “I learn a lot of stuff, and it is great to see the friends again that I met before at camp.”

Weaver is just one of thousands of tweens and teens from the Triangle area who attend a variety of summer camps. Today, there is something for everyone, including sports camps for serious high school athletes, theater programs for budding actors and traditional camps filled with sailing and hiking and meals served in the dining hall.

While improving tangible skills is an important part of camp, area camp directors agree there is much more to the experience for today’s teenagers. Developing independence and self-confidence are major lessons acquired at summer camp, they say.

“Campers learn a wide variety of important life skills at our camps,” says Tony Oyenarte, president of American Camp Association (ACA) Southeastern, based in Charlotte. “These skills, like respect, acceptance and friendship, can benefit them for a lifetime.”

There are more than 220 day and residential camps accredited by ACA Southeastern in the Carolinas, Georgia, Florida and Puerto Rico. The ACA accreditation is considered the gold standard for camps.

In a world filled with social Web sites, text messages and e-mails, summer camps offer tweens and teens the chance to develop personal relationships in a unique setting away from the pressures of everyday life.

“More than ever, children today need face-to-face interaction with other people,” says Lynn Moss, director of Camp Seafarer, a North Carolina coastal girls’ camp that is a branch of the YMCA of the Triangle. “Camp offers a chance to form close bonds with people from all parts of the country and all walks of life. Friendships that last a lifetime can be formed at camp.”

Many camps, like Camp Seafarer, offer advanced programs for older campers. Sailing trips combined with community service work are offered in Costa Rica and Nicaragua. Other camps, like Wilderness Adventure at Eagle Landing in Virginia, challenge campers with outdoor wilderness programs.

Armed with backpacks, sleeping bags and dehydrated food, campers at Wilderness Adventure participate in a variety of activities, from rock climbing to mountain biking.

“Camp offers a chance for serious character development while also having a great time,” says Gene Nervo, director and founder of Wilderness Adventure. “We see campers learn the importance of working as a team, setting a goal and meeting a challenge.”

Summer camps also give tweens and teens the chance to just be outside, away from the computer and television. Exercise, both physical and mental, is another important part of the camp experience.

Larry Hancock, who supervises the six North Carolina 4-H camps and conference centers, says the outdoor summer camp experience is not like anything else in the life of a child.

“Camp lets children learn and experience the true importance of the outdoors,” he says. “There is a huge value in just getting outside and being close to nature.”

For some middle and high school students, spending the summer at camp without a cell phone and laptop may not sound like the “cool” thing to do. Camp directors advise involving children in the camp selection process to ensure a good experience for everyone.

“We emphasize the fact that ‘camp cool’ is contagious once you get here,” says Oyenarte, who also is director of Camp Crystal Lake in Florida. “Everyone is cool at camp once you get involved.”

Talking to other students who went to the camp, attending camp open houses and looking on the camps’ Web sites are good ways for both parents and children to learn more. Forcing a child to attend a summer camp will not be a positive experience for anyone, camp directors say.

For many tweens and teens, attending a specialty summer camp is a perfect way to advance their academic or athletic talents. Many of these local camps have a waiting list or even auditions for campers who are looking toward their futures in high school, college and beyond.

Several summer camps for middle school and high school students are sports-oriented, focusing on basketball, soccer, football and baseball. Sports camps often are held at local universities, where young athletes can work with noted coaches and players.

“Our audience is self-selecting,” says Mike Hollis, founder and president of NetWorks, a Cary-based year-round basketball program that includes summer camps. “Our campers have goals connected to basketball, and we work to help them meet their objectives.”

But Hollis and other camp directors point out that their camps offer much more than the opportunity to improve campers’ physical skills. Top-quality camps focus on more than dribbling a ball or memorizing lines to a play, they stress.

“All camps need to focus on the campers and offer them life-changing experiences,” Hollis says. “Basketball is just a game. We want our campers to learn much more about themselves and grow as individuals while attending camp.”

Allen McCoy, the new director of education for North Carolina Theatre in Raleigh, is already preparing for the annual Summer Theatre Arts School. Auditions were held in February.

A three-week performing arts school for ages 11-18, the school consists of workshops, classes and rehearsals led by some of New York’s and Raleigh’s best performing artists and educators. It culminates in a performance at the theater’s studio. A one-week program is held for younger students interested in performing.

“Our summer programs challenge students to improve and learn more about themselves and the theater,” McCoy says. “We want to help them achieve their goals while also having a good time.”

For Weaver, the Garner Middle student, going to summer camp is really just about having fun, being with her friends and improving her outdoor skills.

“I can’t wait to go,” she says. “I wish it started tomorrow.”


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