Author: Jerry Higgins, Communications Officer
It’s hard to imagine a child who’s never experienced the smell of a forest while standing in the middle of a host of majestic trees swaying in the breeze; never experienced the sound of lake waves lapping onto the shore; or felt the joy of overcoming a fear of heights in front of their peers.
That’s the case with many juveniles housed in state youth development centers or juvenile detention centers. However, for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic began, more than 40 juveniles enjoyed (some for the first time) a camping experience at Camp Willow Run in Littleton during the week of May 29-June 3.
Since 1971, the interdenominational Christian camp/program on Lake Gaston has raised private funds to allow selected participants from youth development centers and short-term residential programs to attend camp, which includes such outdoor activities as canoeing, swimming, a climbing wall, and high ropes course, complete with a zipline ride into the lake.
“I never went to camp as a kid. This was a good chance for the kids to experience something they’ve never had the opportunity to experience,” said Jamey Nance, a youth counselor at Cabarrus YDC who was one of the DJJDP staffers on hand.
The students are chosen to participate based on the level they have achieved through exhibiting appropriate behaviors. Some of the selection factors include academic progress and displaying appropriate behaviors in community settings, including home visits. The chosen students must have parental consent. In addition, each student is thoroughly screened prior to attendance by a team of professionals, including social workers, psychologists, education and medical personnel.
“A lot of the kids have never experienced being kids,” said Angela Aiken, a DJJDP staff development specialist. “It’s so relaxing here. You get to see the boys and girls for who they really are. Their personalities really come out. I love being here. This is my mini-vacation … This would’ve been my ninth straight year here if not for COVID.”
The camp uses actual train boxcars converted into heated and air-conditioned dormitories. Camp counselors stay in the boxcar with the campers. The only other difference from other weeks of camp is the tendency to move the campers from place to place in groups, rather than individually.
One week before camp starts, counselors receive training from DJJDP staff explaining North Carolina’s juvenile justice system, receive background information on the student campers and their daily routines in the YDCs, and guidance on proper interactions with the juveniles. Then, at the end of the week, the campers write “thank you” letters to the donors.
The pandemic put a temporary halt to the camp visit for the past couple of years. Facilities did the best they could to hold “fun days” with outdoor activities and other events. But there’s no way to replicate the “camp” experience.
“The pandemic affected everyone,” said Angela Smith, the DJJDP director of facilities. “This gives the kids an opportunity to be outside. The camp atmosphere is a different world than they’re used to. This is something we haven’t been able to do for the past three years. It’s an awesome collaboration and partnership.
“We couldn’t do this without the generous donors, the camp allowing it to happen and our staff volunteering. The kids really want to go for the opportunity of a lifetime. There are opportunities to learn new skills and allow kids to be kids.”
DJJDP and camp staff monitor youth scaling a climbing wall, walking tree-to-tree on wire cables 20 feet above the ground or just enjoying the wilderness for the first time. There’s plenty of hesitation by the juveniles to climb to new heights or feel the wind blow across their bodies as they are harnessed, helmeted and fly on a zip line into Lake Gaston. Screams of trepidation turn to screams of joy as they hit the water.
Camp Executive Director Robbie Harris stated he wants to continue bringing YDC youth to Camp Willow Run and is confident his donors will continue the support. He told a story to senior DJJDP staff about one juvenile who spoke to him on the first day of camp after gazing across the majestic Lake Gaston.
“I have never been to the ocean before,” the juvenile told him, “but I imagine this is what it looks like.”
NOTE: To view photos of the camp, as well as the sponsor letters written by the juveniles, please click here.