Camp Willow Run Sign

Summer camp offers new experiences for JJDP youth

Author: Matt Debnam

Bright sunshine glistens off a cool lake, with green grass underfoot and pine trees swaying overhead. The sounds of children laughing carries on the air. After dining hall meals, activities await – swimming, canoeing, climbing and so much more. This is the first week of summer camp at Camp Willow Run, and a special week it is. From May 27-31, youth from the Division of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention were the campers, accompanied by DJJDP staff and a fresh-faced batch of camp counselors.

Counselor belaying youth on climbing wall

Since 1971, justice-involved youth have been coming to camp on the shores of Lake Gaston in train cars converted into camp cabins. An environment in stark contrast to the youth development centers and residential programs they come from, this experience offers youth the chance to leave behind the world of walls and fences for a week and enjoy simply being a kid again. 

“This is something these kids will never be able to do on their own,” said JJDP Director of Facility Operations Angela Smith. “A lot of these kids have had to be street smart. This gives them the chance to let their walls down and just be a kid and experience something they never have before. It’s just awesome.”

One of the most incredible aspects of this camping experience is the way it is funded. The cost of camp is entirely covered through generous donations. This year, a committed group of donors rallied to raise funds to send approximately 75 youth to camp. 

“[These donors know] that we want to show these young people that somebody cares for them, that someone has provided this week of camp, but also that they can have a much brighter future,” Camp Willow Run Executive Director Robbie Harris said in a previous interview. “[At week’s end,] the students write a thank-you letter to their anonymous camp sponsor… We hear from donors all the time who say that letter meant the world to them to know that this young person was able to come and have the camp experience.”

Swimming at Willow Run

The youth are chosen to participate in the camping experience based on the level they have achieved through exhibiting appropriate behaviors within the JJDP programs and facilities. Factors involved in selecting the youth for camp include academic progress, and displaying appropriate behaviors in community settings, including home visits. Those chosen for camp volunteer for the experience and must have parental consent. In addition, each youth chosen to attend camp is thoroughly screened prior to attendance by a team of professionals, including social workers, psychologists, education and medical personnel. 

For many of these youth, this visit to camp is an opportunity to grow and challenge themselves. Whether it’s overcoming a fear of heights on the high ropes course, or learning to swim in Lake Gaston, they are able to find strength to do things they might have previously thought impossible. 

Mealtime at Willow Run

One youth participating this year, who had just finished scaling the camp’s 40-foot climbing wall, said the experience of being at camp, and doing high ropes activities was a whole new experience for him. He also noted the positive energy among his peers, the staff and the counselors.

“Everybody here is willing to help each other,” he said. “I feel like I’ve gotten closer to God, and I’ve been able to do a lot of fun activities. Everybody’s having a good time and this has been a great experience and I would recommend everybody come here.”