When Shannon Poteat was growing up on a dairy farm near Norway, S.C., her summers were filled with weeks away from home at 4-H camps around the state. From the time she was in lower school through high school, she headed off each summer to learn more about farming, horses, camping and friendships. Her college summers, even the summer before she started law school, were spent working as a camp lifeguard.
“I met so many new friends — people I still stay in touch with,” says Shannon, now a mother of three girls living in Columbia’s Kings Grant neighborhood. “And being a lifeguard at camp was a great job. You create a special bond with the kids on a daily basis, and you see the same kids coming back week after week.”
Going away to summer camp is a rite of passage for many kids, with the American Camp Association estimating that 10 million children across the country attend summer camps each year. A trip to camp can last a few days or all summer long and offers children a taste of independence, a chance for new experiences and an opportunity to meet new friends. For parents, it’s a time for packing sleeping bags, duffel bags, mosquito repellent, sunscreen, flashlights and notepaper with pre-addressed, stamped envelopes — just in case children have a free minute to touch base about how they are managing away from home.
For parents like Shannon and Chad, her husband, it means preparing three girls for an exciting, annual adventure. The Poteat children — Leigh, 15, Lane, 13, and Summers, 9 — have tried a few different camps over the years, but this year all three will be returning to Camp Gravatt, an Episcopal Church camp near Aiken, S.C. The oldest will be a junior counselor, spending about two weeks at the camp.
“Camp was such a big part of my life growing up. I loved it so much. I knew I wanted that experience for my girls,” Shannon says. “Leigh and Lane count down the days to go. Summers is more hesitant; she’s more of a homebody. But once she gets there she loves it.”
When she sent Leigh away for the first time, Shannon admits she was a little worried. Her daughter was away for five nights, and no letter arrived in the mail telling either of good times or homesickness. “When I showed up to pick Leigh up, she was sitting on the steps, and she was in tears. I walked up to her and she said, ‘Mom, why did you have to come pick me up?’”
There are hundreds of options for summer camps, from faith-based options to competitive sports to aquatic-centered camps, so finding the right match is an important decision. Katie Johnson, executive director of the American Camp Association’s Southeast field office, suggests parents do their homework.
She says that parents should invest some time thinking about their child’s interests and personality before deciding on which camp will be the best fit. Some children thrive on competitive experiences, while others prefer sitting back and being part of group activities. Some like camping and the outdoors, while others prefer music or crafts. Others are drawn to spiritual gatherings and a chance for worship in a camp atmosphere.
Chances are, there is a camp that is right for each child who wants to attend, and it may just take some investigation. “You need to find a camp that matches your child’s interests. We recommend getting your child interested in the process,” Katie says.
Once the list is narrowed, she suggests looking more closely at a few of the options and having a conversation with staff. Be sure to ask questions about how they handle homesickness, how parents can communicate with their children while they are at camp and how special needs such as medication are handled.
Finally, if possible, she suggests parents and children visit the camp before the summer session. Often camps have open house days when families can check out the cabins, the dining halls and other facilities. “That takes some of the intimidation factor out of it for children. The fear of the unknown goes away,” she says.
According to the American Camp Association, the typical experience for South Carolina children is a week of camp not too far from home run by a faith-based group or an agency such as the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts or YMCA. Camps located in Western North Carolina, New England and the Colorado Rockies tend to be for children looking to go for four or five weeks at a time. Both near and far options have selling points. Camps closer to home are easier to evaluate and visit, the travel cost is lower, and children will have contact with classmates or peers from the same part of the country. A camp far away allows children to experience a different landscape, a more diverse mix of campers and promotes more independence for adolescents or teens.
Missy and Kim Biggs of Columbia chose a camp affiliated with their church, Methodist-run Asbury Hills, for their daughters, Fletcher, 13, and Maggie, 10. The sisters have loved their trips to the camp, where they enjoy arts and crafts, water activities, hiking and worship services. They go to camp the same weeks, but they are in different age groups so their paths don’t cross too often while they are away.
“My kids are not the type who get homesick; they’re pretty independent,” Missy says. “Fletcher is very gregarious, and she likes to be around a lot of people all the time. She meets some of the same kids each year who have gone the past few summers. They’re constantly staying busy with one thing after the other. They’ve done the ‘drenched camp’ that’s all water activities, including tubing down the river, tubing behind a boat and creek hiking.”
Fletcher says that she enjoys meeting new people and taking part in the worship services at Asbury Hills, which is located in the Blue Ridge Mountains in the northwest corner of South Carolina. “They have a lot of activities, and I get to meet a lot of people I didn’t know. And we do a lot of worship,” Fletcher says. “The activities are really cool. We walk through creeks, and there is a zip line across the mountains. It’s really great.”
Genny and Chris McKenzie’s three daughters have each spent several years at Camp Gravatt in Aiken County. Dannelly, now 18, started in third grade and continued through the ninth grade. Lilly, now 14, spent her final summer at camp last year, and Campbell, the 10-year-old, will spend a week there for the fourth time this year.
“At first, I made the choice for them because Camp Gravatt is an Episcopal camp, and even before I had children I heard about it. It’s close to Columbia, but it’s still a good distance away,” Genny says. “I encouraged them to try other camps, but after they went to Gravatt they just loved it and stuck with it.”
She says her daughters have enjoyed the high ropes course, the social and fellowship part of camp, especially the dance on the final night. And while many campers who go to Gravatt are from the Columbia area, they have met friends from schools all over the Midlands.
“One of the reasons I like them to go to camp,” says Genny, who lives in Columbia’s Lake Katherine neighborhood, “is so they can branch out and meet new people.”
When is a child ready for camp?
Children — even those from the same family — are ready for new experiences at different ages. Some can’t wait to spend a week away from home, meeting new friends and learning new skills. Others are more hesitant and may prefer to wait a few years before a camp experience. Experts suggest a day camp for children under 7 who have not had many overnight experiences, but each family — and each child — is different.
The American Camp Association offers these questions for parents to ask themselves to help decide when children are ready to head off to camp:
• How did your child become interested in camp? Does your child talk about camp on a sustained basis? How much persuasion is necessary from you?
• Has your child had positive overnight experiences away from home visiting relatives or friends? Were these separations easy or difficult?
• What does your child expect to do at camp? Learning about the camp experience ahead of time allows you to create positive expectations.
• Are you able to share consistent and positive messages about camp? Your confidence in a positive experience will be contagious.
A camp for everyone
When parents are considering summer camp for their children, they’ll quickly find there are all sorts of options available. Camps range from a few nights for young children to all-summer options for teens. They will find co-ed camps and single-sex camps, religious-based camps, sports camps, water camps, scout camps, beach camps and mountain camps.
Some of the benefits of each, provided by the American Camp Association, are listed below. For more information, check out the association’s website, which includes a “camp finder” that provides help through the process of choosing the perfect camp.
Benefits of short sessions
(one to three weeks)
• First-time or younger campers have a chance to learn new skills
• Bonds develop with other campers and staff
• Great exposure to camp experience with less expense
• Minimizes homesickness
Benefits of longer sessions
(four to 12 weeks)
• Strong sense of belonging to camp community
• Chance to learn new skills
• Development of specialized skills
• Multiple opportunities for learning and enrichment
• Lifelong friendships
• Opportunities to contribute to camp culture
Benefits of Single Sex Camps
• Breaking gender stereotypes. Girls interact with women in position of authority, and boys interact with men who act as nurturers
• More opportunities for children to be themselves without impressing or competing with the opposite sex
• Camp philosophy may be tuned into gender strengths and weaknesses
• Brother or sister camps may share activities
Benefits of Co-ed Camps
• Mirrors and prepares campers for everyday living in a co-ed world
• Allows families with a boy and a girl to attend the same camp
• Offers diverse points of view
• Campers participate in the same activities on equal footing
The American Camp Association offers plenty of advice and information for parents. Visit www.CampParents.org for more information.
A special thanks to Camp Gravatt, Camp Greenville and Camp Greystone for providing photography.
Popular Camps for Columbia Kids
There are hundreds of camps in and close to the Carolinas. Here are just a few mentioned as favorites by Columbia families.
Camp Greenville, a YMCA camp, Cleveland, S.C.
Camp Highlander, a camp for boys and girls, Mills River, N.C.
Camp Thunderbird, a YMCA camp on Lake Wylie, in York County, S.C.
Faith Based Camps
Camp Gravatt, a faith-based camp in Aiken County, S.C.
Camp Kanuga, an Episcopal Church Camp, Hendersonville, N.C.
Camp Asbury Hills, a Christian summer camp, Cleveland, S.C.
Camp St. Christopher, an oceanfront Christian Camp, Seabrook Island, S.C.
Camp Greystone, a Christian summer camp on the shores of Lake Summit in Tuxedo, N.C.
Camp Ton-A-Wandah, Hendersonville, N.C.
Rockbrook Camp for Girls, Brevard, N.C.
Camp Illahee, a Christian camp for girls, Brevard, N.C.
Camp Carolina, a summer camp for boys located in Brevard, N.C.
Camp Rockmont, a summer camp for boys, Black Mountain, N.C.
Mondamin, a summer camp for boys, Tuxedo, N.C.