Lake Wylie community helping children get to camp

jmarks@lakewyliepilot.comMay 1, 2013 

— A lot of children wouldn’t get to experience Lake Wylie each year were it not for Camp Thunderbird. A lot of children wouldn’t get to experience Thunderbird were it not for the Lake Wylie community.

Among the thousands who pass through camp’s gates each summer are many like Andy Belich. Belich participated in a YMCA afterschool program growing up and one summer was offered a scholarship, or “campership” as they’re known at Thunderbird. He then returned as a counselor. Now he’s head of the boys camp.

“I ended up here through the school program,” Belich said. “I knew through two weeks of camp I wanted to be a counselor. I wanted to provide what I was given to others.”

Camp recently kicked off its Send a Kid to Camp campaign. Organizers are planning a recognition of donors at the annual July 4 fireworks show. Between resident camp, day camp and the environmental education program, 2013 camperships will total 405.

“It’s really a collective effort of our camp family, the board and the community,” said Gretchen Rohleder, senior financial development officer.

Camperships aren’t new to Thunderbird. When camp - then called the Observer Fresh Air Camp - began in 1936, the founding documents required hundreds of outdoor experiences to be provided for families who couldn’t afford them. Though camp now draws from across the country and world - 25 states and 10 countries last year - only a handful of the camperships aren’t given to children in the Carolinas.

“It’s a very important legacy,” said Greg Montgomery, chairman of this year’s fundraising campaign.

Donors are even more local with businesses like Bagel Boat, BB&T and CCR Enterprises in Lake Wylie, and Buffalo Wild Wings in Steele Creek contributing. Nonprofits and service organizations help, too, like River Hills Lions Charities and Sweet Repeat Charitable Foundation. There are contributions from elsewhere in the county, including McDade & Adams CPA and the Springs Close Foundation in Fort Mill, and Carolina Design Co. in Clover.

Frank Van Leer is president of the River Hills Lions Club, which donates 75 percent of its annual charities budget to local groups like camp. He’s been with the group 11 years, but said the partnership between Lions and camp goes back farther.

“Lions are about helping people help themselves, especially people who are facing adversity,” Van Leer said. “Camp Thunderbird is about helping kids and sometimes those kids are facing adversity in their lives. In some ways they parallel what we do, and that’s fabulous.”

Camp costs $890 a week, with one- and two-week resident camp sessions during the summer. Last year brought just shy of 3,000 resident and day campers. In addition to full-time, year-round camp staff, about 200 counselors will come onboard this summer.

Some campership recipients come from difficult pasts, Belich said, where a stay at the lake is “maybe the best two weeks they’re going to get.” Others, like him, don’t bring quite the baggage. Belich is one of five brothers to a single parent, so trips to camp would’ve been out of reach.

While some campership-eligible families are identified through regular sign-ups, many come from afterschool programs sponsored by YMCA of Greater Charlotte, which also runs camp.

“We’re taking a more active approach,” Montgomery said. “The idea is to find young people who show some natural leadership ability and give them an opportunity to further those abilities, to make them better.”

Campers who get the financial help often see it again in future summers. Hopes are that many, even some this year, might one day follow the path of Belich and others like him. Whether that path leads them back to camp or to successful ventures elsewhere.

“What I feel like we can offer these kids is a safe environment where they can learn from solid role models,” Belich said.

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