National Guard Camp offers kids support and fun
Last week, 130 kids descended on the Delaware National Guard Training Site in Bethany Beach to take part in the 12th annual Delaware National Guard Youth Camp — Camp Colwell.
Camp Colwell was created by retired Master Sgt. Ernie Colwell, whose mission was to “provide an opportunity for Delaware National Guard Youth to experience a quality summer camp… foster a sense of well-being while forming bonds with fellow National Guard youths of different ages, communities and backgrounds. [And] to better understand why parents serve in the Delaware National Guard.”
“When he’s at camp, he’s a father to all of the kids,” said camp volunteer LuWanna Krause of Colwell. “He’s just a wonderful inspiration to them and a wonderful leader.”
Krause, who helps raise the $42,000 it costs to run the camp each year, said that she first got involved in the camp after her son was deployed to Iraq.
“So many people were good to me and I just thought that I could give back, and one way was helping out at the camp.”
Each camper between the ages of 9 and 12 who attends pays $50 for the weeklong camp, while campers between the ages of 13 and 17 pay $75 dollars. Those children whose parents are on active deployment get to attend for free.
“The families of our deployed soldiers are first choice for the camp,” explained Krause. “Active Delaware National Guard children are second on the list. Then the others are opened to dependents, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, things like that.”
The camp is unique in that it caters to children who are directly affected by having loved ones in the military.
“It’s nice for them to all have a military background, because they all understand the military life,” explained Krause. “I think that children who are not military have no idea what it’s like to have a parent or a sibling or aunt or uncle at war. I think the only kids that can identify with that are definitely kids that have deployed parents. I can identify with that as a parent who has had a son deployed. It’s tough. It’s a long year.”
“It get our mind off the fact that our dad and his mom, and everybody, is not there with us,” said 12-year-old Elizabeth Soucr, whose father was deployed to Iraq when she was in first grade. “It was really hard, because I was really young and I really didn’t get the point of it. Once I figured out that he wasn’t here and he could get hurt… It was really hard.
“Here, it feels like I have all these friends that are like me because the people at school, not all of them have that. Here, I feel like all of us are the same.”
This past year the nonprofit camp had a $10,000 shortfall, and Krause said money has been tight.
“This year, they haven’t been that great,” she said of donations. “I take fundraising letters everywhere I go. I knock on doors. I talk to managers of businesses. We send letters out to our retired officers. We just try to get money where we can.
“Unfortunately, with the economy being the way that it is, businesses pick and choose whom to give to. We did have a grant from the State, but each year that grant gets a little bit less… Times are tough.”
During their week at camp, the kids get to go to James Farm to go crabbing, travel to Lewes to see a “pirate” ship and play on the water slides at Jungle Jim’s. While at the training site, they are also able to take computer safety classes, make crafts and even see the United States Air Force Honor Guard Drill Team in action.
“We do a lot of skill and confidence-building activities,” explained Krause. “We try to enforce the Army and Air Force values — honesty, integrity, all those good values. We just try to have fun activities for them to become friendly and confident in themselves. They love it. They can’t wait for camp next year. They’re just so excited. We have very few who get homesick, because we keep them so busy.”
The campers stay on a tight schedule that includes waking up for a morning formation to salute the flag, chowtime in the mess hall and practicing cadences and marching.
“They treat us like we’re in the army here, and it’s just so much more fun than sitting at home and doing nothing,” said 11-year-old Zaina Greene-Johnson.
“It’s not just the kids having fun here and meeting new friends,” said Mansfield. “They’re also learning what their own parents go through.”
The word “family” has great meaning to the campers and volunteers who help run the camp. Even though kids may arrive not knowing anyone, by the end of the week they’ve made lifelong friends.
“When you first come, here it can definitely be a challenge, but mostly all of it is fun,” said Greene-Johnson. “We love each other here. We’re like one big guard family.”
“The guard in general is a big family,” added Chris Slicer, a Delaware National Guardsman and camp counselor. “It might be kind of corny, but the motto on our shirts is ‘We take care of own,’ and it is kind of true.”
“We are their parents for a week,” said 19-year-old Kourtney Mansfield, who has participated in the camp for nine years — first as a camper and now as a counselor. “We are their parents and their friends and their confidants, their sisters, brothers, aunts and uncles.”
For those children whose parents are actively deployed, Camp Colwell offers the Yellow Ribbon Program, which focuses on giving those children additional support and attention.
“They get a little bit of extra time,” said Slicer. “They go off — just those kids — and we have a professional counselor, and she takes the kids and talks to them about how they’re doing with their parents being deployed. They get to talk to other kids going through a similar situation.”
“What you do there is talk about relationships and the deployment of other kids,” said 10-year-old Jayelyn Valentin, who added that those kids receive a ribbon to wear. “My friend Joey, his dad left for a year. That happened last year with my mom. She went to Afghanistan.”
“My brother might get deployed soon, and that comforts me a lot,” said 13-year-old Bruce Hower of the program. “A lot of people’s parents here are deployed, too.”
“My dad was in Iraq and Afghanistan. It went by fast,” recalled 11-year-old Nate Marsh. “At first you’re kind of sad, but you realize he’s going to be fine. You just get used to it… Here, you get to meet people who have experienced what you’ve experienced.”
Krause said that she hopes the camp positively impacts the campers’ lives and helps them become better adjusted, given their sometimes-difficult situation.
“My hope is always that these children learn to be better people. My really big hope is that these eight kids we’re teaching to be leaders become better leaders. Our junior counselors, that they learn to take some of the values they learn at camp and use them in their daily lives at school, in their communities and with their families.
“Just so that these children are more rounded children and better citizens of our country — that’s always my hope,” said Krause.
The one-of-a-kind camp has touched the lives of many, from the drill team that visits to the camp counselors who help run it to the training site’s guards — but, at its core, it helps bring happiness and comfort to the guard’s own youth.
“I think it’s a great camp — everybody that is here is here for the kids — to do everything they can to make it a great camp for them, realizing it is sons or grandchildren of service members,” concluded Slicer. “It’s kind of a unique camp in that respect, and unique kids because of the things they have to deal with in their lives. The kids here have so much in common with that. They make lifelong friends here.”
For more information on Camp Colwell or to make a donation, contact Ernie Colwell at Campcolwell@yahoo.com.