Camp gives military kids sense of belonging

Each summer, military youths from across the nation travel to north Georgia to attend the Joint Reserve Component Teen Leadership Summit, a Georgia 4-H camp designed especially for children of military reservists. Some 120 kids from 42 states attended the 2013 camp at the Wahsega 4-H Camp in Dahlonega.

The camp grew out of the two Air Force Reserve/Air National Guard Teen Summits held in Dahlonega and Estes Park, Colo. Georgia 4-H, in collaboration with the Air Force Personnel Center in San Antonio and the Office of Secretary of Defense, organized all the camps.

Georgia 4-H is a program of the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences and the University of Georgia Extension.

The first national scope Georgia 4-H military kids camp was held in 2008 for Air Force youths. This is the fifth year the program has offered the camps and the third year for the camp geared for children of reservists.

“To my knowledge, the Joint Reserve Component Summit is the first camp that brings together reserve-component military teens from all branches of service and from states and territories across the nation,” said Casey Mull, Georgia 4-H’s military specialist. “The camp focuses on reserve youth who don’t live on or near a military installation and aren’t around other military youths. At home, these kids may be the only ones in their community that are from a military family.” 

At the camp, the military teens attend workshops on personality identification, healthy lifestyles, proper etiquette and leadership. They also learn about the different branches of service: Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force and Coast Guard.

Like traditional 4-H camps at Wahsega 4-H Center, the campers climb a rock wall, zoom down the camp’s zip line, hone their archery skills and ride the flying squirrel. “Picture a sideways bungee jump,” said Wahsega camp director Travis Williams. “That’s the flying squirrel.” 

Using the creek that runs through the camp, Georgia 4-H counselors teach stream ecology, gold mining and fishing. They also lead the students on nature hikes and take them through a team-building ropes course.

The daily rainfall that fell across Georgia during the week didn’t dampen camp activities. It actually made for a more thrilling whitewater rafting trip on the Ocoee River, said Kasey Bozeman, the Georgia 4-H agent in Liberty County and co-director of the camp. “The water level was really high so it made for a much more intense trip,” she said.

Bozeman has been involved in the Georgia 4-H military camps since the first one, when she was a 4-H lead counselor at Wahsega.  

This year, Bozeman and Mull taught team building through a cardboard box boat regatta. Each team was given a cardboard box and duct tape to build a boat. The boats were then raced across Wahsega’s pond.  

“We gave awards for the best time, best design and best Titanic-which was really the one that sunk the quickest,” Bozeman said.

In just a week’s time, Bozeman said she saw change in the students. 

“They gain a sense of belonging. They become more independent,” she said. “You can see a change in them from Sunday to Friday. The ones that are standoffish are often the ones that get all teary eyed and give you hugs when they leave. It really shows you what a difference one week can make in a child’s life.”

Mull said in most ways military youths are no different than traditional 4-H’ers.  

“They’re just like the other youths we work with, but their parents wear a uniform to work,” he said. “But one of the reasons I like working with military youths is that they serve, too. They are very respectful and very appreciative of the support they get from their communities.”

Williams says military youths seem to “jell better as a group and have a certain comfort level with each other that other groups don’t exhibit.”

“Even though the kids don’t know each other before they arrive on the first day of camp, they often act like they have been in school together all of their lives,” he said. “They seem to have something in common that makes them enjoy each other’s company more.”

Each year, more than 700 military families and youths participate in Georgia 4-H camping programs specifically designed for military families. Three weeks of camp are geared to younger children (Operation Military Kids and Camp Corral) and four weeks are for older youths (Teens Summits).