More than two million children in the U.S. have a parent serving in uniform. From deployments to moving, to changing schools and making new friends, military life offers a mix of rewards and challenges. And for others, they have had to cope with an even greater sacrifice of military service: when a loved one is injured or fallen. Camp Corral recognized the need for kids to have a space to connect over these shared experiences, so they created one in 2011.
Camp Corral, which is headquartered in Raleigh, North Carolina, has brought together over 17,000 military children across 23 camps in 19 states. The weeklong summer camp is open to all dependents ages eight to 15, with priority registration for children of wounded, injured, ill or fallen military service members.
A place to foster friendships
Seventeen-year old Zachary Bodnar attended the 4-H Memorial Camp in Monticello, Illinois, during the first year of the program. The activities included fishing, swimming, arts and crafts, and rock wall climbing, among other things. Like most children with a parent in the military, he endured the long months of separation associated with deployments. Camp Corral gave him a space to meet others who understood exactly what his life was like.
“I think that some of the key benefits would have to be just being able to connect with the other kids on a different level. They had an understanding of what I went through, as I had an idea of what they went through. I believe having that extra connection is really vital, and it honestly and truly allows for building better friendships. I am still friends with all of my peers from even the first year I was a camper. It’s really amazing how our military backgrounds have allowed us to build such strong friendships,” he said.
A ‘time to be a kid’
Zachary’s dad served in the Air Force as an aircraft mechanic. After spending many summers as a camper at Camp Corral, Zachary volunteered to take on more of a mentoring role as a counselor. He hopes to give others a chance to embrace the carefree feeling of just being a kid, even with all of the seriousness in their lives.
“I hope to teach younger campers that it’s okay to be different, and it’s okay to have fun. I hope to teach them that even though things are difficult, there is still time to be a kid and to have fun,” Zachary shared. “No child should have to go through the things that some military kids do. They should not have to worry about adult things like this. You are only a child for so long. That is why I hope to teach campers these things, and I hope that they get to have the most fun they can possibly have within the five-day camp period.”
How the camp came to be
Camp Corral’s Chief Executive Officer Leigh Longino says the camp’s story deserves to be shouted from mountaintops because it is a shining example of Americans looking for a way to do their part for the greater good.
“The Golden Corral restaurant chain, which is a national restaurant chain, was founded here in North Carolina … and began with the Maynard family-founder James Maynard — and he and his daughter, Easter Maynard, in 2010 really started discussions about how they could give back to the community,” Longino explained. “Golden Corral has been supportive of the military community since its founding … the Maynard family has a real passion for the well-being of children, and so they saw this opportunity as a real place where the waters could come together. Where they could both support the military families and their needs, as well as the growing needs of their children.”
The organization partners with the American Camping Association and other exceptional camps to create an experience that fills the gaps, Longino says. And at the core is simply giving these military children a chance to bond with their peers, which some lack in their own communities.
“We have reports with our data this year, we surveyed our own campers, 32 percent of our campers don’t have friends at home who understand what it’s like to be from a military family. That’s a lot, for that child to say they don’t have that connection with their peers that they are going to school with or that they are involved with in sports. We are providing that connection, that community, that these children are telling us they aren’t getting elsewhere,” she added.
Camp Corral currently has a waitlist for military children hoping to secure a spot in 2018 camps. To support the work of the organization, tax-deductible donations can be made online at https://www.campcorral.org/get-involved.
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