Will Appl, 15, of Austin, Texas, was tired of spending his summer playing computer games. So he, along with 157 other kids from military families, signed up for a week of summer camp at Georgia’s Wahsega 4-H Camp in Dahlonega, Ga.
Held July 10-15, the Teen Summit camp was hosted by Georgia 4-H and the Air Force Reserve Command and was free to the military kids selected to attend. The students travelled to the camp from 41 states, Puerto Rico, Guam and the Virgin Islands.
The campers climbed Wahsega’s rock wall, zoomed down the camp’s zip line, honed their archery skills and rode the flying squirrel. “Picture a sideways bungee jump,” said Wahsega camp director Travis Williams. “That’s the flying squirrel.”
Physical activity and educational workshops
Using the creek that runs through the camp, Georgia 4-H counselors taught the campers stream ecology, gold mining and fishing. They also led the students on nature hikes and took them through a team-building ropes course.
The campers visited a nearby Army Ranger training facility where soldiers led them across a wire bridge hanging over Georgia rapids and helped them rappel down a 60-foot cliff.
They finished out the week of adventure with a white water rafting trip on the Ocoee River.
In addition to the outdoor activities, the military teens completed several workshops on personality identification, healthy lifestyles, proper etiquette and leadership skills. And they learned about the different branches of military service -- Army, Marines, Navy, Air Force and Coast Guard -- as well as their reserve and National Guard units.
“I expected it to be a lot like boot camp, but it was a lot more laid back,” said Appl, whose stepfather is currently deployed in Iraq with his National Guard unit. “I’ve made a lot of new friends, and I think this experience will make me a better person.”
Learning what it means to be an American
Dave Henry, a chief master sergeant based at Robins AFB in Warner Robins, Ga., was one of 20 adults who volunteered at the camp.
“The Air Force has given me opportunities I never would have had, and I wanted to give back,” he said. “I wanted to teach these teenagers that being a great American doesn’t just mean picking up a weapon. Being a great American is subscribing to something greater than yourself. You can serve your country in a multitude of ways; not just through the military.”
Henry was also one of the camp’s organizers.
Former Marine sergeant Keith Thaxton of Fayetteveille, Ga., also volunteered at the camp. A Delta employee, he coordinated transportation for the kids from the airport to the camp and back.
“I hope the kids picked up values -- leadership, integrity and honor,” he said.
Getting up close and personal with nature
Thaxton received a personal nature lesson when a snake fell out of a tree, chipmunk in tow, just a few feet from where he was sitting. “I had seen that kind of thing on TV but to see it in front of you was pretty amazing,” he said.
Each year, more than 700 military families and youth participate in Georgia 4-H camping programs specifically designed for military families. “To my knowledge, this was the first camp that brought together reserve-component military teens from all branches of service and from states across the nation,” said Casey Mull, Georgia 4-H military program liaison.
"With Operation Enduring Freedom and the Overseas Contingency Operations, our country is relying more and more on guard members and reservists,” Mull said. "When a parent leaves for duty, it impacts the entire family. These summer camps are designed to help teens build their resiliency as well as inform them of programs available in their communities specifically for them."
Like Appl, Luna Hayes, 15, from Round Rock, Texas, thought the camp would be “like a little soldier army camp.”
“When Mr. Jesse talked, it reminded me of my Dad training newbies,” she said. “Mr. Jesse” is Jesse Cross, a volunteer adult leader and Army recruiter from Joint Base – Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska.
“I’m in love with (Camp Wahsega),” she said. “I wish I could stay here with all my new friends. I love everything except for the bugs. I can’t stand them.”
To learn more about Georgia 4-H’s military programs, visit www.georgia4h.org. The camp was made possible through the Extension-Military High Adventure Camp Partnership. To learn more about the Extension-Military Partnership, visit www.extension.purdue.edu/Adventure_Camp/.
(Sharon Dowdy is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)