Two summer campers kayak at Camp Merrie-Woode, a summer camp in Sapphire. Each summer, Camp Merrie-Woode hosts several girls who attend for free through two nonprofit programs: the Henderson County Young Leaders program and a Raleigh-based scholarship fund, Scott-Free. Photo courtesy of Scott-Free.

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Summer camps in Western North Carolina are doing a brisk business, according to a recent study of their economic impact in four area counties. But many of them aren’t exactly cheap — rates for residential camps commonly exceed $1,000 per week — and it’s clear that some kids get priced out of the experience.

In fact, the recession has chipped away at even some of the camps’ regular clientele.

“In these financial times, we have campers who have been with us for years who now can’t afford it,” said Marisa Pharr, co-owner of Falling Creek Camp for boys in Tuxedo.

Some of those campers, she said, are applying for scholarships that will provide reduced rates. Her camp is one among many here that, along with nonprofit partners, is trying to open summer camping to children who, as she puts it, “have promise, but may not have the resources to attend camp.”

The programs have built up steam in recent years and might gain new momentum in the wake of the 2010 formation of a statewide advocacy group, the Black Mountain-based North Carolina Youth Camp Association. Executive Director Jane Murray said one of the association’s goals is to make available “a quality youth camp experience for every child in the state.”

Below is a quick guide to some of the efforts that are underway. Camp staffers involved in the programs say that their offerings for the summer of 2011 are getting snatched up quickly but that opportunities still exist at some camps. They also suggest planning early for the summer of 2012, given the demand and the early deadlines for many programs.

Scholarships and local incentives

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Many of Western North Carolina’s summer camps offer at least some form of need-based scholarships (or “camperships,” as they’re called by some) for children who can’t afford the full cost. In addition, some camps offer substantial discounts for local children in an effort to serve and include local communities in an industry that sees most of its business come from families living outside Western North Carolina.

The amounts and application deadlines differ from camp to camp. Parents and guardians of would-be campers, then, are advised to contact local camps directly (and early — at least six months before the summer season) to inquire about their offerings. The N.C. Youth Camp Association, which has dozens of member camps in our area, provides this online directory.

Henderson County Young Leaders

Henderson County Young Leaders is a nonprofit program that’s been sending kids to camp at no cost to them for 14 years. Along the way, it’s made camping part of a broader, long-term program for children who commit to setting personal goals and making steady advances.

Here’s how it works: The program accepts children in grades three to six, who are selected after referrals from teachers in the county school system and volunteers from the Boys and Girls Clubs of Henderson County. The children selected are “those we think can benefit the most from that experience, but, for whatever reason — financial or not — couldn’t normally attend,” said Paige Hafner, Young Leaders’ executive director.

Children in the program start with a weekend at Hendersonville’s Camp Bob, in either the fall for third- and fourth-graders or the spring for fifth-and sixth-graders. About 80 children attend each session.

From there, about a third of the children are invited, based on recommendations from camp counselors, to take part in “an earned progression of experiences,” as Hafner put it, beginning with a full week of summer camp at Camp Ton-A-Wandah in Hendersonville. In the year that follows, many of the children graduate on to Young Leaders’ Pathmakers Program, which teams them with adult mentors who assist with educational and personal development.

Children who progress under the program are then provided still more camping opportunities, with 14 camps in Henderson and neighboring counties providing free summer tuition to successful Pathmakers.

Deadlines for referrals to the entry-point camp sessions are in February for the spring weekend and in August for the fall. To learn more, visit the Henderson County Young Leaders Program or call (828) 697-2000.

Transylvania Kids in Camps

Kids in Camps is a program of the Children’s Center of Transylvania County, a Brevard-based nonprofit. Each year, the center works with several local camps to place about 40 children from low-income families at no cost except for a $25 registration fee. The camps absorb half the tuition costs, and the center provides the other half.

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The deadline for applications to Kids in Camps is in February, several months before the camping season, so the spots for this year’s program are full. The Children’s Center’s staff can answer questions about applying for next year at (828) 885-7286.

Scott-Free

One of the newest organizations to help make camp accessible is Scott-Free, a small Raleigh-based nonprofit. It was founded in 2008 by Deborrah Jeffreys Gruder to honor her late husband, Scott Gruder, a camping enthusiast who was known for stepping in to fund camp summers for disadvantaged children.

Scott-Free covers the full camp fees for a rising number of children each summer, mostly in North Carolina (some 200 have benefited so far). Two camps in Western North Carolina — Camp Merrie-Woode in Sapphire and Green River Preserve in Cedar Mountain — are active partners in the program.

Any child, or adult who wants to refer a child, can fill out an application for consideration here. The window to apply is January through May each year, so there’s still time to apply for the 2011 summer season.

Gruder says that Scott-Free is most interested in funding children who are “at risk,” broadly defined. Campers who pass through one summer of the program are invited to return the following year, on the condition that they write an essay on their time at camp and design and complete their own community service project.

Jon Elliston

Jon Elliston is the lead contributing open government reporter at Carolina Public Press. Contact him at jelliston@carolinapublicpress.org.

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