At first glance, Camp MeadowWood looks like any other summer camp. Kids age six to 13 arrive every day with swimsuits and sneakers, ready for a day of fun in the sun.
Through all the fun, however, Camp MeadowWood is working toward a deeper goal: to provide children with emotional, behavioral and developmental tools for leading happy, rewarding lives.
"The objective is to help children practice their social skills and to provide therapeutic activities as well as fun camp activities," said Cherry Hitt, director of Camp MeadowWood.
In 1999, Carol Woods Retirement Community stepped in to help the Chrysalis Foundation, which sponsors the camp, achieve this goal. Carol Woods lets the Chrysalis Foundation use its facilities and 120-acre campus at no charge, and a group of Carol Woods residents donate three weeks of their summer to plan and participate in fun, interactive activities with the campers.
"One of the big benefits is that the children get to interact with residents at Carol Woods," Hitt said. "They really form good friendships and relationships with the people here."
The first few years of camp were so successful that Carolina Meadows, another retirement community in Chapel Hill, decided to join Carol Woods, splitting the weeks of camp between the communities. The name of the camp was then changed from "Camp Carol Woods" to "Camp MeadowWood." For their role in hosting, planning and inspiring the expansion of the camp, Carol Woods recently received the 2006 Social Responsibility Award from the N.C. Association of Non-Profit Homes for the Aging.
Carol Woods resident Lewis Woodham is the go-to person for the camp -- he recruits volunteers and oversees the activities every morning for the three weeks that camp takes place at Carol Woods.
"It is very much what I've been involved with in my career as far as services to youth with special needs," said Woodham, who worked with at-risk youth through the New York State Department of Social Services for several years before retiring to North Carolina. "[The camp serves] to help them build social skills, to help them build self-respect and self-control, and to function as part of a group. They can read people and each other very quickly, and by the end of the week, they are a group."
While Woodham uses skills from his career to benefit Camp MeadowWood, other Carol Woods residents share their hobbies and personal passions with the campers.
Sue Fletcher, head of Carol Woods' Bluebird Trail, spends every Monday morning teaching a new group of campers about bluebirds' nesting habits. Fletcher takes the campers on a walk to a bluebird house, and the children stand in a row waiting for Fletcher to carry the nest with the baby birds in it to them. Most of them have never seen birds this small and hang on every word Carol Woods' resident bluebird expert tells them about how bluebirds are born and when these babies will be flying on their own.
"The high point of the day is when they go out and see the birds," Fletcher said. "It has been fun for me. It brings back my teacher memories."
Barbara Koch also brought her group-leading experience to bear when she taught the campers how to weave on Tuesday mornings. This is the first year weaving was offered at MeadowWood, but Koch had done weaving projects with Girl Scout troops and other groups of children, so she knew how to set up the weaving station so that each child could have a turn and things would run smoothly.
"They only had time to do a certain amount of weaving, and bracelets were what we came up with," Koch said. "One of the purposes was to give them something they could carry away."
Throughout the years, Koch and other residents have shared a number of craft projects with campers.
"Last year I helped with the kite building and the year before we were making little pots of dried plant arrangements," Koch said. "I like working with children on a limited basis and I enjoy doing things with my hands. This combined the two."
While some campers were experiencing the weaving station, others had the chance to make paper butterflies and boxes.
"I enjoy relating to the kids and showing them how to do it," Fran Hollister explained. "We elders benefit from it, and maybe some of the kids do too."
J.J. Gwyer also helped with crafts this year, but has volunteered with many different MeadowWood activities over the years.
"When we first had camp, I was with the fish group at the pond," Gwyer said. "We had a ball down there, but some of the kids didn't like putting the worms on the hooks!"
One activity that has stood the test of time is croquet.
"We decided [the first year] some of our croquet players would get together and pair up with the kids on a one-on-one basis. We have six kids and six mentors," said Whit Bartley, chairman of the Carol Woods' Croquet Committee. "We have special rules -- very forgiving rules."
The campers are each paired with a resident, and they compete in the croquet tournament together.
"They have a good time," Bartley said. "We usually manage to get in two games of our modified version of croquet."
Whether playing in a tournament, sharing a doll collection or flying kites, Carol Woods' residents and campers find points of connection throughout their week together.
"I like to be with the kids," said Kala Herlands, who teaches the campers to play bocce. "I enjoy playing myself, and maybe I can pass along a little spirit with it."
Indeed, residents and campers pass a contagious, joyful spirit between them.
"Particularly when [Carol Woods residents] can work with an individual or couple of youngsters one on one, they can communicate a sense of caring and kindness," Woodham said. "Even if it is only an hour, it can be a very therapeutic experience for the youngster that says 'I do care about you.'"
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