4-H center offers kids of military personnel a 'week of a lifetime'
By Kim Walter
FRONT ROYAL -- Fun was the name of the game this week at the Northern Virginia 4-H Educational Center in Front Royal.
Kids ages 8 to 15 arrived Sunday for Camp Corral, a week-long summer camp for military children, with priority given to those with wounded, disabled or fallen military family members. The camp strives to give such kids an experience that's far away from the day-to-day challenges they face -- a place to have fun.
This year marked the second that the camp was held at the local 4-H Center. It's only the third year for the overall camp, though, which has locations across the country.
Camp Corral has grown from the pilot, one-camp program in 2011, to nine camps in 2012. It expanded to 18 camps in 14 states this summer.
Since 2011, the Golden Corral restaurant chain has collected donations for the camp from its guests, franchises and more, with 100 percent of the donations going directly toward the campers' participation. Families don't have to pay a cent for their child to participate; they need only provide transportation to and from camp.
About 2,000 children were able to make it to Camp Corral this summer, and 104 of them are in Front Royal to experience the "week of a lifetime." Kids were kept busy constantly through activities like canoeing, swimming, fishing, arts and crafts, ropes course challenges, archery, horseback riding, and other traditional summer camp games.
Win Iden, 4-H Center program director, said there's a reason why the facility was approached to house Camp Corral.
"Across the country, 4-H has a pretty strong reputation for being a positive experience," he said. "We have so many things to offer, and our staff and counselors are top notch."
In fact, 4-H staff members and summer camp counselors were specifically selected for Camp Corral, since it presents a unique audience. Iden said they went through training and screening processes to prepare them the volume of kids they'd come in contact with during the week.
"Last year and this year we brought in some folks from Wounded Warriors, and they gave all of us a better idea of the unique challenges these kids face coming from a military family," he said. "Those of us who didn't have that background kind of realized what we had taken for granted growing up."
Iden said the key to making Camp Corral successful is giving campers an outlet and opportunity to express their feelings and emotions, but also not making their camp experience revolve about that one part of their life.
"So we kept them real busy," he said, laughing. "At any given moment a kid has a handful of options as to what fun thing they could do."
The camp also planned different themed programs each night. One was a game show that revolved around military trivia, while another was a talent show for campers and their counselors.
Robyn Olichwier, 22, just graduated from Shenandoah University and is a first-year staff member at the 4-H Center. She said Camp Corral has been her favorite week at the facility so far.
"It's been amazing to see these kids being so happy," she said. "The way we planned the week, they weren't supposed to have much time to think about the hard stuff."
Desiree Johnson, 10, of Chesterfield, said it was hard to pick a favorite activity, but she really enjoyed swimming and the ropes course -- especially the zip line portion.
"I had never done that before, but I wasn't scared," she said.
Desiree added that she loved meeting so many new friends, and the week has inspired her to eventually become a camp counselor and staff member.
Ryan Molka, 20, of Front Royal, experienced Camp Corral as a counselor for the first time this summer. He has worked with the 4-H Center for as long as he can remember, but said Camp Corral exceeded his expectations.
"I just love interacting with kids from so many different places," he said. "But this camp was special ... I know back at home things are tough for these kids, but hopefully we gave them at least one awesome week away from it all."
The week at Camp Corral is intended to encourage the campers to create friendships and bond with other kids who share a similar family situation.
Lily Brown, 13, of Chesterfield, did just that. She said her favorite part of any camp is meeting new people, but it felt good this past week to hang out with kids who knew where she was coming from.
"It's nice to talk to other people who understand what it's like to move all the time, and not really have that hometown background ... that's life, I guess," she said. "But here, I'm not alone. I already can't wait to do it again next year!"
Contact staff writer Kim Walter at 540-465-5137 ext. 191, or firstname.lastname@example.org